Mrs Rochester’s Ghost is a contemporary, gothic retelling of Jane Eyre. Former TV writer Jane takes a job at Thorn Bluffs to tutor the 13 year old daughter of tech entrepreneur Evan Rochester. His supermodel wife Beatrice drowned about seven months ago — Evan insists it was a suicide, but rumours circulate that he murdered her. The Thorn Bluffs estate is gorgeous and, in true Wuthering Heights style, overlooks a cliff atop crashing waves, and is often shrouded in fog. Jane thinks she sees a ghostly figure of a woman amidst the fog, and while she knows it may simply be a product of her naturally overactive imagination, she can’t help but think it may be the ghost of Beatrice Rochester wandering the grounds.
Many re-tellings of Jane Eyre critique the limitations of the original’s feminism by giving Bertha Rochester the opportunity to tell her side of the story. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea filters the ‘mad wife in the attic’ trope through a decolonization lens, portraying Bertha’s ‘madness’ as a British colonial attempt to suppress ‘Other’-ness. Earlier this year, Rachel Hawkins’ thriller The Wife Upstairs reimagines both Jane and Bertha as brilliant, calculating women, who both have their own agendas in their relationships with Rochester. Both retellings explore the patriarchal roots of diagnosing women with madness, and weaponizing this diagnosis against women who may be deemed too much outside the social norms to handle.
Marcott takes a more traditional, straightforward approach to her retelling, which could have been subversive in its own way, but ultimately fell short for me. In this novel, Beatrice is outright diagnosed with mental illness. The story cites her diagnosis as bipolar disorder, but she also hears voices and has hallucinations, which as far as I know isn’t part of being bipolar. I could be wrong, but it made me wonder if she also has other mental illnesses that haven’t been diagnosed, or — more chillingly — if the medicines Evan forces upon her actually caused her condition to worsen.
The snag for me is that the novel holds back from delving too deep into the possibility that Evan is truly a villain, or that Beatrice was truly victimized by his treatment of her. The novel hints at it, mostly through the lens of people warning Jane that he was abusive or that he’s otherwise bad news, but Jane herself doesn’t seem too concerned. The rumours do keep her cautious about her attraction to Evan, and she’s often sympathetic to Beatrice, but there’s little interest on her part about truly understanding Beatrice’s condition, or the ramifications of how Evan dealt with it. Even when Jane learns about Evan having gaslit Beatrice about her fears of him cheating on her, Jane merely comments that it was “unkind”, then thinks no more about it. For a woman in 2021 to see that incident merely as unkind, and not as full of red flags, is a bit tough to swallow.
For that matter, I was very much not a fan of the romance between Jane and Evan. Evan creeped me out even before I learned about the gaslighting, and I just couldn’t see his charm. To be fair, from what I can remember of Jane Eyre, I don’t think the original Rochester was ever particularly attractive either. But while the original Jane’s happy ending was contextualized within Victorian sensibilities, modern-day Jane has plenty more options beyond Rochester, and was in fact offered some of those very options (another job, another home) right within the story.
Worse to me is how the novel treats Beatrice. As with many modern re-tellings, Rochester’s wife is given a voice — she narrates the events leading up to her drowning seven months ago — yet in many ways, she’s still treated like the wild, mad Other of Bronte’s original. She already has a tenuous grasp on reality within her chapters, describing the housekeeper’s language as “witchy”, a professional rival as a literal bird who caws, and a nearby rock as Mary Magdalene. Her violence is primal, almost animalistic, and much of her internal monologue is so metaphorical it sometimes sounds nonsensical.
I don’t feel qualified to speak on the mental health representation in this novel. It’s possible that this portrayal of Beatrice’s mindset is accurate, and true to what some people actually experience. But I very much feel like she deserved better. I wish we’d seen her perspective before she stopped taking her meds. Or her personality beyond the paranoia and fear that characterized that fateful day. She was a beautiful, success model, and I wish her mental illness was explored with more nuance than just as a tragedy that made her completely unable to function in the world. Even when Jane feels sorry for Beatrice, it feels more like pity than empathy, and at many points, I felt like Beatrice was portrayed as less than human.
The author also doesn’t do Evan any favours by not giving us his perspective beyond what he shares with Jane and Beatrice in their respective chapters. His perspective may have given us a clearer idea of any love, affection, or sympathy he ever felt for Beatrice, but with us just hearing it from him telling Jane that he did like Beatrice once upon a time, he just came off as cold and unfeeling.
As a retelling of Jane Eyre, it’s very faithful to the original, and may satisfy fans looking for that. Personally, I preferred contemporary retellings that take more liberties in updating the story and characters for present-day sensibilities. I highly recommend The Wife Upstairs for just that kind of contemporary spin.
Thank you to Thomas Allen for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.