Thornfield Hall by Emma Tennant
Emma Tennant’s Thornfield Hall appears to have gone through a few stages in its life—originally published as Adele in 2000, it was reworked into The French Dancer’s Bastard in 2006, before it became Thornfield Hall and published by Harper. Tennant’s written other pieces of fanfiction, such as Pemberly, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and Elinor and Marianne, a sequel to Sense and Sensibility, so I would have encountered her even if I’d decided to do my project on Pride and Prejudice instead of Jane Eyre. Of course, either encounter would be unpleasant…
Thornfield Hall tells the story of Jane Eyre and beyond through the eyes of Adele, Mr. Rochester’s young French ward who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter. Raised by her flamboyant but distant mother, the celebrated acrobat and actress Celine Varens, and her female lover, Jenny, Adele is thrown aside when Rochester withdraws his support from Celine Varens and her mother flees to Italy. With no other choice, the little girl is sent to Thornfield Hall, where she meets someone who actually cares about her for the first time—her governess, Jane Eyre. As the events of the novel unfold, the novel brings in the perspectives of Rochester, Grace Poole, and Mrs. Fairfax to expand upon the story.
Becoming Jane Eyre may have been painful, but I, well-trained by Mystery Science Theater 3000, fandom, and my own Film Depreciation crew, knew just how to deal with it—laugh. But Thornfield Hall can’t be dealt with like that, because Becoming Jane Eyre, despite its many flaws, more or less functioned as a novel; things were established, things moved forward, things were wrapped up. Thornfield Hall is like a weird fever dream. The sentences make grammatical sense, the words are in English, but odd, twisted shadows of Jane Eyre rise in vaguely familiar tableaus before dissolving. Nothing can be established or made foundational because there is nothing to establish or found upon. Plot points suddenly appeared only to fade away, characterization never happened… heck, individual scenes barely happen, in a way that put me in mind of Adrienne Sharp’s The True Memoirs of Little K. My brain kept trying to collapse in on itself trying to make sense of it. And now I have to write about it for my senior thesis. Bed, made, lie, I suppose.
Obviously, there are many problems with this novel—the first that makes itself clear is the character of Adele herself. Written much older than her eight and later fourteen years throughout the entire novel and prone to melodramatic, self-pitying bursts of ennui (seriously, she bursts into tears contemplating her frankly awesome life at eight, holy crow), Adele is just… well, irritating isn’t the right word. She sort of repels the reader’s interest by being either hateful for no reason or a perfect angel crying a single tear down her gorgeous, porcelain cheek. In short, a Mary Sue. The second is that Tennant’s attempts at Victorian prose are overwrought and kind of ridiculous. Part of the reason I enjoy Jane Eyre is because how clear it is to me, a modern reader, even through all the years between me and Brontë. Tennant’s attempt at the same obfuscates things, and it’s like trying to watch a movie through a filthy window, to be totally honest. Additionally, the weird pace makes it feel like a novel-length outline of a novel, rather than a novel—again, scenes and dialogue are rare and baffling when they came.
Adele, the writing style, and the pace are the three worst offenders of this novel, but by no means the only. Tennant flirts with changing the plot of Jane Eyre by having Adele accidentally murder Bertha (called Antoinette here; an additional reference to Christophine makes me wonder if Tennant is working off of The Wide Sargasso Sea as well) and perhaps setting the fire, which would have been interesting, but abandons it by turning Mrs. Fairfax, out of nowhere, into a murderer. You did not read that incorrectly. Mrs. Fairfax, most recently played onscreen by Judi Dench in full kindly matron mode, becomes insanely murderous at the end because there was apparently no other way to finish the novel. There’s also some business about fraternal twins being fathered by different men at the end—I suppose it’s possible, but it feels like such a melodramatic twist that I just gave up. It’s bad, not only as a piece of fanfiction (it assumes you know Jane Eyre as well as a college student working on her senior thesis about it, which is just grossly unfair), but as a novel. I had a painful time trying to make sense of it; I can only imagine what anyone innocent of Jane Eyre would make of it. They’d probably explode.
Bottom line: Thornfield Hall is like a weird fever dream; the sentences are syntactically correct, the words are in English, but sense cannot be dragged out of them. Adele is either a gorgeous, perfect nymphet or hateful, the writing style is like trying to watch a movie through a filthy window, and the pace makes it feel like a novel-length outline rather than a novel. Avoid.
I bought this book on Amazon.