Back in April, the author of a rather intriguing piece of Brontë inspired fiction, Tracy Neis, contacted me to very kindly offer me a copy of her novel, Mr. R. With the tagline, “A Rock & Roll Romance” and a Mr. Rochester re-imagined as an ageing rockstar and Jane as the nanny who cares for his drunken bandmate’s young daughter, how could I resist? Unfortunately, the day after I received my copy, we lost our faithful friend and companion of eight years, Bob the bichon, who adored Haworth and the Brontës just as much as I did. Although I read Mr. R. on my train journeys to and from work, Bob’s passing combined with a lot of other rather messy things in life meant I’d lost my motivation and my ability to write a decent blog post. I tried to keep calm and carry on as us Brits say, however, if your head really isn’t in the right place, sometimes you just have to stop and step back from things for a little while. In the past 18 months I’ve lost two grandparents, watched other family members deal with their own illnesses, broken a few unhealthy ties, and of course, then there was Bob. It’s been a bit rubbish really.
I announced a hiatus from blogging a few weeks ago not really thinking anyone would pay too much attention, however, I was overwhelmed with messages of support and encouragement from fellow Brontëites, bloggers, readers, and writers, proving that there is actually a lot of goodness and positivity to be found online and on social media. So I’d like to start by thanking everyone who took the time to send messages of support through WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, or directly. After a heck of a lot of rejections of my writing from different avenues (fact, fiction, essays, PhD proposals etc.) over the past 18 months, it’s nice to know that there are people out there who enjoy reading my blog. In fact, I’d like to quote Charlotte Brontë here who wrote to William Smith Williams on 13th June 1849, “I thank too the friends whose sympathy has given me inexpressible comfort and strength – you, amongst the number”. Readers, thanks for all of your support, and if any of you need any in return, feel free to ask. Although my hiatus only lasted a couple of weeks, I’ve spent that time reconnecting with the people and things I care about most in life, cutting loose the bad parts and negative energy, and remembering those who are no longer with us. Sure, there have been more rubbish events and bad news since my last post, but I haven’t let them overwhelm me, and my state of mind is much better than it was just a few short weeks ago.
Anyway, back to Mr. R. and I beg Tracy’s forgiveness for posting a review so long after completing the novel. I’ll try to keep this one spoiler free, but I am assuming that you are familiar with Mr. R’s parent novel, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (why wouldn’t you be?). I should probably inform potential readers that there are a few rather explicit and erotic scenes in this one though. Here’s a brief synopsis. As I said, Mr. Rochester is re-imagined as a rockstar and member of The Pilots (I love that name!) named Eddie Rochester who begins the novel steadily climbing his way up the ladder to fame and fortune. His encounter with the beautiful and well-read Roberta (nicknamed Birdie) triggers Eddie’s creativity and he is able to climb the ladder all the way to the top. Unfortunately, this coincides with/causes the inevitable breakdown in their relationship which will make way for a re-imagined Jane Eyre character. As Brontëites will know, Rochester has a secret that he must keep hidden from Jane, and here is no different as Eddie tries to hide his past from Jenny Ayr after she arrives from a convent to take care of the daughter of Eddie’s bandmate, Gerry, who is attempting another stint in rehab. Eddie does his best to distract himself from Jenny, primarily due to their difference in age, but he is unable to stop himself from falling in love with her. The overall plot of the novel sticks fairly closely to Jane Eyre so I think we all know how this one is going to end, however, there are additions and embellishments to many aspects of Charlotte’s narrative, whilst other incidents are cut down or omitted which make this more than worthy of your time.
What I really liked was how the characters were re-imagined as products of the time in which Mr. R. is set (it spans the 1970s and 80s). John Reed becomes a spiteful and drug-addicted college dropout, Richard Mason becomes Dick Mason, a failed drug pusher and parasite preying on Birdie’s insecurities, and the Poole brothers, associates of Eddie’s and the sons of Grace. I’ve already said that the novel stick’s fairly close to the original, and yet there are some fantastic new additions in there, my favourite being Eddie’s bandmate Gerry. It is Gerry’s half-hearted attempt at getting clean from drink and drugs that brings his daughter to Thornfield under the care of Eddie, and then Jenny, and consequently brings them together. The infamous first meeting between the pair is still present, as is the incident with the lightening struck tree, however, they too are re-imagined to fit in with this particular narrative and it’s timeline.
The most interesting character for me personally was Birdie. Here she has a depth that is omitted from Charlotte’s tale where she was arguably just a (very successful) plot device. We don’t just get flashbacks to her initial meeting and courtship with Eddie, instead we witness it, and we get to know Birdie, even if we can never truly understand her. Although this sounds remarkably like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, I can assure you that it isn’t. This Birdie is a creation of Neis and we can see how and why Eddie falls in love with her due to her beauty, her charming nature, and her love of reading. Unfortunately, we also witness her downfall, and the beginning of the end of her relationship with Eddie, for despite her constant presence throughout the narrative and Eddie’s attempt to care for her, there is one huge turning point that doesn’t feel out of character for Birdie and her state of mind, but is still very difficult to process on the reader’s part. I rather felt that this turning point was a little too huge to be honest, and that following it, Eddie could very easily have walked away from their relationship and that there was no reason for the secrets and lies which followed. It wasn’t until the very end of the narrative that Birdie redeemed herself as much as she possibly could. Birdie is actually a more prominent figure in this tale than Jenny is, and I admit that I sometimes found myself siding with her despite her earlier actions.
Eddie himself is a very complicated character. His motivations are often confusing at best, and sometimes utterly perplexing. Perhaps that’s part of the perils of being a rockstar though, and there is certainly a feeling throughout the novel that Eddie feels that he must in some way play at being a rockstar and live up to the expectations of others. It’s fairly easy to understand why Eddie no longer knows what he wants after the turning point mentioned above, however, there very clearly comes a point when he does, and yet he does nothing but dig himself further into a hole and hurt those around him. Due to the different timeframe for this novel, Eddie doesn’t face the same restrictions as Mr. Rochester, so his inability to, quite frankly, sort his life out, is all the more puzzling. Although Eddie can certainly be charming and it’s easy to see why Birdie and fans of The Pilots fell for Eddie in his heyday, it’s not so easy to see why Jenny falls for him so many years later.
And speaking of Jenny, if there is a weak spot in Neis’s narartive in the midst of the fabulous Gerry, the fleshed out Birdie, the tough and altogether more competent Grace Poole, and the devilishly complex Eddie, it’s our Jane figure. Jenny just doesn’t have any of Jane’s fire, her determination, her morality and values, and it’s quite difficult to understand exactly why Eddie falls for her. This means that Eddie and Jenny don’t spark and smoulder in the same way Rochester and Jane do and their relationship ultimately feels a bit flat. When Jenny is attempting to continue her studies, she is closest to Jane’s essence, however, she quickly abandons this in favour of pursuing Eddie romantically. Although Jenny is the hired help, the social barriers which threaten to divide Jane and Rochester in the original, are not present here in a more fluid age of social class restrictions and some of the tension is inevitably lost.
Despite the flatness of Jenny, the book does not fail. This is partially because there are other strong female characters to take her place and in a re-imagining of Jane Eyre, Neis is free to flesh these creations out more as they live their lives around the novel’s central figure, Eddie. Let us not forget that despite this being inspired by Jane Eyre, this is Eddie’s tale and he is complex enough to hold the reader’s attention for most of the time even if the reader’s affections are ultimately stolen by the likes of Birdie, Grace, and the wonderful Gerry. Mr. R. kept me entertained on my commute to and from work and kept my mind straying onto darker thoughts when reading. I’d like to thank Tracy once again for kindly sending me a copy of what turned out to be a fun romp through the 1970s and 80s rock music scene with characters I know so well, and yet managed to rediscover through her novel. I’d certainly recommend this one to Brontëites, not forgetting my warning of the few explicit scenes. Following this, I’m really looking forward to diving into an as yet unpublished piece based on Gerry and inspired by Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that Tracy generously sent across to me.
Mr. R. is published by Mischievous Muse Books in the U.S. Unfortunately, the novel is not yet available to buy in U.K stores, however it can be purchased through the American branch of Amazon and shipped to our shores.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon.
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
Charlotte Brontë quote is taken from The Brontës: A Life in Letters edited by Juliet Barker (Viking, 1997).