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Rewriting Jane: The Governess Tales

We're delighted to have Lucy Sheerman sharing a version of the paper she's presenting at the PGCWWN Conference this weekend, focusing on the influence of Jane Eyre on Harlequin Mills & Boon's The Governess Tales series.

I read Jane Eyre for the first time when I was ten and cast it aside in some disgust half way through. ‘You’ll probably like them one day’, my mother told me when I went down to ask her, with great indignation, ‘Is Jane Eyre a Romance?’ As a child I could not understand how Jane could fall in love with such an undesirable man - ugly, rude and overbearing.

I read the book five years later very reluctantly. It was a set text for my exams. I read it, like its first publisher, almost in one sitting. Scenes which had seemed incomprehensible before now made perfect sense. I had joined the legion of irrational readers who fall under the spell of Rochester and all the dangerous heroes who followed in his wake.

I am fascinated by the appeal of the dangerous hero, exemplified by Rochester, whose chiseled looks, dark secrets and passionate nature are still at the heart of most contemporary romance. But how much influence does he still have on the modern romance novel? Last year Mills & Boon created a series called The Governess Tales on the occasion of Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary.

Authors, Georgie Lee, Laura Martin, Liz Tyner and Janice Preston were commissioned to write stories about four friends as they leave a school for governesses and go out into the world. All four authors agreed to answer my questions about their process and how far Jane Eyre had been an inspiration for their books, and more specifically, their heroes.

When the books came out Mills & Boon published a list of ten reasons for the continuing appeal of the characters and stories in books based on the governess heroine. The one I’m most interested in is all about the hero:

There’s something so enduringly strong about a vulnerable hero, a hero who’s been damaged inside or out. Mr Rochester’s inner torment and then his blindness, are such examples. The hope that comes from the love a ‘damaged’ hero can find has no comparison. And even more romantic is the thought that the heroine is the only one who can heal him!

The first question I wanted to ask was whether Jane Eyre was specifically part of the original brief for the books. I could see traces of the Jane Eyre story all through them but was it intentional? In The Cinderella Governess Georgie Lee introduces many of the same Cinderella themes that Charlotte Bronte used - there is a fairy godfather, a wicked stepmother and step sisters and of course, a prince, or rather, a major.

Like Rochester, the hero of The Cinderella Governess is a younger son expected to marry for money. Unlike Rochester he is an honourable man, a soldier, and a lot of the darker, more sinister qualities come from other characters. Some of the most intense points of conflict for the hero and heroine come from the need to fulfil family duty and obligation even when it goes against their own wishes. And I asked that though I could see lots of traces of Jane Eyre in Georgie’s book, was Brotne's book part of the brief.

The idea for The Governess Tales was pitched to us by Harlequin with Harlequin providing the characters and a rough outline of their stories. I can’t speak to whether or not Jane Eyre had an influence on their original idea for the series but it was not something that Harlequin discussed or mentioned to us and it wasn’t something that we discussed among ourselves. However, Jane Eyre is such an influential work that I think it’s difficult not to associate any governess story set in the early 19th century with it in the same way that Regency romances are often associated with Georgette Heyer’s books. Jane Eyre has left such a powerful mark on the governess genre that it probably has a great influence, consciously or unconsciously, on many stories set in the same time period. (Georgie Lee)

All four authors answered in a similar vein to this. So, although Jane Eyre isn’t directly mentioned in the brief it is certainly influencing the four books. The second book in the series is Governess to the Sheikh by Laura Martin. This book, set in an imagined desert principality, also has strong echoes of Jane Eyre. The hero’s backstory includes, like Rochester, a marriage of duty, arranged by his father, to a woman with mental health problems. Laura linked this plot line directly to the one in Jane Eyre, saying it was a book she had read over and over again:

One of the things I was very aware of when writing Governess to the Sheik was the similarity to Jane Eyre with Rochester’s wife and Malik’s wife. It wasn’t something that was put in to echo Jane Eyre, but as soon as I’d decided on Malik’s backstory and conflict I knew there would be similarities. I liked the way both were kept secret, and think this echoes the sentiment of the times on mental health issues, but one thing I’d always found frustrating about Rochester was his stubbornness in not confiding in Jane earlier, and sought to try in Governess to the Sheik to redeem Malik a little by having him open up to Rachel earlier. (Laura Martin)

In all four books, although they are the stories of four friends, it is the heroes who appear to develop and change the most. Offering the hero’s point of view in these books brings a fundamental difference in tone to Jane Eyre. Inexplicable and even unkind acts are understood differently in these heroes when the reader is given an insight into the emotions and traumas which are driving their behaviour. I asked how using both points of view influenced the way the reader views the hero.

I think it’s difficult to write a hero nowadays who is as dark as those written a few hundred years ago, I’m always torn between giving them slightly more modern, redeeming qualities and the thought that millions of modern readers still find Rochester and Mr Darcy and their contemporaries the most attractive romantic heroes. Having the point of view split 50/50 between the hero and heroine certainly is my preferred way to get around this. It allows the hero to appear darker to the heroine, but the reader can see what is going on underneath and as such will hopefully forgive some behaviour that might otherwise be unpalatable. I also hope that this makes the ‘happy ever after’ seem more natural and as if the characters are on a more even footing, but again this is a very modern take on a regency/gothic romance. (Laura Martin)

The hero of Liz Tyner’s The Runaway Governess is one of the most damaged heroes of the four. Liz was delighted when I told her what a dark book I thought it was. The heroine, Isabel, runs away to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. For Isabel, like Jane, escape and adventure and the search for freedom come with huge risks, not least the challenge of breaking down the hero’s defences, and giving him the opportunity to heal.

For me, the dark and brooding hero of the past is not much different from the modern hero who keeps an emotional barrier around himself. Today’s romance reader wants two characters who, at the end, will be able to join together and form a stronger unit. I see the heroine Jane Eyre actually as stronger than Rochester and perhaps that’s why the novel has stayed in the romance culture. She’s the one who really took the risks and didn’t know what her future held. (Liz Tyner)

All four heroines are, like Jane Eyre, isolated and vulnerable at the beginning of each of their books. The heroes are also isolated and, like Rochester, in need of healing. Of course, unlike Rochester the heroes are all given a voice. This is particularly noticeable in Liz Tyner’s The Runaway Governess, which explores what is spoken and not spoken between the hero and heroine - the importance of communication with each other and with secondary characters is central to the plot. Running away is not, ultimately, the answer.

I read Jane Eyre in my teens. It was either the first or second historical romance I read. (The other was Gone with the Wind.) I remember loving the romance of Jane and Rochester. But I was a little upset with him that he didn’t tell her about his past and his life. I felt he should have been honest with her. I want my Rochester versions to have to talk with Jane. I’m not saying the house might not burn down around them at some point, but I would rather it be an internal fire. (Liz Tyner)

This insight into the hero’s emotions also gives the chance to explore their heroism, or at least to understand their own sense of themselves as men and therefore as heroes. What agency, power and control do they have and what obstacles do they have to overcome despite having greater freedom and independence than the heroines? In each of the books the hero’s father is a figure against which they measure themselves. Fathers are obstacles to happiness and they also hold the key to the ‘red room’ of secrets which the curious heroine forces the hero to confront.

The absent father is at the heart of The Governess’s Secret Baby by Janice Preston. In a twist on the original plot of Jane Eyre it is the governess, rather than her employer, who has a child. The heroine was forced to give up her baby when she was abandoned by its father. The hero, Ravenwell, retreated from society after he failed to save his own father from a devastating fire which left him physically and emotionally scarred. By retreating from society Ravenwell is mirroring his own father’s absence and the disappearance of his ward’s father. Guardianship of his ward and the arrival of the heroine force him to rethink his place in the world, to take a place at the heart of the action, and to let others see his scars.

I think this book is possibly more Ravenwell’s story than Grace’s, in terms of change and growth. Before the story even starts, Grace has faced her ‘red room’ in having fallen pregnant, been deserted, and having been forced to give up her baby. Then she faces more fears at the very start of the book when she braves the forest, the animals and, finally, the master of Shiverstone Hall itself, all for the sake of her child. But Ravenwell spends his life hiding away, refusing to face up to the past and Grace’s arrival begins the change process in him. (Janice Preston)

There are echoes of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale which also shapes the final chapters of Jane Eyre, but this book, as Janice points out, is more true to the original story as she falls in love with him after he is injured and disfigured. The hero and heroine recognise and accept the other’s flaws. This acceptance offers a deeply satisfying resolution to the story which echoes the bond between Jane and Rochester. Grace, like Jane, is impulsive and independent. Ravenwell, like Rochester, is fierce and antagonistic, damaged and brooding, but he is also deeply vulnerable. The use of both points of view allows the reader to understand this damaged hero but it also does something else:

I not only want my reader to empathise with my heroes, but fall in love with them, and that is why I chose to start the book with Ravenwell’s point of view as he learns of his sister’s death. Ravenwell is not only emotionally damaged but also physically scarred, and his anguish, and the reason behind his self-imposed isolation at Shiverstone Hall, is the deep motivation behind all of his behaviour. I felt it was important the reader knew some of that up front, before Grace’s first impressions of him (powerful, brusque, intimidating) might prejudice the reader against him. (Janice Preston)

All four heroes mirror different aspects of Rochester, the original damaged hero who is also the villain. This hero is a worthy adversary for the heroine. High handedness, arrogance and fierceness are explored, interpreted and debunked. The mystery in these books lies not so much in the discovery of what traumatic secrets the hero hides in his attic but rather in the ingenuity with which the heroine will help him to face them. Uncovering those secrets and witnessing the hero’s vulnerability and hurt creates heroes who, like Rochester, the reader feels repelled by but unable to resist.

Huge thanks to Georgie Lee, Laura Martin, Liz Tyner and Janice Preston.

What are your favourite retellings of Jane Eyre? And have you seen other governess and gothic romances that have been inspired by Charlotte Bronte's classic? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments!

For more information about the conference at which a version of this paper will be presented, follow the hashtag #FF21C and the account @pgcwwn on Twitter. The Postgraduate Contemporary Women's Writing Network often has information about romance academia and research, so check out their website.

Lucy has been working on a series of fan fiction versions of iconic novels including Rebecca (Dancing Girl Press) and Jane Eyre. Her writing and reviews have been widely published. She was an artist in residence at Metal Peterborough and her first poetry pamphlet was a sequence about the effect of the moon landings on the astronauts and their wives (Oystercatcher). Two plays, including a collaboration with the Apollo astronaut and poet Al Worden have been commissioned by Menagerie for the Hot Bed New Writing Festival.

For more information about Lucy and her research, follow her on Twitter.

#PopularRomanceStudies #RomanceAcademia #LucySheerman #PGCWWN #PostgraduateContemporaryWomen39sWritingNetwork #JaneEyre #CharlotteBronte #Rewriting #HarlequinHistorical #MillsampBoon #TheGovernessTales #GeorgieLee #LauraMartin #LizTyner #JanicePreston #Rochester #MrRocheste #TheCinderellaGoverness #GovernesstotheSheikh #TheRunawayGoverness #TheGoverness39sSecretBaby

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