Book review: Simple Dame Fairfax by Anna Bransgrove

In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, she was the simple, kindly housekeeper who watched from the sidelines as an unforgettable drama played out amidst the wilds of Thornfield Hall.

Simple Dame Fairfax by Anna Bransgrove
Simple Dame Fairfax by Anna Bransgrove

But who was the real Mrs Fairfax, what did she make of her master Edward Rochester’s passion for the plain little governess, and was the widowed clergyman’s wife just another victim of what Jane saw as the ‘stagnation’ and ‘stiller doom’ of middle-class women?

Former English teacher Anna Bransgrove from Hull reads between the lines and beyond the narrow parameters of one of England’s most famous 19th century novels to lift a previously peripheral player out of the shadows and into the light.

And it’s a job well done… determined to reinvent the loyal housekeeper damned by Jane’s faint praise as ‘worthy,’ ‘placid,’ ‘competent’ and with an ‘average intelligence,’ Bransgrove’s intriguing and compelling novella transforms a ‘little elderly lady, in widow’s cap’ into a passionate, perceptive woman with a turbulent past.

And so Jane’s ‘simple dame Fairfax’ becomes the more human Alice Elizabeth Fairfax, daughter of a respectable local farmer and an observant, intensely private woman more closely attached to the wealthy Rochester family of Thornfield Hall than young Jane Eyre could ever have imagined.

Mrs Fairfax’s first person account opens in the days and weeks after Jane’s escape from Thornfield in the wake of disastrous revelations about Edward Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, when the housekeeper is left alone in the house with her troubled memories.

Unsettled by the ‘raw grief’ of her master and no stranger herself to the pain of rejection, Alice Fairfax reflects on her own indeterminate place at Thornfield, ‘midway between kept and keeper’ and ‘caught between extremes, a still, placid fulcrum, or so I may appear, to the powerful forces on each side of me.’

She has grown to resent Jane’s ‘smug smile,’ her lack of beauty, her unspectacular music and art talents, the grief she has brought to ‘Mr Edward’ and, perhaps most of all, the ‘pity’ she detected in her eyes.

Over the years, the housekeeper has played ‘the respectable, deferential dame, speaking half-truths and evasions and disregarded platitudes.’ And respectability, she has learned, is ‘as worthless and flimsy as the ash blowing from an autumn bonfire.’

Mrs Fairfax knows her master ‘more truly and closely’ than anyone else at Thornfield Hall because they share secrets from the past and now that she is alone, that past is surging up to meet her, creating voices in her head and making the servants fear that the dependable dame is slipping into insanity…

Weaving what we know of Mrs Fairfax from Jane’s narrative, the recognisable characters who lived and worked alongside her, and the domestic world she inhabited, Bransgrove gives new insights and imaginative depth to Charlotte Brontë’s much-loved story.

There is a satisfying air of authenticity and truthfulness in this reinvention of Mrs Fairfax, thanks largely to Bransgrove’s moving evocation of the haunting events in the widow’s past, her emotional vulnerability and her dilemma as a woman alone and dependent on others.

The realities of life in service – the daily chores, the social expectations and domestic responsibilities – are brought to life though Bransgrove’s careful and adept writing.

But it is the clever, penetrating and thoughtful reshaping of Mrs Fairfax that lingers longest in the mind and invites any fan of Jane Eyre to revisit the book and consider whether the rather conventional and kindly housekeeper was secretly just as much ‘in silent revolt’ against her lot as the determined little governess we know so well.

(2QT Limited, paperback, £5.99)