Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg
(Hardcover, Five Star/Cengage, September 2010, ISBN: 9781594149177)
In 1920s Hollywood, young John Doyle learns the craft of cinematography when a stupid mistake costs him his job. On a tip, he heads to Sloane Hall, the estate of a famous silent screen actress, Pauline Sloane, where he lands a position as chauffeur. Sloane Hall first offers him peace as he enjoys the bounty of the luxurious home, then unrest as its beautiful namesake returns and starts preparing for her first talking picture. Despite his best efforts to resist, John falls hopelessly in love with his employer. His future brightens, however, when she appears to return his affection, leading to plans for a secret wedding—until other awful secrets intrude, leading to heartbreak and separation. A story of obsession and forgiveness, Sloane Hall was inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
Is Sloane Hall just a retelling of Jane Eyre?
It’s not a point-by-point re-creation of Bronte’s classic romance. Rather, I wanted it to be a re-creation of the emotional journey found in Jane Eyre, with recognizable references to the original story line. I really hope readers are able to appreciate Sloane Hall as an homage to that brilliant piece of storytelling but aren’t disappointed when they come across a new story.
One of the major deviations from the original is the fact that Jane . . . is a John! Why did you decide to switch the gender of the protagonist?
I wanted the story to be fresh. I think any time you write a book like this, which clearly references a well-loved, well-read original, you struggle to keep it feeling new, as if it had never been told or written before. I’m a huge Jane Eyre fan. I’ve re-read the book countless times. I’ve watched numerous film versions of it. It’s the emotional journey of the book that has stayed with me more than the actual details. I wanted to recreate that journey. I didn’t think changing the time period or setting was enough to accomplish that.
Other than the gender switch, what other aspects deviate from the original?
Time and place are different, of course. I chose Hollywood in the 1920s because film stars make up a kind of American “gentry.” And I chose the year film was making the shift from silent to sound to create a background tension that makes Pauline’s circumstances precarious. She’s about to make her first talking picture, a very stressful time for silent stars of that period, many of whose careers didn’t survive the change. And I will tell readers right now—there is no lunatic spouse in the attic!
That begs the question—what is in Sloane Hall’s attic?
Secrets! Actually, this was one of the most challenging—and most fun—aspects of writing this book, coming up with the awful secret, the climactic moment to parallel when Rochester reveals he’s married to insane Bertha. I kept asking myself: how did nineteenth century readers feel when reading that scene? Would their sensibilities about mental illness be the same as ours today? I think not. I believe today’s readers probably feel most sympathetic to Jane in that scene and are, perhaps, troubled by Rochester’s deception and the handling of his mentally-ill wife, even if they can spare a measure of sympathy for him, too. I wondered if the original readers, however, had much more sympathy for Rochester in that scene, and experienced, perhaps, an “eww” moment when contemplating his wife’s state. I wanted to recreate the feelings that nineteenth century readers might have had—equal measures of sympathy and disgust. I hope I succeeded.
The other very memorable moment in Jane Eyre is when Jane hears Rochester calling to her across the countryside. How do you handle that?
Since we’re dealing with film, I think most readers will guess that this scene involves one of Pauline’s movies. But perhaps not in a way readers might expect. So I’m hoping there’s still an element of surprise and appreciation here that makes this aspect fresh for the reader.
How else does the book differ from Jane?
I think John struggles with the idea of forgiveness much more than Jane did. John has a much, much harder time letting go of his resentments of those who had wronged him in the past. This resentment and simmering anger gets him into trouble and ultimately drives his transformation. He has to learn to conquer it before he can ultimately accept Pauline into his heart. And, of course, she has to conquer many inner demons as well. I think her struggles are a bit more “on stage” than Rochester’s were.
With all these differences, what is similar to the original?
Like Jane, John had a troubling youth. His “Lowood” was a reform school. Also like Jane, he’s a contrarian and a realist, especially about himself. He’s a gentle soul wanting to be loved and to return that love in full measure to someone worthy of it. He is also a deeply spiritual man, although not in any denominational sense. He’s an “outsider,” a loner, someone who grew to expect little from life except what he could bring to it. And, like Jane, he considers himself plain, certainly unable to compete with the dashing stars surrounding Pauline Sloane.
Are you a fan of retellings of famous stories? If so, what are your favorites?
A. Skillful retellings excite me because they make me feel as if I’m reaching across time and enjoying the story the way its original audience might have experienced it! I love the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, which is loosely based on The Odyssey, for that reason. I really enjoyed the 1995 film version of Richard III with Ian McKellen and Annette Bening, which is not a retelling but a resetting of that play in a completely unexpected way. I thoroughly enjoyed Alice Randall’s book The Wind Done Gone, a different take on the characters in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Each of these had me looking at the original stories and their characters with fresh eyes. It’s a thrilling sensation to feel in communion with the first audiences for these tales. I hope readers of Sloane Hall have that experience and feel connected to the first readers who fell in love with Jane Eyre.