Wide Sargasso Sea – No, Andy hasn’t read Jane Eyre. Bite me.

December 31, 2010

No. Seriously, no,  I haven’t read Jane Eyre. Deal with it. Fucksake, I’ve read Wuthering Heights. Is there really another Bronte novel worth reading?

Well, yes, according to my boyfriend, who counts Jane Eyre among his favourite novels – in fact it may even top his list.  He’s got one of those omnibussy things with most if not all of the Bronte novels in it and every couple of years it comes off the shelf and he reads it, cover to cover. And loves it. Obviously.

But me? Never read Jane Eyre. Seen bits of the TV series. Maybe a couple of versions, actually. Might get round to reading it one day.

And yes, Wide Sargasso Sea makes that more likely.

I did not fall for Jean Rhys’s novel the way I fell for Raymond Carver’s short stories, or Paul Auster’s novellas, or the poetry of Thom Gunn’s later years. But it’s an impressive work, beautifully written, cleverly constructed, at times emotionally and morally excoriating. Rhys was annoyed by Jane Eyre (although also, obviously, completely and utterly entranced by it, else why write a prequel?), specifically by the depiction of “mad” Mrs Rochester up in her attic. “Bertha” (Rhys chooses to make that the name Rochester forces upon his first wife – her name, in fact, is Antoinette) has no voice in Bronte’s novel, is little more than a gnashing, ranting, violent plot device to come between Jane and Rochester. My boyfriend (who hasn’t yet read Wide Sargasso Sea, although he’s expressed a certain, dubious interest) tells me Mrs Rochester is given some back story in Jane Eyre – er, apparently it’s made clear her mum was mad, too. Yup. Back story’s an awesome concept, hey.

Having not read Jane Eyre of course I should keep away. I know nothing about the Caribbean in the mid 19th century, either, but it has to be said that after reading Rhys I feel like I know a little bit more. Her depiction of the environment, the culture, the society that existed in those islands at the time is convincing and compelling. Emancipation, the loathing of the freed black population for the “creoles” (a word that seems to have a number of meanings – and having read Rhys I suspect the depiction of Mrs Rochester in the most recent BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre as having light brown skin is incorrect; Antoinette was white), the loathing of the colonial white population for the newly freed (but still very much subjugated) black population and their culture. Weirdly – or perhaps not – Rochester conflates the white creoles with the African population; he has considerable contempt for the blacks (although that doesn’t stop him shagging at least one of them), and he comes to see Antoinette as being tainted by association; her “whiteness” is not the same as his “whiteness”. Some readers will disagree with me, but something Rhys does well I think is to attribute racism to Rochester quite subtly; he’s not 19th century Pauline Hanson, far from it. His racism is not at all blatant. But racist he is – and sexist, and elitist, and authoritarian. Fans of Jane Eyre may well baulk at his depiction here, since as far as I can tell he is presented very sympathetically by Bronte. Rhys cleverly presents almost all of the material depicting Rochester from Rochester’s first-person perspective, allowing him to betray himself – albeit for the most part with decorum, understatement and restraint. Ahem.

Rhys attributes Antoinette’s “madness” to the treatment meted out to her through her trajectory from child to wife. She does it convincingly, too, although these days science would probably concur with Bronte and suggest that what was then called “madness”, and is today called many things, can for the most part be attributed to our genetic heritage. Still, in Part One Rhys skillfully and convincingly relates Antoinette’s mother’s emotional deterioration to her circumstances, and in Part Two, through Rochester’s eyes, does something similar with Antoinette. In fact that Part Two is almost entirely written from Rochester’s perspective, and yet the reader can come to the end and still have immense compassion and understanding for Antoinette’s situation and state of mind, is tribute to Rhys’s talent.

Part Three – all 10 pages of it – is especially harrowing, and impressive. This is “Bertha”, locked in an attic in Rochester’s English estate. Here is a “mad” woman – and she is clearly deranged, but distressingly has considerable self-awareness of her plight  – who is well aware of how abominably she’s being treated. Lovers of Jane Eyre will presumably find more familiar territory here than in the rest of the book. But it’s also, perhaps, these pages that most ferociously attack the myth of Bronte’s novel. This is no 1800s looney-bin case. This is an intelligent, independent woman, appallingly betrayed, treated like dirt, locked away from the world, an embarrassment, a non-entity, condemned to be regarded as nothing more than a barrier to the happiness of others. It’s appalling, and awesomely sad.

And yet, in the last paragraph, Antoinette holds a candle, shielding the flame,  “and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage”. Is there a glimmer of hope here? The last few lines of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (which I haven’t read for years) can be “misinterpreted” to give a far more optimistic conclusion than the one the rest of the novel points to. Or so I was told by my lit lecturer more than 20 years ago. Am I grasping at straws in thinking that Antoinette’s flickering candle might point to something more hopeful? Apparently the candle she’s holding in that last paragraph is meant to be the candle that causes a fire of great import in Jane Eyre, but taking Wide Sargasso Sea and considering it as a text alone, independent – as it deserves to be – a light along the dark passage of madness has to be worth something. Doesn’t it?


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