The book that changed “Jane Eyre” forever


[Many thanks to Ifeona Fulani for bringing this item to our attention.] Wide Sargasso Sea turned Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel inside out. As the book celebrates its 50th anniversary, Hephzibah Anderson explains reviews the book and its impact on today’s readers. [Also see previous post .]

[. . .] One of these was a slender, quietly published novel that dared to take on a bulky 19th Century classic and is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.

As any English literature student will tell you, Rhys’s iconic prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is rich in motifs and devices both modernist and postmodernist. In giving a voice and an identity to Mr Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette – aka Bertha, the madwoman in the attic – the novel has become a gateway text to post-colonial and feminist theory.

For our insomniac listeners, this story of the couple’s meeting and ill-fated marriage, narrated in part by Antoinette, as yet a wealthy young Creole beauty, and in part by her domineering, cash-strapped new husband, Englishman Edward Rochester, offered more straightforward pleasures. It’s a novel that evokes a vivid sense of place, immersing the reader in the intoxicating lushness of its Caribbean setting; it’s hard to put down and impossible to forget; and of course it provides a potent heroine, plucked half-formed from the shadowy margins of one of literature’s best-loved romances, a woman whose tragic end comes to seem almost triumphant in light of all that precedes it.

“She seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I’d like to write her a life”, Rhys explained of her feelings for the first Mrs Rochester. It sounds modest enough but half a century on, the book is enshrined in campuses around the world and beloved by readers of all stripes. Something else has become clear, too: the novel has forever changed the way we read Jane Eyre. As author Danielle McLaughlin recently put it, writing for The Paris Review: “The novel didn’t just take inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, it illuminated and confronted it, challenged the narrative”. Or, to quote novelist Michele Roberts, “Rhys took one of the works of genius of the 19th Century and turned it inside-out to create one of the works of genius of the 20th Century”. [. . .]

Brontë’s Rochester is depicted as dark and brooding but in Wide Sargasso Sea, he morphs from a romantic lead into a callous villain, cowardly and bullying at the same time, a man who weds for money and uses women for sex, and whose behaviour likely sends his wife mad. From his very first scene in Jane Eyre, the Wide Sargasso Sea reader will view Rochester quite differently. When he rides onto the page on horseback and slips on ice, his grudging admission that he needs Jane’s help shifts from a beguiling glimpse of vulnerability to an unappealing display of surliness.

Later, every time he utters the name Bertha, Rhys’s readers will flinch, recalling how he stripped Antoinette of her name before taking her from her island home, keeping her money for himself, and imprisoning her in his attic. On the other hand, Rhys does restore to him some agency. Whereas in Brontë’s depiction, his unhappiness is the fault of Bertha, Wide Sargasso Sea shows how he heaps at least some of his misery upon himself. [. . .]

[Photo credit: BBC; Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, from her youth in Jamaica to her unhappy marriage to Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester.]

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