Giving a voice to the madwoman in the attic
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a kind of imaginative ‘prequel’ to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, takes as its focus not Jane, not Rochester – though he certainly figures, as one of the narrators – but Rochester’s ‘Mad Wife’ Bertha.
In Rhys’ 1966 novel, which took her 20 years in writing, one of the keynote problems for ‘Bertha’ is that of identity, and being accepted for who she is. As Rhys imagines her, she is not even called Bertha at all, but Antoinette, and is a Creole heiress, married to the unnamed (in the book) Rochester. And married by him, coldly, for money, not for love, though he does develop a physical obsession for her, as well as self-disgust for that obsession,.
There is a kind of sensual languor, a seductive eroticism as well as a dark and powerful sense of almost dangerous magic, which Rhys evokes in the Jamaican setting. There is lush fecundity, and a wild sexuality in the landscape and its vegetation, almost a sense that this might be another Eden, but one unchaste, devouring, snaky. Both Antoinette and ‘Rochester’ marrying for – not thirty pieces of silver, but thirty thousand pounds ‘paid to me without question or condition’ feel the spell and danger in the land itself, and will find they have been betrayed, in some fashion, by each other, though in a society where women were almost always dependent on men for a position and means of survival, the property of fathers and husbands. the stakes were never equal
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered – then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went into it
I found that description quite extraordinary in its uneasy oppositions – a sense of something of huge vitality, and yet danger, of growth and overgrowth, a surface of beauty hiding something strangulating. This occurs in the first section – narrated by Antoinette, and yet in some ways it encapsulates some contradictions in her own nature, whilst also reflecting some of what ‘Rochester’ sees her sexuality to be.
The book is structured in three sections. The first is Antoinette’s, recounting her complex family history, from child to young woman. It is full of unsettling imagery, told by a young girl who has little sense of home or belonging, whether within Jamaica – her mother came from Martinique to marry her first husband, Cosway, who had been a slave-owner – or within her family. Antoinette’s beautiful, unstable mother fell on hard times following her first husband’s death, and Antoinette suffers from her mother’s indifference towards her
The second section is primarily from the Englishman, ‘Rochester’s’ point of view, and follows the initially cold, condescending view he has towards his intended bride, and the changes which the place, its people and indeed Antoinette create in him – changes resisted and feared.
The third section shifts back to Antoinette, removed from her home, bought back to England. Forced into the straitjacket mould of a conventional middle-class womanhood by her husband, Antoinette has reached the place the reader meets her in Jane Eyre –Bertha, the madwoman wife in the attic, guarded by Grace Poole.
Part of the straitjacket which the controlling ‘Rochester’ imposes even includes the talking away of the identity of name – Antoinette is regarded as an unsuitable name. Not only does she lose her second name through marriage, taking her husband’s name – but even her own birth name, the name by which she knows herself; exotic, foreign, French derived Antoinette replaced by the harder, plainer name of Bertha. There is even, perhaps the subtext of the attempted role of Rochester as ‘birther’ of a different, lesser, swaddled person out of the hapless Antoinette.
One of the most admirable aspects of Wide Sargasso Sea, unlike the often seemingly trivial, fashion and market driven modern ‘spins’ on reworking classics, which seem, literally, like charades, is that Rhys’ book springs from as fertile and authentic seeming source as the original. It is clear how deeply Jane Eyre worked its way into Rhys’ thoughts, feelings and imagination. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys does not subvert or untruthfully change anything in Jane Eyre. She creates a prior story for that disastrous marriage Rochester made, and gives voice, story, history and credence to the dismissed ‘madwoman in the attic’’ Within Brontë’s book there is much evidence of a battle between control and surrender to sexual passion in Rochester’s nature, and also a sometimes wilful, cavalier playing with female affection, even a certain cruelty. Rhys merely allows, far from the confinement of an English home, those aspects to be seen more clearly in his nature.
Wide Sargasso Sea stands in its own right as a classic of the English literature canon. Rhys is a crafted writer, creating complex, rounded psychology and subtext in her characters, and exploring many themes, truthfully and imaginatively.
In her earlier writings, Rhys often took aspects from her own life and nature, weaving them into fictions which explore women living outside the moral norms of convention, women who ‘love not wisely but too well’ Although in many ways this book, with another book, and another time and place serving as its inspiration, differs from her present day (at the time of their writing) settings in Paris and London, Antoinette is only different in degree, not in kind, from the central characters of earlier novels
The Sargasso Sea, as described on Wiki is a region in the gyre in the middle of the North Atlantic. It is the only sea on Earth which has no coastline and is a distinctive body of water with brown Sargassum seaweed and calm blue water. The unboundaried, flowingness of water and the drifting mass of seaweed is a wonderful image, both of the fluidity and depth of Rhys writing in this book, and the nature of her central character, clarity of the turquoise water, and the unsettling, scummy, seaweed tentacles – suggestions of slimy monsters from the deep – hinting at the dark, subconscious strangles of psychological shadows which rear up and overwhelm, in different ways, Antoinette, ‘Rochester’ and others in this book
It has been a real pleasure to re-new acquaintance with this book, through the Jean Rhys blogging week, and I shall be dusting off the rest of my Rhys collection, and trust those re-reads will prove equally absorbing
Thank you to Jacqui from JacquiWine and Eric from The Lonesome Reader, for this week’s joint hosted Jean Rhys event. And fortuitously, I see my link to Eric’s blog takes you directly to his review of this book!