There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.
In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason, the archetypal madwoman in the attic does not speak. Everything we learn about her comes from Mr Rochester and his brother-in-law and everything confirms the evidence of her madness. Alcoholism, adultery and insanity are blamed and Rochester explains how he was forced to marry this Creole woman and bring her back to England. A plot device rather than a character, she serves to represent the darkness in our pasts that can reignite in the present with devastating consequences.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys doesn’t so much as give Bertha a voice, she gives us a new way of looking at such a well-known book. She challenges and questions it, illuminating what has gone before and reminding us that,
There is always another side, always.
The book is told in three parts, in the first part, Bertha, or Antoinette Cosway as she is before being renamed, is detailing her childhood brought up by that ‘infamous mother’. The second part begins to dovetail into Jane Eyre, as we hear from the point of view of Rochester and in part three we are in familiar territory as Antoinette takes over the narrative again, this time from her attic room in Thornfield Hall as she becomes increasingly unravelled and unable to distinguish between dreams and reality.
In Part One, before becoming Bertha Mason, Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress living in Jamaica. Like Jane she is an orphan and like Jane, she is a pariah in the eyes of her neighbours, and the book opens with the family mansion being torched by ex-slaves and a girl she once thought of as a friend hitting her with a rock. This is no island paradise and Rhys is wonderful at evoking the oppressive and threatening nature of so much sunshine, so much colour.
Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.
This is a different type of gothic from Jane Eyre –the cold and the wind replaced with a different kind of heaviness, the weight of a relentless heat.
I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look
Into this landscape comes Mr Rochester (unnamed in the novel) who, initially intrigued by Antoinette’s beauty, becomes poisoned against her by the tales of her mother’s madness. Their bitter romance reaches its peak in Part Three when Antoinette is now quarantined in the attic of Thornfield Hall, being looked after, or guarded by Grace Poole. As the narrative becomes increasingly unravelled and confused, the book ends where Jane and Rochester begin, with the fire that kills Bertha and disfigures Rochester. Antoinette’s journey from youth to death is a mirror opposite of Jane’s journey, as depicted by Brontëand her story hides a truth that Jane can only glimpse as the two novels merge together.
Wide Sargasso Sea surprised me in that it doesn’t feel like a prequel, which is what I had expected. It is so much more than that – a deeply political book in its own right that explores the post-colonial landscape and gives a voice to not only Bertha’s unheard story, but the unheard stories of those marginalised whether it be by race, class or gender. Antoinette is a clever woman, but to her family she is simply another item to be included in a transaction. To Rochester she is an acquisition to be named at will. Unhappy with the similarity of her name to her mothers, he calls her Bertha as a means of asserting his control over her
Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too
Rochester may feel he is superior to those around him, but as Antoinette points out, he is performing his own kind of black magic on her by making her something she is not.
The book is rife with the imagery of illusion and reality, featuring mirrors and opposites and references to heaven and hell. Just as Rhys is holding up a mirror to Jane Eyre, so too is she reflecting Antoinette’s past and her present.
There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us – hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?
Bertha is ultimately disenfranchised and disinherited, taken from all she know and labelled to suit her coloniser. It is a harsh reality that cannot be changed by magic and just as dreams are portents to Jane Eyre, dreams become Bertha’s escape and her inability to separate her dreams from her reality is ultimately what causes her to die.
Rhys writes beautifully and evocatively. The prose is laden with images of heat and fire with the colour red taking on particular significance, yet this is a chilling book which transcends its starting point to become glorious in its own right.
I read Wide Sargasso Sea as part of Jacqui Wine’s Reading Rhys week and I am incredibly grateful for the nudge.
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