Jane Eyre has been one of my favourite classics for a long time. I’ve read it for pleasure a few times but it was only when I ready it for study that I realised that an insight existed into the history of the infamous madwoman in the attic, through a novel written by Jean Rhys in 1966 called Wide Sargasso Sea. Obviously, having discovered this book in 2009, I was extremely late to the party! It has, in fact, been studied in secondary schools for quite some time (just not in the one I went to!!) However, to anyone who has read Jane Eyre but hasn’t read Wide Sargasso Sea, I would strongly urge you to do so.
Wide Sargasso Sea is written as a prequel to Jane Eyre and Rhys gives Bertha the madwoman (or Antoinette, as she is called in this book) a voice as the reader is given an insight into how Mr Rochester came to be married to her. Set in post-colonial Jamaica, Antoinette has had a tragic upbringing as a result of her father being a white plantation owner who died soon after the abolition of slavery, which leaves the family with no workforce on the plantation and the family becomes a target for the natives as they burn down their plantation. Antoinette is introduced to Rochester by a man who claims to be her illegitimate brother. A marriage is arranged so that Rochester can gain financially from Antoinette’s dowry. Antoinette, as a white Creole and not a native, has the influence of the British patriarchal society and is powerless to assert her own independence and passions, and in trying to do so, loses the respect of Rochester. Rochester changes Antoinette’s name to Bertha as a way of further asserting his patriarchal authority over her. (It’s worth mentioning that he also does this with Jane in Jane Eyre when he calls her Janet.)
Rhys gives Antoinette many similar characteristics and experiences to Jane which influences the reader to sympathise with Antoinette in the same way that Jane would have received sympathy on reading Jane Eyre. Both novels give the impression that the influence of Rochester seals the fate of both women, but the details of Antoinette’s upbringing and experience with a young and innocent Rochester give an extended view of how history repeats itself in Rochester’s relationship with Jane, and how many of Jane’s childhood experiences can be paralleled with Antoinette’s.
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte encourages her readers to focus on Rochester’s relationship with Jane by presenting Bertha in somewhat animalistic terms . The reader then accepts Rochester’s choice to imprison her without any kind of reprisal. However, it is not acceptable to the reader for Rochester to marry Jane under false pretences, and for that act, he must pay some kind of price. Rhys’ version of Rochester’s experiences in Jamaica encourage the reader to feel a deeper sympathy for Rochester, while at the same time, generating a much-needed feeling of sympathy for the monstrously depicted Bertha. He tells his story in Jane Eyre with much disgust at Bertha’s behaviour but he does not express the same bitterness in Wide Sargasso Sea. Instead, his tale is one of confusion and alienation from his surroundings; an experience that both Jane and Antoinette encounter in their lives. The reader sees Rochester and Antoinette seemingly forced into a situation because of the British patriarchal society rules and expectations. Rhys manages to show Rochester and Antoinette on an equal level, which is, in itself, against all Rochester’s beliefs and his English upbringing.
Jane Eyre, when read alone, is a typical nineteenth century bildungsroman with a strict beginning, middle and end. Bertha Mason is a marginal character who serves a purpose to act as a barrier to the marriage of Jane and Rochester. She is never considered as human with feelings. As a woman, Bertha is automatically marginalised. However, she needs to be further marginalised so that she is not given the same consideration as the heroine. Rhys, as a white Creole herself, wanted to make Bertha human, returning her birth name and allowing her to become the heroine of her own novel. Wide Sargasso Sea addresses her journey to where the reader meets her in Jane Eyre, giving her the sympathy she deserves and supplying reasons for her descent into madness. In her depiction of Rochester, she is also marginalising him by making him as vulnerable as Antoinette. By establishing the vast differences between the cultures of patriarchal Britain and mystical Jamaica, it gives the reader an idea of how hard it would be for either Antoinette or Rochester to feel comfortable in such opposite, hostile surroundings. Rhys redresses the balance, putting Antoinette, Rochester and Jane on equally unstable terms.
Having read Wide Sargasso Sea alongside Jane Eyre, it feels like I have a clearer picture of the characters of Rochester and Bertha. Although the two novels were written over a century apart (Jane Eyre was written in 1847) they complement each other perfectly and I will never be able to read Jane Eyre in the same light again. I highly recommend anyone who has read Jane Eyre to read Wide Sargasso Sea. I wonder if there are any other marginalised characters that could be given a voice. Food for thought…