Iconography: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre
It’s time to head back to the nineteenth century, and one Miss Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre (1847) is, of course, one of the most widely-read books in the English language. But I wonder about the kinds of readings that are to be had here. And I wonder what I’m getting out of this book that would have gone over the head of Brontë, as a white woman from a colonising nation. These are sensibilities supplied by Jean Rhys’ parallel novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), as we will see.
Jane Eyre is the focus of a lot of adoration. It’s full of a haunting gothic atmosphere—the red-room scene will stick in your mind, all right—and a romance surviving across divides of age, wealth and status. Jane is the orphan who becomes a teenage governess in an isolated English country home, Thornfield. She falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester, only to discover on their wedding day that he’s married already. His wife is a madwoman locked in the attic, whom he was tricked into marrying by his father and brother. Jane runs away, and the wife, Bertha, starts a fire which maims Rochester and destroys Thornfield before she kills herself. Jane returns, marries Rochester, nurses him into somewhat better health and we have our happy ending.
No, no we don’t. For a start, miracle cures and disability as a plot device make me rage. Rochester might love Jane, but he’s also manipulative and overbearing. Jane’s a gorgeously strong heroine ("women feel just as men feel"), and there are some lovely moments of examining class and charity. But the novel is peppered with negative references to non-white people and features, and I am always suspicious of the silencing of women characters, through, well, the madwoman in the attic figure, which is after all named for Bertha Rochester.
When I was in high school, a member of the English department walked up to me one day and pressed Wide Sargasso Sea into my hands. She had a glassy agony of love in her eye which I immediately recognized as that of a booklover communicating how very extraordinary a book is. I had a free period later that day and, by the time the bell rang for my next class, I had trouble rejoining the world for this masterwork in my grasp. It’s the perspective so painfully missing in Jane Eyre, that of Bertha Rochester. Rather, it’s the life story of Antoinette, the Creole woman who Mr. Rochester renames and reshapes in his desired image.
The thing is, Jane Eyre is an excellent novel in its way, but Charlotte Brontë wasn’t writing for people like me. That’s a constant experience for this disabled, non-white lady, a slow, othering slide of a knife in the chest. This is why Wide Sargasso Sea has been so important to me in filling in those aching gaps that usually never get addressed. Here is a character to whom I can relate in ways in which I cannot relate to Jane—a character who is buffeted about by attempts to control her and her racial experience. It’s a book in which the humanity of non-white people, and people with mental illnesses, is acknowledged in some really visceral ways. It’s full of associations and experiences and images with no sugarcoating, life on the edge of life. You should be warned that Antoinette drugs and rapes Mr. Rochester; it’s certainly not a pleasant novel. It’s certainly not a case of positioning Antoinette as a blameless victim, but as a character among full and often despicable characters, with the circumstantial blanks inscribed upon.
It’s telling that Jane Eyre is such a popular story; where are the stories of nineteenth century women of color falling in love and living happily ever after? Why do stories about the beneficiaries of colonialism last through the ages, where the stories of the colonized fall by the wayside, if they’re ever published? Why is the madwoman usually the plot device or an object of pity, not a person? What is so striking about the imaginations of white women, the stories of sane women, that everyone else must be silent? The world is full of Jane Eyres, and Wide Sargasso Sea is an astounding exercise as to the wealth of experience missing in the literature held up as iconic, as embodying the experiences of women.
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