While ostensibly telling the backstory for Mr. Rochester and his first wife, the madwoman in the attic, this novel is about as far from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre
as you can get. The latter is definitely a product of it's era, fitting the mold of a 19th century novel to a tee. Jean Rhys history of Antoinette, or Bertha, Mason, is modern and the language, while evocative, almost stark in comparison to the flowery prose used by Bronte. And yet it works perfectly. Had Rhys tried to mimic the inimical Jane Eyre
she would have surely failed. Instead she created her own voice, her own characters, whilst at the same time telling us the story that Charlotte Bronte left out.
Born and raised in the West Indies, Jamaica to be exact, Antoinette Mason, nee Cosway, spent the years following her father's death and the abolition of slavery in an environment somewhere between heaven and hell. Her father had been a wealthy plantation owner and slave master. He wasn't one of the "good" ones either; fathering more bastards on his slaves than he could keep track. When he died and the slaves were granted freedom under the new laws, his wife and children were left abandoned and poverty stricken in their old plantation home, Coulibri, with only a couple of loyal slaves turned servants for company. Disliked equally by the whites in town and the native islanders it was a time of nightmares for both mother and daughter. The young widow manages to find a new husband though and they attempt to start over.
Unfortunately for all involved, this new beginning is not to be. The years of fear and caring for an invalid son have taken their toll on Annette Mason. The burning of her home is the final straw that breaks her back, and ultimately her mind. Antoinette spends the next few years being schooled in a convent in Spanish Town before her step-father also dies, leaving for her half his fortune, to be split with his son. That same son engineers a marriage to a second son of a wealthy English landowner, Rochester. Antoinette longs for happiness in this new marriage, but fate and others conspire against her, eventually leading to her tortured life, locked in the attic of Rochester's country estate.
Born in the West Indies herself and spending her early years there, Rhys does a masterful job at showing us both the beauty and the darkness inherent to the islands. The ugliness, fear and distrust rampant following the abolition of slavery still runs rampant through many of the islands today, making this aspect of the book relevant even today.
Rhys also manages to bring the characters to life, giving us a different view on characters both well-loved and deeply misunderstood. Rochester doesn't come across at all as the dashing figure he was painted by Bronte. Instead he is selfish, fearful, and vengeful. Antoinette, whom he takes to calling Bertha, is nothing at all like the madwoman to whom we were originally introduced. Her other characters, especially Christophine, are just as full of substance and life.
The perfect companion read to the original, Jane Eyre
, my only complaint is that I would have preferred to see the last third of the novel, while Antoinette/Bertha is locked in the attic more fleshed out. Rhys only really delves into two of the four major incidents in which her protagonist was featured in Bronte's classic, the meeting with her brother and the burning of Thornfield Hall. For this reason alone, I do not include Wide Sargasso Sea
on my shelf of favorite novels.