I don’t like Jane Eyre. It’s a book I have read several times but have really never enjoyed. I realise that this makes me an exception as it is many people’s favourite novel but I find it quite depressing the way that death follows Jane around. I definitely don’t like Mr Rochester because I think his actions with regard to the mentally ill woman in the attic are abhorrent and his attempt to trap Jane into an illegal marriage is as bad. I also don’t like the way that the author won’t let Jane have the man she loves unless he is scarred and vulnerable. Some of these feelings have been alleviated by reading The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde which has an interesting take on the story and where the author obviously disliked many of the same things as I do.
Jean Rhys’ book Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre and a book I have often thought of reading so I used my 2022 challenge of reading one book from each of the last sixty years as an opportunity. This book was published in 1966 and it is not the prequel which Charlotte Bronte would have written in the mid-nineteenth century. It is an attempt to create a set of events which might explain the issue of the mad wife in the attic and how Mr Rochester reached the point of attempting bigamy. I suppose you could read it if you hadn’t read Jane Eyre but I think that you would lose the power of the book – all the way through we know what is going to happen and the ending only makes sense if you have read the older book. Even though this is a prequel you should read Charlotte Bronte’s novel first. Jean Rhys uses Wide Sargasso Sea to illuminate the hidden story within Jane Eyre but she also addresses slavery and British Imperialism.
Antoinette grows up on a Caribbean island at the time when slavery has just been abolished. Sugar plantations are closing down because without free workers they are not economically viable. Plantation owners are leaving or dying by suicide and the black inhabitants of the island are poor and angry. Antoinette live son a plantation which has fallen into disuse and so her mother, who is her only living relative, marries a settler, Mr Mason. The events around the marriage affect Antoinette’s mother’s mind and the young girl has to go to school and to try and become more westernised after a childhood of running wild with the local Black children. When her step-father dies she is persuaded into marriage with Edward Rochester. It is only as the book progresses that we realise that Rochester is very short of money and the marriage will bring him a dowry from the Masons which will solve his financial problems and also, in return, give them social standing because of the connection.
Antoinette loves Rochester but his love for her cannot develop because he believes some nasty tales which are told about her and her family. He is ashamed of her and the marriage but he needs the money. Antoinette is desperately in love with him and is unable to leave him because she has no money and few friends. Slowly, Rochester begins to change her, starting with her name, and slowly she begins to live in a fantasy world.
This is a brilliant book. It is beautifully written with the island feeling slightly unreal. You realise from the beginning that Antoinette will never have any freedom but it is sad to watch her freedom of choice disappear and her character change until she becomes Bertha, the woman Rochester would rather have married. The story illustrates where the riches of the aristocracy in England originated and at whose expense but also what the ending of slavery actually meant to those who owned them as well as the slaves themselves.
This is a short but very powerful book. It contains a lot of background which the readers of Jane Eyre would have already known but it gives us a plausible back story for the mad wife in the attic story. It didn’t make me like Mr Rochester any better though !