How and why are selected canonical texts re-written by female authors? Answer with close reference to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso Sea is a relatively still sea, lying within the south-west zone of the North Atlantic Ocean, at the centre of a swirl of warm ocean currents. Metaphorically, for Jean Rhys, it represented an area of calm, within the wide division between England and the West Indies. Within such an area, a sense of stability, permanence and identity may be attained, despite the powerful, whirling currents hich surround it.
But outside of this ‘sea’, one may be destabilised, drawn away by these outside forces, into the vast expanse of ‘ocean’ between the West Indies and Europe. Outside of these metaphorical and geographical oceanic areas, one may become the victim of these currents, subject to their vagaries and fluctuations, no longer able to personally define, with any certainty, where one is culturally or geographically located. For Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre depicted representations of a Creole woman and West Indian history which she knew to be inaccurate. Bertha Mason is mad; and she came from a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations.
Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard! ‘ She is further described as having a ‘discoloured face’, ‘a savage face’ with ‘fearful blackened inflation’ of the features, ‘the lips were swelled and dark’; described as a demon, witch, vampire, beast and hyena1. But nowhere in the novel does Bronte allow ‘the madwoman in the attic’ to have a voice, to explain what may have caused her madness. Rhys says: ‘The mad wife in Jane Eyre always interested me. I was convinced that Charlotte Bronte must have had something against the West Indies and I was angry about it.
Otherwise, why did she take a West Indian for that horrible lunatic, for that really dreadful creature? ‘2 So in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys rewrites Bronte’s canonical text according to her own, personal experiences, as both a white West Indian and a woman. But, giving Antoinette a voice, she exposes truth behind madness: The history of the land in which she lived, and the role of the woman in it, was a tale of Victorian, patriarchal values and colonial xploitation; polarised ideology, division and confrontation in racial, cultural, sexual and historical issues.
In a literary sense, Antoinette’s voice, once heard, would not only offer mitigating reasons for her madness, but would ensure that Jane Eyre could never be read without her voice being heard ever again. Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as a historical-novel. She was able to incorporate elements of detailed factual history of Dominica: including slavery, colonialism and external conflicts over proprietorship; as well as how these issues related to her fictional characters.
Although not strictly autobiographical, Rhys uses cultural and topographical descriptions to both illustrate her own experiences in Dominica in the early, formative years of her life and to authenticate what she says. She sets her fiction in a time of upheaval and disruption in Dominica, following the emancipation of slaves, and in order to do so shifts the approximate dates used in Jane Eyre, but the significance of this shift is almost imperceptible, except in that it emphasises the plight of the Creole planter, rather than that of the emancipated slave.
The historical-fictional content of Wide Sargasso Sea is, by design, a prequel, or (p)review of Jane Eyre. Rhys called an early draft of the text Le Revenant: something that comes back, haunts, revisits. I think the ‘haunting’ and ‘revisiting’ between Rhys and Jane Eyre is reciprocal. Here, she herself revisits her youth, through Antoinette, to experience Dominica in a way which previews the characters and content of Jane Eyre in a temporal sense; but in doing so, creates indelible perspectives which haunt subsequent re-readings of the book.
She also establishes a literary relationship between Jane and Antoinette, which Bronte does not describe. Rhys also invites comparison between Bronte and herself, in terms of the feminist writer. I shall consider these in due course. Rhys (p)reviews Jane Eyre by correspondences in thematic content and characterisation. Her book was written for very personal reasons and invited many comparisons with events in her own life. Antoinette represents the culmination of her female fictional characters. In Rhys’s fiction, for the leading lady, we can invariably read Rhys herself.
I have therefore focused on those themes with direct relevance to Antoinette. There are a whole series of binary oppositions and comparisons considered by Rhys: Love-hate, fear-attraction, black-white, Anglican-Catholic, history-fiction, freedom-captivity, male-female, British-French. Their number, along with the clear lack of distinction between them, are indicative of the conflicting forces at work, both within Dominican society and those impacting on it from outside. The history of the country reflects both internal and external conflicts. Most notably, prior to 1834, between Britain and France.
Two key, connected themes grounded in the social and cultural history of Dominica, are slavery and exploitation. The social and cultural shift created by the Emancipation Act 1833 was enormous: the enslaved were free and the ‘Plantocracy’, the colonial exploiters of cheap black labour, were soon financially ruined by the collapse of the sugar-production industry. This shift exposed and exacerbated a stratification of West Indian society: a gradation of wealth and identity: white, Creole, mixed race, coloured and black; with similar stratifications within black West Indian communities, between islanders of Martinique, Jamaica and Dominica.
In Dominica, as in the novel, nothing is clearly defined and these gradations between those binary oppositions become blurred. The sense of identity, that is reinforced or created as a result of them, also becomes blurred. Immediately the novel opens, the reader is struck by this sense of uncertainty, with an undercurrent of danger: ‘They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. ‘3 The abolition of slavery meant freedom for the slaves, but had brought fear and poverty to the white people.
The colonial whites, abandoned by their mother-country, had, in a short space of time, become shifted from oppressor to oppressed. The plantocracy and their families were dispossessed of their power and influence: neither black nor true white, their status and sense of identity was in freefall. The emotional effect on Antoinette’s sense of identity was considerable. Her mother, mentally abused by her philandering husband and now verbally abused by the local blacks, became the primary focus of her ‘solitary life’.
She would see the sorrow in her mother: the ‘frown .. etween her black eyebrows, deep – it might have been cut with a knife. I hated this frown.. ‘4 But as the victim of favouritism towards her brother, her attempts at consolation were repelled, causing her to conclude ‘that (she) was useless to her’5. She noticed that her mother began to talk to herself, and Antoinette withdrew within herself. This situation reflected Rhys’s own early experiences, which fostered in her a legacy of isolation, loneliness and a desire and need for security and protection.
She shared this with, and reflected this through, her portrayal of Antoinette: her need for, and dependency on, Rochester. But this madness, depicted yet left unexplained in Jane Eyre, when it is considered in light of the generalised, denigratory terms used to describe Creole women – ‘idiots and maniacs through three generations’6, implied a sweeping inevitability of which Rochester was the innocent victim. But it also hid a more sinister side: Insanity was used to disguise the abuses and exploitations of forced-labour and slavery, and legitimise the wealth accumulated from it by the Victorian colonialists.
It was seen as being in some way justified. When emancipation and consequent lack of forced-labour caused the estates’ collapse, the opportunity for further exploitation presented itself: A repetition of the colonial exploitation of the blacks, this time perpetrated on displaced and vulnerable white Creoles and their estates. The Creoles, neither white nor European, referred to as ‘white niggers’ or ‘white cockroaches’ throughout the text, become the victims of Victorian colonialism, patriarchal domination and English property law.
The exploitation of the Creole woman mirrors the earlier exploitation of the slave. When she inherits her land, Antoinette is ‘sold’, just as a slave, by Mason. This image of ‘Rochester as exploiter’ is totally incongruent with representations in Jane Eyre – the romantic gentleman and innocent victim – but may be, historically, more accurate. In mitigation, he becomes exploiter by default, as he himself was initially exploited, and sold ‘as slave’, by father and brother. Rochester embodies Rhys’s impressions of England: cold and mean.
Attempting to structure everything about him according to British Victorian rigidity; all of which conflicts with the vibrant colour, gaiety and passion of his surroundings. This Anglocentric intolerance is clearly shown in his xenophobic and racist attitude towards the French-patois speakers and his neurotic obsession with race, miscegenation and incest. He personifies the ‘masculine, forbidding’ restrictions of the Anglican church, contrasted with the ‘bright, warm, predominantly feminine’ Catholic environment7. He sees, in his environment, both culturally and topographically, menace overpowering beauty.
He feels threatened by the ‘otherness’ of the environment, the indigenous people in it, and his inability to control it. His perception of the blacks is racist and bigoted, and he feels emasculated and threatened when confronted by the empowered attitudes of the emancipated slaves. But this alienation and need for control, destabilised by knowledge of his own exploitation, suspicions as to Antoinette’s complicity, and his discovery of her involvement with obeah – tricking him with the aphrodisiac, begins the destruction of their relationship.
He had acquired Antoinette’s wealth and solicited her trust, captured and indulged himself in her passionate love, yet when, by his own ailings, he was unable to manipulate her into something within his control, like a marionette or doll, he discarded her love, whilst withholding her freedom. The exploited once again becomes the exploiter. But if Antoinette sees her own ‘displaced , deracinated condition in terms of historically specific shifts in class and economic power, Rochester … interprets racial difference in moral and sexual terms, specifically in terms of miscegenation and ‘contamination’;’8.
This reflects the Victorian preoccupation that syphilis – the precursor of madness and contracted by the sexually promiscuous – originated in Africa. The commonplace assumptions of British abolitionist writing, such as Montgomery and Wilberforce, linked slavery with pervasive sexual promiscuity. The Emancipation Act had the following consequence: ‘Licentiousness, whatever it might have been before, was almost entirely banished from society: young men no longer exposed to the same temptations as before, acquired new ideas of correctness and purer tastes and habits, all of an elevating kind and favouring the development of the higher energies. 9
This unremarkable conclusion being based on the assertion that it was the licentiousness onto the oman. Thus, Antoinette’s passionate sexuality, for him, represents the same negative connotations of racial contamination, the inevitable consequences of which are madness. The comparisons Rochester makes between Antoinette and Amelie, or remarks about the ethnicity of her features betray his preoccupation with this. On their first trip, he remarks, ‘Long, sad, dark alien eyes’… ‘And when did I begin to notice all this about my wife Antoinette? After we left Spanish Town I suppose.
Or did I notice it before and refuse to admit what I saw? 10 He later comments on one of Antoinette’s mannerisms, ‘For a moment she looked very much like Amelie. Perhaps they are related, I thought. It’s possible, it’s even probable in this damned place’11. He also describes her ‘annoying habit’ of ‘holding her left wrist with her right hand’12, connoting images of the black slave clamped in irons. As Antoinette is torn between fear of Rochester’s coldness and rejection and a need for the warmth and security he represents; Rochester fluctuates between desire for the passionate sexuality she possesses and repulsion of the racial contamination it represents.
When visiting Daniel, he watches with physical disgust, his ‘yellow sweating face’, listens to his poisoness, self-motivated accusations, yet allows his irrational prejudices to be ‘confirmed’. Erwin sees his recourse as being in an act of ‘purification’ – by his physical act, ‘to displace the contamination he has taken from Antoinette back onto her across the ‘thin partition’; dividing (him and Amelie) from her bedroom. ’13 He sees the process as successful when, following the act he finds Amelie’s skin ‘darker, her lips thicker than (he) ad thought,’;14 and that he had ‘no wish to touch her’;15.
Whether this was simply an act of spite followed by a typical demonstration of male, post-coital ambivalence is open to debate. Bronte, in Jane Eyre, openly accepted the wealth accumulated from colonialism: Rochester becomes wealthy by inheriting such proceeds from his father ; and Jane becomes financially independent, so attaining the equality that allows her return to Rochester, from the inheritance of her uncle’s estate in Madeira. The issue of property law is circumvented by her remaining single: otherwise Rochester ould acquire all of Jane’s wealth, parity would be removed, and she would be in a similar situation to Antoinette.
The legacy of colonialism and financial inheritance pervade throughout the novel from Rochester to Diana’s military husband, Mary’s clergyman husband and the sustained cultural imperialism in India of St. John Rivers. But Bronte hides the exploitations of slavery behind the implications that the proceeds are ‘somehow tainted with madness’16, and the issue is avoided. There are ten explicit references to slavery in Jane Eyre, but consider only the slavery of Ancient Rome or the ‘misfortunes’ and slaveries of work as a governess.
The wider considerations of forced labour, oppression, subjugation and exploitation of the West Indian peoples to line the pockets of the bourgeois, patriarchal, Victorian male are omitted. But although issues such as these are not covered, the complex structure and dynamics of the novel in its representations of class and gender, how they interact or are subverted, allow, to some degree, the attitude that Bronte was working within the paradigms of the genre set by those very people. We must therefore accept that certain things, though unsaid, may be read into what is actually said.
The two main narratives in Wide Sargasso Sea both contribute to Rhys’s objectives in writing the book: to provide a sympathetic female perspective on the ‘madness’ of Bertha; and to locate and explore her self-identity. This need to explore her self-identity has many possible sources: A strong sense of West Indian nationalism generated amongst blacks in the forties and fifties, caused white West Indians, as Rhys saw herself to be, to re-evaluate their sense of identity18. This was particularly relevant in Rhys’ case, who felt alienated by England.
This unhappy experience and continual issatisfaction with England and Europe left her isolated, lonely and vulnerable. I believe her alcoholism and loneliness in the twilight of her life, fostered a need for cultural and emotional closure. Rhys recognised in Jane Eyre, or more specifically in Antoinette or Bertha, the victim of the same misrepresentations and cultural and political forces, that had impacted on her own early life. Her latent sense of alienation created in her the need to defend her cultural heritage, identify imperialist exploiters and exploitations, and provide a voice for herself and other Creole women.
Throughout the text, Rhys’s associations with, and affiliations to, black Dominican culture, and how it mirrors her own experiences, can be seen in her representations of Antoinette: Rejected by whites and striving for acceptance by blacks, yet ultimately lost (in the ‘gulf’? ) somewhere between the two. At the very beginning of the story, she finds warmth and solace in the company of Christophine following the rejections by her mother. She enjoys the company of Tia and at one point wears her dress; at which point she is again laughed at, and rejected by, the (significantly male) white party guests.
The giving over of the narrative to Rochester’s male perspective is seen by many critics to represent a significant achievement on Rhys’s part to incorporate the male perspective – something which she had been unable to do. But it may not be as simple as that. By presenting her from Rochester’s perspective, by extension we are dealing with Antoinette, the Creole woman and Dominica, from the English perspective: Bronte, Victorian England and the male. It also allowed a more objective distinction to be made to her attempt to locate her self-identity.
‘The … sire evident in Antoinette’s narrative, that is, to occupy the racial position not open to her, can only realise itself in the gaze of the Other’19. Antoinette’s association with the black perspective continues throughout the novel until, finally rejected by Rochester, and totally submissive and resigned to her fate, ‘No, I had no right, I am sorry. I don’t understand you. I know nothing about you, and I cannot speak for you.. ’20. she becomes a pathetic ‘marionette’, a ‘zombie’ unquestioningly compliant in her ‘madness’: in a way she had died the first of ‘her’ two deaths.
This sad image is reminiscent of Antoinette seeing her mother, ‘zombified’ in madness, yielding to Mr Luttrell: ‘I saw the man lift her up out of the chair and kiss her. I saw his mouth fasten on hers and she went all soft and limp in his arms and he laughed’. 21 But once at Thornfield, this sense of resignation turns to defiance: Reminiscent of the emancipated slaves who torched Coulibri, so Antoinette dreams of putting Rochester’s house to the torch. Enslaved destroying the sleeping enslaver. She once again sees her reflection in the mirror, a recurrent motif throughout the book connotative of a divided-self and madness.
Hearing footsteps her left hand this time holds her right wrist – a reflection of the way she had done before. She has become her reflection: the madwoman all claim to have seen, the madwoman she always feared she would become. In these moments (prior to death? ) she recalls moments of her early life at Coulibri: The brightly coloured bird, who, like Antoinette, had failed to escape because his wings had been clipped. She looks over the battlements and sees Tia, who beckons her to jump. Literally and metaphorically, the bird of paradise jumps to its death.
I began by considering the Sargasso Sea as a metaphor for a still, secure place where identity can be clearly defined as existing between Europe and the West Indies, yet remain undisturbed by the strong cultural and political forces that exist between the two. Jean Rhys was constantly at the mercy of such forces in her life: Her early years spent in Dominica, her family the descendants of the plantocracy class disempowered by the Emancipation Act, herself the daughter of a third generation Creole woman.
As a child she was emotionally ‘adrift’ and withdrawn, rejected by her mother and not for the last time in her life was isolated, lonely and vulnerable. She continually found herself within a male-dominated world of financial dependence, despite her childhood mistrust of the male figure as stable protector. Her feminine vulnerability was repeatedly exploited and her love rejected. It is understandable why she began her self-destructive cycle of alcohol abuse. I believe in Bertha she saw much of herself.
Bronte’s representations of Bertha and the sweeping, pernicious generalisations about Creole women must have been viciously offensive. Seeing Bertha as the rejected, isolated and vulnerable victim of Victorian patriarchal colonialism she sought to give her a voice. In giving her a voice, she also revisits her own childhood and life experiences, giving herself the chance to be heard: To locate herself, emotionally, culturally and in literary terms, within the many binary oppositions in the book. To find a stable and secure place like the Wide Sargasso Sea.