Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I find that I don’t talk enough about the stuff I read. Other than the review of my 2018 reading list in January, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it much, even though I have repeatedly said how important I think reading is to being an effective writer. So I thought I would therefore take a moment and talk about a novel I recently finished and that had more profound effect on me than I had expected.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 novel by Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys, and acts as a kind of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. I’m about to delve into some heavy spoilers for Jane Eyre so consider this your fair warning.
I had read Jane Eyre when I was undergrad, and recall not particularly enjoying it. I much preferred the works of Jane Austen, and didn’t much care for the gloominess of Jane Eyre, though I suppose that was kind of the point of the genre. In any case, I knew what I was reading was good, but it wasn’t my thing.
What did leave a big impression on me was how much I despised Rochester, the main love interest and the man Jane ends up with in the end. I couldn’t stand the archetypal brooding dark male lead, essentially the human equivalent of a wang-shaped monument to 19th century British patriarchy. And the cherry on top was that he kept his mentally ill wife Bertha locked up in the attic, which given the state of mental facilities in England at the time may or may not have been a mercy, but that’s besides the point. Mr. Darcy he definitely was not.
So what Jean Rhys gave us in Wide Sargasso Sea, is the back story of Bertha (nee Antoinette) and a whole pile of reasons to hate Rochester even more. The novel follows Antoinette’s story – her childhood and adolescence in Jamaica, eventual marriage to Rochester and her precipitous decline into the mental state we witness in Jane Eyre.
Antoinette is presented as someone who is able to rise above tragedy – her family estate is burned down (the colonial aspects of this book are problematic, but it was written in the sixties, after all), her developmentally delayed brother dies in the fire, her mother suffers a break and then dies alone as Antoinette is raised in a convent. Now into her adulthood, she’s ready to reconcile all that has happened her and make the best of her life in Jamaica along with her remaining friends and servants (there’s that colonialism poking its ugly head out again).
But then comes Rochester, here presented as a younger brother who’s unlikely to get a sniff of the family fortune so he’s shipped off to the West Indies to marry rich. It is exceedingly easy to dislike Rochester from the get go. He is whiny, he is suspicious, he is racist, he will literally complain about anything including that the plants are too green. He marries Antoinette, somewhat reluctantly, and shockingly he never once complains about the fat dowry, though his endgame remains largely unclear.
Here’s where I start going into some spoilers, so even though the end of the novel is a foregone conclusion, if you want to maintain some mystery, you can skip to the last three paragraphs of this entry.
Though Antoinette also had her own major reservations about the marriage, she approaches it with her usual attitude of making the best out of her lemons, and she develops what appear to be genuine feelings for Rochester. Her husband, a suspicious man who thinks even the wilderness is out to get him, in turn eats with a spoon any vile rumor he hears about his wife and becomes convinced he’s been given “tainted goods”. Considering he never truly treats Antoinette as a human, this is a disturbing but apt description of his thoughts.
Despite the already less-than-flattering portrait the novel had painted of Rochester, there was still room for more outrage. In fact, at one point I had to set the book in my lap and stare out the bus window before I could regroup and tackle the conclusion of the novel. Rochester fully embraces believing nothing but the worst about his wife, and channels all his feelings into vindictive rage.
He basically attempts to write the textbook on gaslighting, choosing to call her “Bertha”, also one of her given names but one she does like using. He just flat-out states she’s more like a Bertha, and her opinion on the subject of how others should refer to her doesn’t matter. A theme that seems to resonate quite loudly in modern times as well. Oh, and did I not mention that he also sleeps with one of the servants while across a thin partition from his ailing wife, and then basically chocks up anything she does in response as an overreaction. Yeah, he’s swell.
Rochester’s completely demented obsession to hurt Antoinette can be summarized with the following quote: “She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass. Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other.” That has to send a chill down your spine. Not laugh in the sun again? This paints Rochester’s motivations to lock her up in the attic as a direct attempt to destroy her humanity, to deprive her of simple joy because he can and because he feels justified.
I know Brontë did not intend for him to have such a dark backstory, but Rhys’ version of the character fitted in so perfectly with my own abysmally low opinion of Rochester, that the two have been inexorably linked in my mind. As far as I’m concerned, this is Rochester.
Wide Sargasso Sea is also a perfect illustration of the importance of the public domain. While something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is awesomely creative, its mostly a vehicle for light entertainment (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m a strong proponent that there is little distinction between entertaining art and “arty” art) and doesn’t necessarily transform the original work. But in this case, it’s such a meaningful expansion of the story – bringing to light a character shrouded in darkness and casting into darkness a character that was supposed to provide the heroine with light.
I’m glad I picked up Wide Sargasso Sea and I would recommend it to anyone who’s read Jane Eyre, especially Rochester-haters like myself.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.