Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reading group: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Ann suggested this short novel, which takes the character of Rochester's mad wife Bertha, incarcerated in the attic in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and tells the story of her life, chiefly in her own words but also with sections related by Rochester. As Ann said, she is a gap in the Bronte novel, and this novel fills the gap. Ann had previously read the book on the recommendation of her English teacher when she was a teenager struggling with Jane Eyre, and then she had enjoyed it as an interesting prequel, but this time around she had found a lot more in it. This time she found it a very dense book, in which every word and sentence matter - at which several people nodded in agreement - and was afraid that as she had had to read it quickly at the last minute this time she hadn't given it the careful reading she felt it needed.

The book takes as its cue the short section from Jane Eyre in which Rochester relates to Jane how he was tricked into an arranged marriage in Jamaica with his Creole wife who then turned out to be mad, and recreates those circumstances from a different perspective. Here Bertha is Antoinette, the name by which she went before Rochester insisted on calling her Bertha - and we are presented with her vivid and evocative memories of a lonely and emotionally deprived childhood as the daughter of a deceased slave owner and his grieving and fearful widow. Descendants of the original English colonials, ostracised and indeed threatened by the ex-slave community in post-Emancipation Jamaica, Antoinette, her congenitally disabled younger brother and her distracted and grieving mother live in isolation and increasing poverty. When her mother remarries wealthy Mr Mason, a new colonial, they seem 'saved', but he is incapable of understanding the social situation. His failure to heed his wife's warnings about the resentment of the ex-slaves leads to a tragedy which impels her towards complete emotional breakdown and loss of control, resulting in her incarceration in a 'safe' house where she eventually dies. It is this 'madness', along with the infirmity of Antoinette's (also now dead) brother, which a jealous and disowned half-brother of Antoinette's, her father's son by one of his former slaves, uses to poison Rochester against Antoinette, convincing him of her incipient madness. Antoinette has been at first unhappy to be trapped in a forced union to a man who needed her wealth and now, according to English law, owns it (in reality she is in love with a second cousin, Sandi, who is also the descendant of slaves, but she must be married off to someone of pure English descent), but subsequently ecstatically sexually seduced by her new husband Rochester, only to have him then turn cold and even hostile towards her. She reacts in a deeply emotional (and non-English) way that only confirms the warnings about her. It is now that Rochester begins to call her Bertha, the second name that she shared with the mother whom everyone now takes for granted was mad. By the end of their short honeymoon in her old family house on Dominica, he has categorised her as lunatic, and plans already to incarcerate her:
White faces, dazed eyes, aimless gestures, high-pitched laughter... She's one of them. I too can wait - for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or  lie...
The final short and harrowing section is related by Antoinette from the attic room in Thornfield Hall, where she is now truly deranged by the isolation and the lack of knowledge of where she is, why she is kept there and why her husband doesn't come to her.

This precis of mine makes the thrust of the novel, in terms of plot, seem much clearer than it does on a first reading. The prose is highly economical, as Ann pointed out, and there is a focus on the emotional rather than the factual dimensions of the story. Information about the factual circumstances is often slipped in only subtly and even indirectly - a perhaps inevitable and even calculated effect in a story of cultural confusion and increasing psychological derangement. I found that on a first reading, concentrating on the emotional element, which is indeed complex and subtle, I missed some of these points of fact and I wasn't absolutely clear about the sequence of events and therefore of some of the causes and effects, and it was only on a second reading that the whole thing fell beautifully into shape for me as above. Not only did Ann feel she had read the book too quickly, but Jenny hadn't yet reached the final section, and Doug, who had read it years ago but is moving house and has all of his books packed away, hadn't managed to find it to read it again, and as a result there was a fair bit of doubt and discussion about fairly radical aspects of the book.

Ann considered that it was a book about people in new places and/or situations they don't understand and in which they don't know how to cope - the ex-slaves and both the old and new colonials in the post-Emancipation West Indies, and the two young people forced by their families into their cross-cultural marriage. (Rochester is especially hurtled into it: arriving in Jamaica only three weeks before the marriage his family have arranged to  a woman unknown to him, he is immediately struck down by illness and spends a large part of that time in a fever - which he will later look back on as a way in which he was cheated of finding out about Antoinette in time.) And indeed, when Ann looked up the book on the internet, she found it called 'the original post-colonial novel'.

This led to quite a lot of sharing by group members of factual information about colonialism, slavery, multiculturalism and the history of the West Indies. Taking the focus back to the book, Jenny said she felt sorry for most of the characters, including Rochester, who is also a victim of a social system (expected to maintain his social status but impoverished by primogeniture and consequently manipulated by his family into this marriage, and of course entirely innocent of the West Indies social situation into which he is plummeted). Along with most others, I agreed with this last, though up to a point. By allocating sections of the book to Rochester's first-person narrative, Rhys does give an insight into Rochester's predicament. However, I felt that the book had a more feminist message than had  been noted so far in our discussion. Victim of a patriarchal society though Rochester may be, nevertheless he undoubtedly ends up with the patriarchy-sanctioned power to save himself by destroying and negating Antoinette. I felt that this book was taking up a point made on more than one occasion by Jane Eyre (who narrates the Bronte novel) that women and children are not the sweet, angelic creatures they are thought to be and meant to be and that women can have tumultuous emotions and the same ambitions as men. Rhys seems to me specifically to develop this point and the notion that is thus implicit, if not actually tackled, in the Bronte novel, that behaviour in women not sanctioned by a patriarchal society is merely called madness, a repression which ironically however can induce true derangement. John agreed (and recalled our discussion of Tender is the Night and its so-called mad character Nicole, a novel in which the author seems less aware of such a notion). (People seemed initially a little taken aback by the idea that Jane Eyre could be considered feminist, with its heroine in love with a distant, brooding and even cruel man, but no one apart from John had read it recently - he went back to it after reading the Rhys book - and Trevor hadn't read it at all, although he had seen a film adaptation. We reminded everyone that although Jane 'gets her man' in the end, she does so on her own terms, as, finally, a rich and thus independent woman, and when, as Trevor put it, Rochester has been emasculated, blinded and having lost his right hand - indeed 'punished' by the backfiring of his own action in incarcerating Bertha/Antoinette.)

Doug however, not having read the Rhys book recently either, was unconvinced that Antoinette was not congenitally mad - after all, wasn't her mother mad before her? This led to some general discussion about what constitutes madness, but pinning it back to the book, those of us who had read it more recently insisted that there were circumstances which had driven Antoinette's mother to  distraction - although I think we omitted to mention the crucial and precipitating one, the tragic death of Antoinette's brother. Explaining Antoinette's own 'madness', Clare pointed to her emotionally deprived and fearful childhood, and her consequent emotional vulnerability in the situation into which she is forced with Rochester. Still Doug worried about it all: but to have been in such a state that she was incarcerated? Once again, as in our discussion of Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, he was met with a chorus of protest that throughout history women have been incarcerated as mad simply for unacceptable or emotional behaviour, and once again Jenny said that it happened to an aunt of her own.

I said that I thought the theme of obeah (or voodoo) in the novel was not simply a function of cultural difference but was put to specifically feminist use. In fact, the implication is that it is not a point of difference: Rochester's insistence on calling Antoinette Bertha, the name of her 'mad mother', is indeed a kind of voodoo, and Antoinette recognises this: ' "That's obeah, too." '  A patriarchal system which calls women submissive, and mad when they fail to be so, allows them no other way to be and locks them into one or other of those states. Rochester himself is half-conscious of his own voodoo-type power: having decided to hate Antoinette and destroy her hatred for him, he says, 'I did it too. I saw the hate go out of her eyes. I forced it out... Say die and I will die.'

In a similarly ironic way, it is at this point that the prose of Rochester's first-person narrative changes and adopts rhythms, images and conceits similar to those of Antoinette's, implying similar mental breakdown: 'I thought I saw that tree strike its roots deeper, making ready to fight the wind.' In a further twist of irony, this is when he finally decides that he is sane: 'All the mad conflicting emotions had gone and left me wearied and empty. Sane.'

People commented on the descriptions of nature, its beauty and yet its sinister character to both Antoinette as a child and the adult Rochester, and the jungle that threatens to encroach on Antoinette's ancestral and honeymoon home, another very real way in which the characters are  overpowered by an alien environment. I said I thought that the weather was also used in a symbolic way: at the point when Rochester finally hardens against Antoinette and asserts his English patriarchal values over her, the weather changes and becomes, in his words, 'cool, calm and cloudy as an English summer.'

John now read out a passage from the section in Jane Eyre where Rochester explains and justifies himself to Jane, saying that, actually, reading Wide Sargasso Sea had rather spoilt Jane Eyre for him. As John was indicating, in the light of Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester comes over here as utterly self-centred, indeed selfish, lacking in empathy and cruel: in fact, the passage almost reads as satirical, yet one is aware that Bronte, while not dealing with him uncritically, is not intending satire. Interestingly and ironically, as Clare pointed out, because Rhys provides some insight into his predicament, he comes over less badly in her novel of cultural and feminist redress. Trevor, however, didn't agree. In his view the Rochester of Wide Sargasso Sea was 'a bloody plonker, a Grade One.'

There was now some discussion as to whether it was necessary to know Jane Eyre in order to appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea, and opinion was divided, or at any rate uncertain. I said that surely it was necessary (ie to truly appreciate it), since it was a work of redress and the original was so explicitly flagged. (It truly is harrowing to have one's previous perceptions of the ghostly threat in the attic overturned by the final section of Wide Sargasso Sea, an experience that would not be available to you if you did not know Jane Eyre.) But then Doug said that once again we come up against the impotence of authors in the face of the way that readers read.

At any rate, everyone agreed that, short as it is, it had been a difficult book to read, and whether this was because none of us had recently read Jane Eyre beforehand it wasn't really possible to know. Trevor seemed to have found it the hardest (and he was the one who had never read Jane Eyre, though of course he had seen a film adaptation): he said he really had to struggle with it and force himself to go on reading, and although he is the one in the group who enjoys most books, as a result he hadn't enjoyed this.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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