In The Shadows of Thornfield Hall
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is truly one of the most renowned masterpieces of classic English literature. The heroine and the evocative atmosphere left so much to be desired. One more facet that loomed above the narrative is Thornfield Hall, the abode of Edward Fairfax Rochester. Thornfield Hall, as is characteristic of Gothic literature, is a sweeping structure filled with several rooms, some occupied, some not. One of the denizens of this multi-roomed house is Bertha Antoinetta Mason, the first wife of Rochester. The deterioration of her mental being led her to being locked up by her husband in Thornfield Hall’s attic. But who is this enigmatic woman and what story does she have in store?
In her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys endeavored to draw and create a definitive profile to an infamous character most readers only know as the “madwoman in the attic”. The narrative commenced in the Coulibri Estate, a sugar plantation in the Dominica. The novel’s primary heroine was introduced as Antoinette Cosway, a name she carried until her husband gave her a new name, Bertha. The Cosways were once an affluent Creole family but was hit harshly with the enforcement of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 which ended slavery in the British Empire on August 1, 1834.
With the abolition of slavery, the family estate fell in to a state of disrepair. Coulibri lost its former glory and the family plunged into inevitable poverty. To save her family from what is an imminent ruination, Annette Cosway, Antoinette’s mother, remarried to Richard Mason, a wealthy Englishman. Mason, however, was no gentleman. Deceitful and complicit, he exploited Cosway’s vulnerability to win her hand. As the Cosways recovered from their slump, the freed slaves still living in Coulibri were driven to anger. Incredulous of oppressors’ renewed prosperity, they scorched Annette’s house, and in the process, killing Antoinette’s younger brother, Pierre.
“It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English woman call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”~ Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
Following the failure of her earlier works, with her 1939 work Good Morning Midnight being the last straw, Jean Rhys, born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, disappeared into obscurity. Her closest friends tried to locate her to no avail. All trails went cold, and they had no recourse but to believe that the once promising writer she has passed away. Little did they know that Rhys has been living a reclusive existence in Cornwall. It took a fellow writer, Francis Wyndham’s, persistent sleuthing to finally uncover her whereabouts. With her return, she published her last novel, the novel that would define her career as many pundits believe it to be the best of her works – Wide Sargasso Sea.
Drawing inspiration from one of the most popular literary titles, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Rhys Rather than Jane Eyre, Rhys was fascinated by one other figure in the novel. The “mad woman in the attic”, the first Mrs. Rochester, was a specter that haunted Rhys. Her mind was brimming with images of what her story could possibly be. What drove her to madness? How did she find herself in the attic of Thornfield Hall. As history would have it, this quandary led to the conception of Wide Sargasso Sea. Whilst the novel was established as a prequel to Jane Eyre, the novel does not reduce itself into a mere retelling of the original. Whilst both narratives were bound by indelible threads, each has distinct storylines that they can be read with little consequence to the other.
Wide Sargasso Sea was divided into three parts. The first part was related through the perspective of a younger Antoinette. It concluded with the eruption of the violence that arose from the lingering resentments between the freed slaves and their former owners. In the second part, the narrative weaves in and out of two perspectives, that of the newlyweds – Antoinette and her dashing English husband. Ironically, the husband remained anonymous in the entire text. In the last part, the perspective shifts yet again, now back to Antoinette. However, Antoinette has now acquired a new identity – that of Bertha – locked up in the attic of the formidable Thornfield Hall.
In her literary comeback, Rhys also drew from her knowledge of the West Indies. By traveling to the place she grew up in, Rhys managed to paint a rich and evocative background to the story of Antoinette. Rhys underlined several seminal themes that prevailed pre- and post-slavery abolition. She did not shy away from depicting and exploring the uncomfortable truths of British colonialism. Rhys managed to capture the widening gap between former slaves, and their owners, post-emancipation. The long history of slaveholding has left too many wounds and the scars remained visible despite the abolition of slavery.
“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”~ Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
An atmosphere of anger permeated throughout the earlier parts of the novel. With the percolations of slaves’ sentiments, a new theme begun to unfold, that of race and identity. It came no surprise that the freed slaves of the Cosways harbored resentments towards their former owners. When the Cosways fell into dire straits following the abolition of slavery, they were openly loathed by the island’s black denizens. As they find themselves deeper into the quagmires of poverty, the Cosways were referred to as “white niggers” by the locals.
Antoinette’s husband also echoed the same sentiments. He looked down on his wife because she was born a Creole: “Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.” Despite having English ancestry, she was born in Jamaica. Because of the pallor of her skin, she was disowned by the Jamaicans. Because she was born overseas and grew up in a non-European environment, she was not considered English. She was neither fully Jamaican nor fully English, floating in between two clashing cultures, never fully sure of what her heritage is. It was this lack of identity that her husband exploited. After their marriage, she assumed a new identity, and was declared a madwoman by her husband.
In a way, the story of Antoinette is a reflection of the author’s own. Both born to English parents and grew up in the West Indies. Rhys had a turbulent relationship with her mother. She was not accepted by the locals despite being able to speak the local French patois, as well as English. She did not find acceptance in the company of the English either. Sent to London at the age of 16, she was ridiculed by her schoolmates for her accent. Her instructors also despaired her inability to learn “proper English”. Both struggled to be accepted. Whilst Antoinette went mad, Rhys pursued a path so contrary to the life she assumed after she started writing.
The premise of the narrative was interesting, and this interest was sustained in the strong start to the novel, as the Rhys painted the turbulent history of the West Indies through the voice of Antoinette. The novel begun to unravel as the perspective shifted in the second part. The part of the novel narrated by Antoinette’s husband was never fully convincing. Whilst his part gave a different perspective, it also undermined the impact Antoinette created in the earlier part. The voices got confused and there were parts that the husband begun to sound like Antoinette. In the end, Rhys ditched the husband and reused Antoinette to conclude the narrative.
“I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty. Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was – more lost and drowned afterwards.”~ Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
The inconsistency in the structure weighed down on the narrative. However, despite the flawed execution, Rhys redeemed herself with her writing. She has exhibited what she was truly capable of as a writer. By accentuating the narrative with rich details of the local culture, Rhys demonstrated the depth of her knowledge and the extent of her research. She capably handled the subjects with deft hand.
It did take years before Rhys finally find the voice to reestablish a career she once left behind. She redeemed herself with Wide Sargasso Sea. Despite its length and its flaws, it is a powerful literary piece that is packed with heavy punches. With acuity, Rhys wrote a lush narrative that is both anti-colonial and feminist in nature. It is the story of an unheard voice in literature but it is also the story of female voices long suppressed by the patriarchy. It may have been Rhys’ last novel, but it was what has defined her literary career. In assimilating the story of her childhood with a popular and timeless classic, Rhys managed to produce an equally stellar literary masterpiece that is bound to transcend time.
Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
I can’t recall when I first encountered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. I believe it was during the infancy of my growing interest in reading classic literary works. I think it was going through must-read lists that I first came to know about this, I have later on learned, literary classic. Ever since then, my interest was piqued, especially by the novel’s distinct title. “What and where is this wide sea the novel is referring to?” was the first question that filled my mind. It took a couple of years before I managed to purchase a copy of the book and a couple more years (three I guess) before I got to read Wide Sargasso Sea. When I bought the book, what surprised me the most was its length. I expected it to be longer than 124 pages. Nevertheless, I looked forward to reading it and 2020 gave me that opportunity. Rhys created an interesting story to the aforementioned first Mrs. Rochester juxtaposed on the history of the Caribbean British territories. The novel gave a rich and thought-provoking insights on colonialism, racism, and feminism. I just wished the novel was longer but even with 124-pages, Rhys managed to pull off a feat that other writers can’t with 400 to 500 pages.
Author: Jean Rhys
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publishing Date: 2000
Number of Pages: 124
Genre: Romance, Historical
Born into an oppressive colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. After their marriage, disturbing rumours begin to circulate, poisoning her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is driven towards madness.
About the Author
Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams was born on August 24, 1890 in Roseau or Grand Bay, British Leeward Islands (now Dominica).
Rhys was educated in Dominica until she was 16, when she was sent to London to live with an aunt amidst her troubled relationship with her mother. She attended Perse School for Girls in Cambridge and also attended two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. However, Rhys never managed to fit in because she cannot speak “proper English”. Unwilling to return to the Caribbean, Rhys begun working as a chorus girl, touring small British towns. Following the death of her father in 1910, Rhys drifted into a living a life as a demimondaine.
Her writing career begun after her first marriage broke up. Living in Paris, through the prodding of Ford Madox Ford, she published a collection of stories in 1927 titled The Left Bank. Ford even wrote an enthusiastic introduction to Rhys’ debut work. Rhys soon followed it up with Quartet (originally Postures, 1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning Midnight (1939). Unfortunately, not one was particularly successful and with the failure of Good Morning Midnight, Rhys went incognito.
Rhys reappeared 20 years later after writer Francis Wyndham managed to trace her living reclusively in Cornwall. During those years, she accumulated stories later published as a collection titled Tigers are Better-Looking. In 1966, she made a literary comeback with Wide Sargasso Sea. It was sensational and critical success, earning her the Royal Society of Literature Award and the W.H. Smith Award. Her last published work before her death in May 14, 1979 was Sleep It Off Lady. Smile Please, her unfinished autobiography was published posthumously later in 1979. Rhys was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966 and a CBE in 1978.