What if your hero becomes the villain and your heroine the antagonist? What if one of your best loved stories becomes the account of the unfortunate and unjust destiny of the character you’ve always considered the obstacle to your heroine’s happiness?
You are asked to make a great effort and sympathize with the nemesis. Great effort that I tried to make while reading Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Bertha Mason (here Antoinette Cosway) , Mr Rochester’s first wife.
At first, I found it hard to be emotionally involved in the story. I read through the first part of the novel with a sensation of forced detachment. My will forced me not to get involved in young Antoinette's first – person fragmentary tale of her childhood and adolescence. I felt as if I couldn’t stand recognizing her as a real woman with her own hopes, fears, and desires and no longer as a cliché or a lunatic who had trapped my hero in an unwanted marriage.
Antoinette's story begins when she is a young girl in early nineteenth- century Jamaica. The white daughter of ex-slave owners, she lives on a run-down plantation called Coulibri Estate. Five years have passed since her father, Mr. Cosway, reportedly drunk himself to death, his finances in ruins after the passage of the Emancipation Act of 1833, which freed black slaves and led to the demise of many white slave owners. Throughout Antoinette's childhood, hostility flares between the crumbling white aristocracy and the impoverished servants they employ.
She is an extremely lonely young girl, her mother is not a loving presence and finally becomes mad. Antoinette's only companion, Tia, the daughter of a servant, turns against her unexpectedly and cruelly. Pierre , her brother dies for the consequences of a fire in which the girl herself is injured. She is sent to a convent to be educated by nuns where neither her aunt nor Mr Mason visit her – if not sporadically and , in the end, to announce her he wants to introduce her to some English acquaintances of him ...
Everything was extremely dramatic, even tragic but I couldn’t feel any sympathy.
Part II is narrated Antoinette's husband, an Englishman who remains nameless but is clearly Bronte’s Mr Rochester. After a wedding ceremony in Spanish Town, he and Antoinette honeymoon on one of the Windward Islands, at an estate that once belonged to Antoinette's mother. He begins to have misgivings about the marriage as they approach a town ominously called Massacre. He knows little of his new wife, having agreed to marry her days beforeonly because Richard Mason, her step-brother, offered him £30,000 if he proposed. Desperate for money, he agreed to the marriage.
When the couple arrives at Granbois, Antoinette's inherited estate, the man feels increasingly uncomfortable around the servants and his strange young wife. Hostility grows between the man and Christophine, Antoinette's surrogate mother and a servant who wields great power in the house. The man soon receives a menacing letter from Daniel Cosway, one of old Cosway's illegitimate children. Venomous in tone, letter warns of Antoinette's depravity, saying that she comes from a family of derelicts and has madness in her blood. After reading this letter, the man begins to detect signs of Antoinette's insanity.
Antoinette, sensing that her husband hates her, asks Christophine for a magic love potion. Christophine grudgingly agrees. That night, when the man confronts Antoinette about her past, they argue passionately. He awakes the next morning believing he has been poisoned, and he later sleeps with the servant girl, Amelie, who helps him recover. Sitting in the next room, Antoinette hears everything.
The next morning, Antoinette leaves for Christophine's. When she returns, she seems to be totally mad. Drunk and raving, she pleads with the man to stop calling her "Bertha," a name he has given her without explanation. Antoinette then bites her husband's arm, drawing blood. After she collapses and falls in bed, Christophine rails at him for his cruelty. That night, he decides to leave Jamaica with Antoinette.
I started feeling more and more involved and, recognizing Mr Rochester’s brooding , moody, stubborn character I couldn’t really accept what I was reading . I was amazed, disturbed, uneasy as if I were discovering a betrayal to my own self. My Mr Rochester couldn’t have been like that...but everything sounded so verosimile and plausible! If only he wasn’t so cruel, incredibly cruel.
Antoinette narrates Part Three from England, where she is locked away in her husband's house, guarded by a servant, Grace Poole. A hidden captive, Antoinette has no sense of time or place; she does not even believe she is in England when Grace tells her so. Violent and frenzied, Antoinette draws a knife on her stepbrother, Richard Mason, when he visits her. Later she has no memory of the incident. Antoinette has a recurring dream about taking Grace's keys and exploring the house's downstairs quarters. In this dream, she lights candles and sets the house ablaze. One night, she wakes from this dream and feels she must act on it. The novel ends with Antoinette holding a candle and walking down from her prison... : “Now I know why I was brought here and what I have to do”, she thinks.
Wide Sargasso Sea is usually taught as a postmodern and postcolonial response to Jane Eyre and I also chose to read it for this aspect. But what I was most interested in was the theme of identity, a very modern one and little Brontean.
“I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all”, says Antoinette (p. 63) Her descent into madness and eventual death (although we know about the latter from Jane Eyre and is not shown here ) can be seen as her spirit being crushed by the oppressive male world around her as her husband removes her identity. Her name, Antoinette Cosway, a symbol of her selfhood, is gradually taken from her: when her mother remarries she becomes Antoinette Mason, when she herself marries she becomes Antoinette Rochester and finally her husband insists on calling her Bertha.
The characters of Jane Eyre and Antoinette have been depicted as very different , actually opposed, by Charlotte Bronte. But I had to recognize their similarity while reading Rhys’s story. They are both independent, vivacious, imaginative young women with troubled childhoods, educated in religious establishments and looked down on by the upper classes — and, of course, they both marry Mr Rochester. However, Antoinette is more rebellious than Jane and less balanced, possibly because she has had to live through even more distressing circumstances. She displays a deep vein of morbidity verging on a death wish . Maybe she is not conforted by faith in her troubled life . In fact , in contrast with Jane's overt Christianity, Antoinette holds a cynical viewpoint of both God and religion in general and, maybe, this makes the greatest difference between them.
(The images in this post are taken from BBC Wide Sargasso Sea 2006
and BBC Jane Eyre 2006)
This was my sixth and last tasks for the All About The Brontes Challenge. Many thanks to Laura's Reviews blog who hosted this great event. You can find links to my previous tasks on the right sidebar.