Monday, May 7, 2018
Originally Published 1966
It is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress, from the time of her youth in Jamaica, to her unhappy marriage to a certain English gentleman—he is never named by the author. He renames her to a prosaic Bertha, declares her mad, and requires her to relocate to England. Caught in an oppressive patriarchal society in which she fully belongs neither to the Europeans nor the Jamaicans, Antoinette Cosway is Rhys' version of Brontë's devilish "madwoman in the attic."
This is my second shot at a review for this book. The first one simply wouldn't post and I've had to start all over. So if this review seems a little lacking, I'm going to chalk that up to not having the energy to spend another hour on it. Sorry about that.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is one of my all-time favorite books. Some people love to read spinoffs of their favorite reads; I'm not one of them. I don't want my beloved characters tinkered and the spinoffs aren't always very original. So I put off reading this book for a very long time once I realized what it was about. But it's always earned high praise and, eventually, that convinced me to read the book despite my reservations.
In Rhys' hands, Bertha is no longer relegated to being merely the "madwoman in the attic." Instead she becomes Antoinette, the Creole daughter of a Creole mother and an English former slave owner. In the aftermath of emancipation of the slaves and the death of her father, life for Antoinette is precarious. She and her mother are stuck in a no man's land where they are accepted by neither the whites nor the blacks. A predisposition to mental illness and life's circumstances conspire to drive this young woman mad. More and more, the people she trusts turn on her or disappear from her life, including, eventually, her husband. You can hardly blame a girl for trying to kill her husband and burn down his house given what's happened to her.
Rhys also gives readers a back story on Rochester to explain his bitterness and anger in Jane Eyre but it's much harder to be sympathetic toward him. Boo hoo, you're the second son of a wealthy man. Maybe instead of marrying for money, you might have thought about getting a job.
As much the story of these two characters, this book is also the story of the West Indies in the aftermath of slavery. Rhys explores the hierarchy of the people who inhabit the islands and the mutual dependence that remains between the former slaves and their former owners. She also looks at the ways in which a woman's life was completely dependent on men - what they were forced to put up with and how the lose of a man impacted their lives. I can see why this book is a staple in university literature; there is a lot to chew on here.
The islands themselves come alive as well, both their beauty and the way that nature will take back what man has tried to claim.
I'm very glad I gave this book a chance; I will certainly be thinking about it the next time I reread Jane Eyre. Which I'm thinking needs to be sooner rather than later.