How and why are selected canonical texts re-written by female authors? Answer with close reference to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.
The Sargasso Sea is a relatively still sea, lying within the south-west zone of the North Atlantic Ocean, at the centre of a swirl of warm ocean currents. Metaphorically, for Jean Rhys, it represented an area of calm, within the wide division between England and the West Indies. Within such an area, a sense of stability, permanence and identity may be attained, despite the powerful, whirling currents which surround it. But outside of this ‘sea’, one may be destabilised, drawn away by these outside forces, into the vast expanse of ‘ocean’ between the West Indies and Europe. Outside of these metaphorical and geographical oceanic areas, one may become the victim of these currents, subject to their vagaries and fluctuations, no longer able to personally define, with any certainty, where one is culturally or geographically located.
For Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre depicted representations of a Creole woman and West Indian history which she knew to be inaccurate. ‘Bertha Mason is mad; and she came from a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations. Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!’ She is further described as having a ‘discoloured face’, ‘a savage face’ with ‘fearful blackened inflation’ of the features, ‘the lips were swelled and dark’; described as a demon, witch, vampire, beast and hyena1. But nowhere in the novel does Bronte allow ‘the madwoman in the attic’ to have a voice, to explain what may have caused her madness. Rhys says: ‘The mad wife in Jane Eyre always interested me. I was convinced that Charlotte Bronte must have had something against the West Indies and I was angry about it. Otherwise, why did she take a West Indian for that horrible lunatic, for that really dreadful creature?’2 So in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys rewrites Bronte’s canonical text according to her own, personal experiences, as both a white West Indian and a woman.
But, giving Antoinette a voice, she exposes truth behind madness: The history of the land in which she lived, and the role of the woman in it, was a tale of Victorian, patriarchal values and colonial exploitation; polarised ideology, division and confrontation in racial, cultural, sexual and historical issues. In a literary sense, Antoinette’s voice, once heard, would not only offer mitigating reasons for her madness, but would ensure that Jane Eyre could never be read without her voice being heard ever again.
Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as a historical-novel. She was able to incorporate elements of detailed factual history of Dominica: including slavery, colonialism and external conflicts over proprietorship; as well as how these issues related to her fictional characters. Although not strictly autobiographical, Rhys uses cultural and topographical descriptions to both illustrate her own experiences in Dominica in the early, formative years of her life and to authenticate what she says. She sets her fiction in a time of upheaval and disruption in Dominica, following the emancipation of slaves, and in order to do so shifts the approximate dates used in Jane Eyre, but the significance of this shift is almost imperceptible, except in that it emphasises the plight of the Creole planter, rather than that of the emancipated slave.
The historical-fictional content of Wide Sargasso Sea is, by design, a prequel, or (p)review of Jane Eyre. Rhys called an early draft of the text Le Revenant: something that comes back, haunts, revisits. I think the ‘haunting’ and ‘revisiting’ between Rhys and Jane Eyre is reciprocal. Here, she herself revisits her youth, through Antoinette, to experience Dominica in a way which previews...
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