Jane Eyre

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It is possible to read and enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea without any knowledge of its relationship to Jane Eyre but an important dimension of the story will be missing. It is certain that Jean Rhys herself expected that her readers had a passing knowledge of Charlotte Brontë’s novel even if they didn’t know it in detail. In an interview in 1979 Jean Rhys said that, on reading Jane Eyre as a child, she resented the way in which Creole women were represented as mad and that this inspired her to present Bertha’s life from an alternative perspective, giving her a fuller history. Locating the genesis of her novel so directly and immediately in childhood reading may be an exaggeration. She was an old lady when this interview was given and had been delivering varying versions of the sources of Wide Sargasso Sea for some time. In an interview in 1979 Jean Rhys said that, on reading Jane Eyre as a child, she resented the way in which Creole women were represented as mad and that this inspired her to present Bertha’s life from an alternative perspective, giving her a fuller history. Locating the genesis of her novel so directly and immediately in childhood reading may be an exaggeration. She was an old lady when this interview was given and had been delivering varying versions of the sources of Wide Sargasso Sea for some time. What does seem to be true is that the novel took many years to write before its publication in 1966. The earliest reference to Wide Sargasso Sea is in one of Jean Rhys’ letters in 1945, although there are also indications that a manuscript of an earlier version called ‘Le Revenant’ was burnt during the war. The link with Jane Eyre was made explicit in a letter in 1949 when Rhys explained that the title for a new novel she was working on would be ‘The First Mrs Rochester’. Although by 1949 she claimed that the novel was semi-completed with the remainder mentally worked out, surviving letters don’t raise it again until 1957, when she re-read Jane Eyre in a copy borrowed from the public library in Bude. Rhys’ reaction to this encounter with Brontë’s Bertha was more negative, but it did re-establish a significant connection with her story.The novel evidently progressed in fits and starts with long gaps in which Jean Rhys did not work on it. 

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The relationship with Jane Eyre
Because of varying date references, it is difficult to date the action of Jane Eyrewith any certainty. Details of social behaviour, books and decorative taste often seem to belong to the early decades of the nineteenth century, but other references place it closer to the novel’s date of composition in the 1840s. Jean Rhys has specifically focused the historical period for her novel to a time when the white Creole planters were at the lowest point in their fortunes. According to the reader’s view of the dating of Jane Eyre she has either echoed or deliberately changed the time period of Brontë’s novel. ‘Writing back’

Stimulated by indignation against Charlotte Brontë’s ‘madwoman in the attic’Wide Sargasso Sea ‘writes back’ to the earlier novel. More than a dialogue between the two texts, this is an attempt to question, expose and correct a major English novel. -------------------------------------------------

Characterisation of Bertha in Jane Eyre
In Jane Eyre Bertha Mason is characterised as sub-human and like an animal: ‘In the deep shade, at the further end of the room a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing; and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a man, hid its head and face.’

(Jane Eyre , Vol. 2, Chap. 11)
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Depiction of the West Indies in Jane Eyre
Bertha’s home, the West Indies, is described by Rochester in hellish terms, as...
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