This is the first book in my second 'line' choice of 'Connective Reading'.
This is the book that tells the story about the 'mad woman in the attic' in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
Jean Rhys was born in Dominica and came to England when she was sixteen. She tried a lot of professions before she started writing. She was one of the artists in Paris in the 1920s and Ford Madox Ford helped her publish her first stories. She had not published anything since 1939 when she made this remarkable come back in 1966. It saw her win the Royal Society of Literature Award and the W.H. Smith Award. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966 and a CBE in 1978. She died in 1979, at the age of eighty-four.
Having had a background in Dominica, Jean Rhys was really suitable to write about Rochester's first wife who was born there. We don't get to know too much about her in Charlotte Brontë's book, just the tantalising information that Rochester discovered that she was mad as soon as he had married her. Since Jane Eyre is the main character in Brontë's book, and I guess we all want it to be the two of them in the end, we sort of dismiss Bertha (as Rochester calls her, in this book she is called Antoinette) and are also less inclined to like her.
This book gives a picture of her background and her sad story. Most of the story takes place in the West Indies. It is only people who have lived there a long time or are born there, that seem to like it. Everything seem different from England; the climate, the nature, the birds, the sun rise and sun set,
the blue sea and sky, the people, the religions, the poverty amidst the rich people, uprisings. It is one of these uprisings against the rich that changes the life for Antoinette. Their house is burnt down, her brother dies, her mother becomes crazy and her stepfather leaves her in her aunt's care.
When she has the right age she is promised to an Englishman in marriage, Mr. Rochester. The book is told from Antoinette's view in part one and three, and from Rochester's view in part two. Both their stories are set against the times in the West Indies and the complicated social structures. I really loved this story, and found it very touching. One can compare the two characters with the moths that continuously are drawn to the candles just to meet their death. Antoinette and Rochester are 'manipulated' into this marriage and discovers things about each other that they don't like. They are drawn to the ending of their story without being able to act. They do not have any chance at all, which makes it more sad. The third part is very short and covers Antoinette's time in England.
On leaving the island Rochester is exhausted by all the conflicting emotions that his stay has generated.
"I was tired of these people. I disliked their laughter and their tears, their flattery and envy, conceit and deceit. And I hated the place.
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.
So we rode away and left it - the hidden place. Not for me and not for her. I'd look after that. She's far along the road now."
The prose is beautiful and you feel with both characters. If you are a fan of Jane Eyre you have to read this book. Although it is written outside the scope of Jane Eyre it fits in very well. I really enjoyed Jean Rhys' writing and is eager to read more from her.