I never read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea until now. Rhys’s book is a prequel to Jane Eyre, a beloved book I have read many times. Every five years or so I pick it off the shelf and read it again. So it blows my mind that a different viewpoint has been available since 1966 that, with one read, would forever change my thinking and feelings about Jane and Mr. Rochester and Thornfield Hall. Until now, the mad woman in the attic was simply the mad woman in the attic, even after I learned she was Mr. Rochester’s wife. The twenty-one years it took Jean Rhys to produce her 112 page novella is worth all the labor of her research and writing. It gives us an authentic point of view of the hows and whys of a nineteenth century white Creole heiress, Antoinette (Bertha) Mason, essentially auctioned to the youngest and therefore disinherited son of a wealthy English aristocrat, Mr. Rochester. Through Wide Sargasso Sea we come to see the cruelty of Mr. Rochester as a young dispossessed man. He marries a beautiful Creole woman, rejects her physically, owns and uses her money, then imprisons her. Antoinette cannot hold onto her vibrant sexuality and spirituality in such a vacuum; she loses her mind.
In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the mad woman sets fire to Thornfield Hall and jumps off the roof. I did not feel sorry for her. I felt sorry for Mr. Rochester and the lied-to Jane. In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Mason Rochester sets fire to Thornfield Hall and jumps off the roof. I felt infinitely sorry for her and understand why she did it. I felt Mr. Rochester had his comeuppance. And Jane, Oh Jane, so feisty, but so naïve. Who would have thought you had so much in common with the first Mrs. Rochester?
The best friend of my cousin Dorothy’s husband, Jim, passed away on Saturday. “He was larger than life. He lived big. He loved life. He was loud, but underneath the kindest, sweetest person you could imagine. He had global significance as an artist, although he was not a celebrity. He greatly influenced and was a consistent encourager of my own work as an artist.” Jim’s words have set me to thinking, what remains after a person has died? Small life, big life, unknown life, known life; what does it all mean? Is the importance of someone’s life determined by how that person lives on in minds and/or hearts after he’s gone? Why can some people simply move on from death of a loved one, or react for one day to the loss of a person of national significance, such as a president, and then say and mean it’s time for the next?
My mother lives on in my mind and heart, larger than life. Our lives as women have inevitable historical differences. Her take on life was not the same as mine. She had a different emotional make-up. But there is a thread of strength in both of us and it has something to do with being a woman. In addition, her viewpoint informs my viewpoint.
I am glad Rhys reclaimed the real Antoinette and allowed her to have a sympathic place in my memory. I trust Jim’s best friend will live on in his memory. My mother will always be in mine.