In Jean Rhys’ magnificent, sensual, masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre‘s Mr. Rochester is no romantic hero. Rhys’ re-imagines how Mr. Rochester may have obtained the wife who so infamously dashes the chaste Jane’s dreams of marriage by her nightmarish presence in the Rochester attic, placing him in Spanish Town, Jamaica to receive a bride and 30,000 pounds in dowry with no provision made for his bride: Antoinette, the beautiful, mulatto daughter of a deceased mad woman.
Rochester makes no effort to instill any security in Antoinette or the stepfather who has sold her conveniently away during the wedding ceremony. When he reaches their honeymoon house, Rochester describes the scene himself:
Two wreaths of frangipani lay on the bed.
“Am I expected to wear one of these? And when?”
I crowned myself with one of the wreaths and made a face in the glass. “I hardly think it suits my handsome face, do you?”
“You look like a king, an emperor.”
“God forbid, I said and took the wreath off. It fell on the floor and as I went towards the window I stepped on it. The room was full of the scene of crushed flowers.
Soon, the man Rochester teaches Antoinette to love him but has only lust and disdain for her. “She was as eager for what’s called loving as I was — more lost and drowned afterwards” and rely upon him. And yet, he “did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.”
In Rhys’ novel, Edward eventually turns away from Antoinette, and it is her sexual frustration that drives her to become what we know as the madwoman in the attic. As described by Charlotte Bronte in the original: “the clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind feet. . . it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal.”
Re-reading Wide Sargasso Sea for this week’s book club discussion at the Carnegie Center, I found myself pondering Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. As Woolf, so much more eloquently than I could, said:
[…]any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published their famous theory – that Bertha is Jane’s alter ego (a personification of the rage engendered by pent-up female energy, especially sexual energy) – in 1979, in their co-authored book, The Madwoman in the Attic. But despite Gilbert and Gubar’s sophisticated comparisons of the patterns of metaphor and imagery common to Jane’s experiences and Bertha’s back-story, Bertha actually appears to be – among many other things – a figure who shows the potential fate of a woman who in her early life failed to assert herself (as Jane asserts herself) and who took refuge in commonplace thoughts and activities. Bertha sought freedom in promiscuity and drink, but Jane knows, as Mr Rochester has learnt, that that kind of behaviour is an illusion of freedom – for man as much as for woman. If Bertha is an echo of anyone in the novel, it is surely Blanche Ingram – the vacuous, conventional drawing-room beauty that Bertha herself once was, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Bertha is what happens when you have no true sense of a self, and the language used to describe Blanche and Bertha (in her youth) also bears comparison – they are raven-ringleted, dark-eyed and arrogant; and Blanche’s own mother is already exhibiting Bertha-like physical attributes: her features are ‘inflated and darkened’ and her eye is ‘fierce’.
The book is a feast for discussion in language and topic. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Book Club Menu:
Rum punch: See recipe https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/necessity-invention-and-wings-the-invention-of-wings-by-sue-monk-kidd/
Fried Plantains: Recipe Courtesy of Alton Brown, The Food Network
2 cups water
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
1 1/2 cups vegetable or canola oil
2 green plantains
Combine water, garlic and salt in medium size glass bowl and set aside.
In a large (12-inch) saute pan, heat oil to 325 degrees F. Peel plantains and slice crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Carefully add plantains to oil and fry until golden yellow in color, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes per side. (The oil should come halfway up the side of the plantain). With a spider or slotted spoon, remove the plantains from the pan and place them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, standing them on their ends. With the back of a wide, wooden spatula, press each piece of plantain down to half its original size. Then place the plantains in the water and let soak for 1 minute. Remove and pat dry with a tea towel to remove excess water.
Bring oil back up to 325 degrees F and return plantains to pan and cook until golden brown, approximately 2 to 4 minutes per side. Remove to a dish lined with paper towels, and sprinkle with salt, if desired. Serve immediately.
Fish en Papillote
This is my recipe and it’s easy. Use any fish you particularly like. Put several vegetables in the bottom of a brown paper lunch bag with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. Carrots, zucchini, summer squash, celery all work well. Place the fish on top of the vegetables and then fold the bag over to seal. Cook in 350 Degree oven for 20 minutes. Serve over brown rice.
Something wild and caribbean!
There’s been a movie made of Wide Sargasso Sea and it’s wonderful (and very sexy). http://youtu.be/tAzC5gSKM6E
Mulatto Woman, Joanna Boyce Wells
Mulatto Woman, Eugene Delacroix
Market Day, Agostino Brunias