Unlike Austen, who I always had a passing curiosity about, I never much thought about the Brontës. I vaguely knew of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights but I couldn’t have even told you there was a third sister, let alone a drunken brother in the mix. That all changed senior year of undergrad. They offered two senior seminars that fall (required to graduate): One on the Brontës and one on memory or something like that. Obviously, the Brontës were going to win. Plus, bonus, my favorite professor was teaching it. It remains one of my favorite classes of all time. I discovered Anne Brontë, realized Emily Brontë was a lovable nineteenth century nutcase and that Charlotte was rather, well, unlikable. Branwell was just entertaining in my mind. Three of the strongest women in history depending on their brother to save them all? Sad and ironic that the three of them made it further as Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell than their brother was ever sober enough to dream of.
Anne is still my favorite and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a delight to re-read whenever I need a reality check. Anne, unlike her sisters, seemed to understand the messiness of life and was able to portray it without creepy ghosts, unhealthy love triangles, and women locked in attics. That said, most people don’t know about Anne, the youngest of the siblings to make it to adulthood. They know of Emily and her Heathcliff and her experiments into poetry that were considered shocking for her time. And, of course, they know of Charlotte, who wrote one of the most beloved literary heroines of all time.
I still enjoy re-reading Jane Eyre; my marginal notes from class may entertain me as much as the actual story when I pull out my Norton. Jane is always practical and cautious, except when she falls for the guy who is already married. Rochester remains stubborn and whimsical; a man who can still joke and yet is terrifying when thwarted. And then there is Bertha, his mad wife locked in the attic who is nearly the ruin of them all.
Jean Rhys turned her eye to Bertha’s story in Wide Sargasso Sea. She introduces us to Antoinette, a young girl who is neither white nor black in an island world where to be neither is a sin. Her mother slowly goes mad after the death of her brother and Antoinette comes of age in a convent until her marriage is arranged by her stepbrother to a young Rochester who needs to marry for money. These two strangers journey to a childhood retreat of Antoinette’s and slowly realize they have both been deceived into marriage. Following a disaster, Rochester returns home and hires Grace Poole to watch over his mad wife, now called Bertha, in the attic at Thornfield Hall.
I, if you haven’t caught on, love a story which takes the villain and examines how they came to be perceived as such. Antoinette is complicated and confused. Her life has been one long chain of pain and anger. Her mother rejects her, her stepfather ignores her until she is of use to him, her aunt tries to help but then turns away when Antoinette refuses to help herself. It reads as a tragedy, two young people, Antoinette and Rochester, put together by outside forces and destined to destroy each other in the end. Neither comes off well in Rhys’ version. Antoinette is frustrating and whiny; she seems to speak, think and act in riddles. I did not trust her but at the same time, realized the constrictions of the world she lived within. Saying no to Rochester was not actually a valid choice for her at all.
Rochester, on the other hand, comes across even more imperious and impulsive than in Jane Eyre. He seems to find the tropical world he finds himself in interesting and yet frightening at the same time. He has much the same reaction to his new wife actually. He finds her exotic and irresistible but he does not like or trust her. In the end, Rochester, of course, wins. He reaches his breaking point and flees to England long enough to drop his wife off before taking off to the Continent. Rhys gives us one last glimpse of Antoinette in exile, locked in an attic unable to believe she is in England, thinking they’ve taken a wrong turn. She is clearly out of her mind and yet she makes more sense in this part than others. We learn what happened with Sandi, the man she loved, about her voyage to England, and about her life at Thornfield where she wanders the halls once Grace drinks herself to sleep.
I kept waiting for my feminist bone to kick in and enrage me on Antoinette’s behalf. I mean, Rochester locks her in an attic people! It always concerned me when Jane didn’t seem worried about that fact so much. At the same time, Antoinette is unlikable, she is manipulative and cagey. I trust Rochester’s word over hers. Perhaps it just shows how ingrained the male right is in our cultural psyche. I was sorry for Antoinette but not enough to change my mind about the character in general. She wasn’t made into a hero like Elphaba in Wicked or Iris in Confessions of a Ugly Stepsister (hmm, seeing a Gregory Maguire pattern here but moving on), she is still a villain but a villain placed into the context of the villains who made her as she was.