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Bookwise — Reader, I distrusted him

Someone just gave me P.D. James’s “Death at Pemberley”, a whodunit based on “Pride and Prejudice”. It is one of the increasingly common sequels and prequels that are now written to very popular novels.

Long before this parasitic mode of writing became widespread, Jean Rhys, a writer of dark talent, wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea”. It tells the story of Antoinette Bertha Mason of the West Indies, whom Charlotte Bronte fans instantly recognize as Rochester’s first wife in “Jane Eyre”, confined in his mansion’s attic rooms by day and wreaking havoc downstairs by night.

When I read “Jane Eyre” for the first time, or even the fifth time, I lamented the existence of that madwoman. If Jane had run off with Rochester, I felt, he would not have ended up a blind amputee. As I matured, I appreciated her more upright refusal to live with a married man: it showed self-respect, and she acquired some sensible cousins and a hefty legacy besides. When we deconstructed the novel in Eng Lit, I was taught that Jane effectively castrated Rochester, turning him from a masterful, aspiring bigamist into a manageable half-cripple, before joining her fate to his.

All that time I was oblivious of the madwoman in the attic, till I read “Wide Sargasso Sea”. Rhys’s novel reminds us that Rochester made his fortune in marrying Antoinette. He could have left her and her money on her island, but he chose to bring them both back to England. Yes, his greedy family rushed him into the marriage, but her family manipulated her into it. Then there is her madness, Rochester’s excuse for his cruelty in both novels. How could any woman stay sane so far from her native air, locked up, unwanted, unloved? Is it any wonder she sneaks out when she can to attack the man who has imprisoned her?

In Bronte’s novel, Jane, smitten as she is, remains on guard against her rich and domineering suitor. During their engagement she resists Rochester’s caresses and refuses his inappropriately lavish gifts. After their wedding is called off, she interrogates him about his marriage. She points out that his wife cannot help being mad. Rochester piles his justifications high (Antoinette drinks, she is unchaste, she is older than he thought, she is un-English), but Jane realises that if she surrenders to him, he will cast her off one day. And we must ask, if he had married Jane, what had he planned to do with Antoinette?

In Rhys’s novel, Antoinette’s story mirrors Jane’s. She has prophetic dreams, as Jane does, and they come in threes. She too grows up oppressed and unloved but, alas, without Jane’s admirable instinct of self-preservation. She never thinks to run away. Rhys’s writing is spare, moody, honest. Her characters are unforgettable. She writes of a colonial environment she knows well, and she shows up Rochester’s racism in a way Bronte could not. But both writers knew, as did Jane, to be very careful with a man who locked up his wife.


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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 11:23:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/bookwise-reader-i-distrusted-him/article3335809.ece

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