At its core, Jane Eyre is a love story; an amalgamation of classic fairy tales in which the origins of the ‘wicked witch’ are smoothed over and forgotten. The villain in this case being the first Mrs Rochester who is used as a device for Bronte to tether the central conflict of the story - she is not a character but a caricature of the ignorant Victorian attitude towards that which is foreign. In response to reading Jane Eyre shortly after moving to England from the Caribbean Jean Rhys, being of the same heritage as Bertha and therefore having a valuable insight into the mind of this mythologised creature, saw Bronte's representation of a Creole woman as unfair. Consequently Rhys began to write Wide Sargasso Sea, developing the symbolic madwoman into a character by providing her with the voice and story that Bronte denied her.
By giving a marginal character centre stage, Rhys’ novel breaks Jane Eyre open revealing the flaws in 19th century British attitudes towards race, sexuality and mental illness. Rhys’ short novel exposes the raw nerves of Bronte's work, shaking out the messages encoded into the imagery and symbolism of the novel and reworking Jane Eyre by telling the story of how and why the anathematised Bertha Mason came to be ‘the mad woman in the attic’ (Gilbert & Gubar, 1979).
Although the two are distinctly different novels, steeped in the attitudes of their time, they serve as lecterns from which their author can preach. Rhys calls on the collective guilt of a gender and social class by demonising the Rochester character, whereas Bronte oppresses the Creole woman by reducing her to a series of animalistic qualities. For example, during the scene that Jane is taken to the attic to see Bertha, she is described as having ‘dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane…’, by presenting Bertha in these terms we can see how Bronte wanted to frame her in an unsympathetic light, it is at this moment in the narrative that the contrast between Bronte and Rhys’ Mrs Rochester, the demonic Bertha and the beautiful Antoinette, is most apparent.
It is clear that both authors drew from their experiences to write their novels and indeed, on reading of Bronte's life, one can see correlations. Ann Dinsdale, an archivist at Haworth, recounts a time when Branwell Bronte (the only surviving Bronte son), an alcoholic and opium addict, was confined to an upstairs room after one particular incident which involved him setting fire to a bed while Charlotte was in the room below writing Jane Eyre (Parry; 2010). If this account is true one can see how a drug fueled rampage could inspire the image of insanity immortalised in Bertha Mason.
Rhys’ experience of post-colonial life in the Caribbean undoubtedly evoked her strong reaction to Bronte's mistreatment of Bertha. With Wide Sargasso Sea we can see how popular thought had evolved through Rhys' comparison of the 19th and 20th century interpretations of the reason for Bertha's madness. Rochester attempts to justify keeping Bertha locked away by explaining that the reason for her condition comes from being of mixed-heritage.
“… she [Bertha] came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs ... Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!” (Bronte; P.6)
In contrast to this, Rhys focuses on the reasons that Bertha was deemed ‘insane’, implying that the oppressive patriarchy of British culture that Rochester/the husband symbolises is to blame. Rhys shows us how Rochester created the mad woman by hacking away every vestige of her cultural identity, turning her into something he could lock away, a possession kept in the attic for nostalgia’s sake – a toy without a mind, a soul or a voice. He takes away her name because he no longer sees her as Antoinette, by stating ‘… I think of you as Bertha’ the husband takes away the only remaining part of her identity. (Rhys; 86)
In the same vein that Bronte wrote Bertha as a representation of the indulgence of primal instinct, Rhys stripped Rochester of his identity by placing him in an alien landscape and taking away his name. At the end of Part Two, when the couple are leaving for England, Rochester expresses his hatred towards his experience of the Caribbean:
“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour … 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.” (Rhys; 111)
Here we can see that he equates Antoinette with this foreign land; she belongs there but she also belongs to him and so she must go with him. This is the point where there is no going back for Antoinette - she is now Bertha and she will live in England until her physical death.
Further evidence that the authors drew from their own lives comes in the form of the scenic imagery drawn from the locations they grew up in. As Bronte was heavily influenced by nature and the landscape of Haworth (the village she grew up in), Rhys drew on the landscape of the Caribbean island of Dominica. This contrast of opposites – hot and cold, bright and dull – echoes the overtones of racial identity in both novels. Whereas Bronte invokes gothic imagery to suggest distressing times, Rhys uses the stifling heat of the Caribbean to invoke a sense of oppression – foreshadowing Antoinette’s inescapable fate.
Bronte suggests that Rochester seeks to control Jane; her representation of this suggests that at the time it was acceptable for a man to think and behave this way. For example, “Come to me – come to me entirely now.” Rochester’s words suggest that he wants to possess her, to own every part of her. This is strengthened when he goes on to exclaim, “… I have her, and will hold her.” We might expect Jane to argue this point but she accepts that she belongs to him by replying that there is no other man to ‘interfere’ with her. Shortly after this episode, when Jane has accepted Rochester’s proposal, the weather changes – the chestnut tree ‘…writhed and groaned.’ This dramatic change foreshadows the disruption to Jane’s life ahead. (Bronte; P.4)
The ways in which Jane Eyre conforms to the conventions of Victorian literature are numerous, for example the narrative is ordered chronologically with a retrospective, first-person narrator. This combination of straight-forward narrative techniques strengthens the implied stability of Jane’s mind. Rhys rebels against Victorian literary conventions by using a three-part structure to split Antoinette’s story, each part represents a turning-point in her life. For instance, by using the husband’s point of view to narrate Part Two, Rhys signifies the moment when Antoinette becomes voiceless in Jane Eyre, the moment when she becomes physically bound by British patriarchy - as did the people of her homeland before emancipation. The fact that Rhys is able to do this shows how novel writing is able to evolve over time.
Further to this, the disjointed narrative of Wide Sargasso Sea reflects Antoinette’s confusion, Rhys uses stream-of-consciousness to reproduce her erratic thought process, this echoes Jane’s interior monologue the point in the novel when she is at her most vulnerable, wandering the moors after fleeing Thornfield in a state of confusion. The presence of this in both novels demonstrates that although writing styles evolve, some narrative features remain successful without needing refinement.
Rhys’ work serves to remind the reader that the conscious intentions of an author are inconsequential; the importance of a work of literature is in the reader’s interpretation of the ideals encoded in the very fabric of a book. Reading Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre together changes the view one might have on the relationship between Bertha and Mr Rochester. On reading of the motivations Rhys had for writing her novel, we can see that Bronte failed to give reasons for Bertha’s impaired mental state leading a 19th century reader to believe that the implied correlation between race and mental stability is present in ‘real life’. Rhys’ novel provides a richer experience of reading Jane Eyre; by highlighting the flaws in Bronte’s characters she changes the way in which we judge their actions.