Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Brilliant Brontës: Wide Sargasso Sea & The Brontë Cabinet

Anne Bronte (1820-1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 - Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 - Haworth, 1855), English writers, Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), ca 1834. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 19 Dec 2015.

I've read and re-read "Jane Eyre" of course, and I am sure that the character must be "built up"... The Creole in Charlotte Brontë's novel is a lay figure - repulsive which does not matter, and not once alive which does. She's necessary  to the plot, but always she shrieks, howls, laughs horribly attacks all and sundry - off stage. For me (and for you I hope) she must be right on stage. She must be at least plausible with a past, the reason why Mr. Rochester treats her so abominably and feels justified, the reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad, even the reason why she tries to set everything on fire, and eventually succeeds.
~Jean Rhys, in a letter to Selma Vas Dias, April 9, 1958

Something else has become clear, too: the novel has forever changed the way we read Jane Eyre. As author Danielle McLaughlin recently put it, writing for The Paris Review: “The novel didn’t just take inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, it illuminated and confronted it, challenged the narrative”. Or, to quote novelist Michele Roberts, “Rhys took one of the works of genius of the 19th Century and turned it inside-out to create one of the works of genius of the 20th Century”.
~Hepzibah Anderson, "The book that changed Jane Eyre forever"

This year, in addition to celebrating the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë, another related book has an anniversary - Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, was published in 1966. Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Bertha Mason, the "madwoman in the attic" of Charlotte's Jane Eyre. Though in three parts, it weighs in at a slight 112 pages in W.W. Norton & Company's 1999 edition - fulfilling the adage of quality over quantity.

Much of the narrative is told from Bertha's perspective, some from her unidentified husband's. The writing is poignant and evocative, sometimes reaching the pitch of a fever dream. Bertha was born Antoinette, her name changed by her husband because she shares it with her mother, who has been declared insane. Antoinette grows up on an estate in Jamaica, but she is not wealthy until her mother marries Mr. Mason - and, during her childhood, her Creole background is scorned with a particularly nasty epithet. The person who shows her the most kindness and understanding is the servant Christophine, but her influence, as a woman of color and a practitioner of voodoo, is viewed darkly by Antoinette's stepbrother and husband-to-be, among others. Young Antoinette's life is beset with mishaps and she seems prone to melancholy, but not necessarily madness.

Those who have read Jane Eyre will have some background knowledge of Bertha/Antoinette's story; Rhys here fleshes out the character, her atmospheric prose setting the scene firmly in the Caribbean milieu which Rhys, born in Dominica, hailed from, and bringing to life Charlotte Brontë's "poor ghost" and rather doing down any claims Mr. Rochester has to being a romantic hero. One of my favorite speeches of Antoinette's is when she is recounting her past to her husband and explains
'I was never sad in the morning...and every day was a fresh day for me. I remember the taste of milk and bread and the sound of the grandfather clocking ticking slowly and the first time I had my hair tied with string because there was no ribbon left and no money to buy any. All the flowers in the world were in our garden and sometimes when I was thirsty I licked raindrops from the Jasmine leaves after a shower. If I could make you see it, because they destroyed it and it is only here now.' She struck her forehead.

Most of the story takes place in the Caribbean, amidst the Sargasso Sea, which, as the "Backgrounds" section of this edition helpfully explains (courtesy of Rachel L. Carson), "...lies all about Bermuda and extends more than halfway across the Atlantic...with all its legendary terrors for sailing ships, [the sea] is a creation of the great currents of the North Atlantic that encircle it and bring into it the millions of tons of floating sargassum weed from which the place derives its name, and all the weird assemblage of animals that live in the weed." The "Backgrounds" section also helpfully includes excerpts from Jane Eyre that feature Bertha, selected letters of Jean Rhys, and more of interest for the scholar.

Jean Rhys was a protégée of Ford Madox Ford and wrote several other books, but Wide Sargasso Sea, written towards the end of her life, was considered her masterwork, and is still widely taught today.  Bertha/Antoinette seems to speak for all the women written out of history when she says, "Then I turned round and saw the sky. It was red and all my life was in it."

The other Brontë book I read to wrap up our Brontë challenge this month was The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects. The "objects" discussed are items such as letters, what we would call lap desks, memento mori jewelry, and pets, with each item getting about 30 pages of discussion. I had worried it might be a dry and academic tome, but in fact each chapter has proved to be a lively discussion of not just the object in question and its use by the Brontës, but also the history of the era, local folklore, and more - the chapter called "The Alchemy of Desks" veers into Charlotte and Emily's difficult adult relationship, and also into a discussion of Emily's pen use (apparently she found them "troublesome").

Some of the most fascinating tidbits I discovered from The Brontë Cabinet included the fact that, in that time period, "the receiver, rather than the sender, paid the postage to the letter carrier who came to the house door"  and "[m]ost personal  letters of the early nineteenth century...consisted of one page folded and sealed so that the address could be written directly on the letter." Correspondents often "cross-wrote" - "...instead of using a second page to continue a letter, turned the first sheet horizontally, and wrote over ("crossed") the original text at a right angle." The penny post (stamps!) came into use in 1840. Later, in "Death Made Material," there are some interesting anecdotes about "grave goods" - "belongings included with the corpse in case they might be needed on the other side" - including a story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti interring unpublished poetry in his wife's coffin, and then regretting his decision, and an unnamed Victorian who, forgetting to put her friend's son's letters in her friend's grave, instead put them in the grave of a mailman who died soon afterward - so the mailman could deliver them to her friend in the afterlife.

Both these books have been great reads! This ends our Brontë challenge for the year - thanks for taking an interest.

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