If you have not read Jean Rhys’s brilliant Wide Sargasso Sea, I urge you to to do so. It is the prequel (don’t care for that word, I must admit) to the story of Jane Eyre. I wrote a little something about it, below….
In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette is recast as Bertha by her new husband. It is a name with which he feels more comfortable. From a tic in her sleep, all shifts and his Bertha – with a name which is not her colour and is an insult to her pride – shifts to a private world where shapes are lurid and vivid and where she has no sense of being loved. Instead, she is sold like a chattel, exchanged as currency for land. Like cargo, as ballast, she goes on her journey to the attic in the old great house where she is, to generations of school students, the prime example of the mad woman in the attic: Mr Rochester’s first wife. But what if that is not who she really is? What if she were a victim, radiant, then cruelly displaced and raving?
Sometimes at night, Antoinette – for that, of course, is who she really is – runs through the quiet corridors of the great house. Sometimes, Jane Eyre hears her. But no-one visits Antoinette; she has only a drunken jailer. Now, Antoinette is insane, lost to that private world in which nothing makes sense. The lurid, vivid shapes form, again, at night.
One day, she takes a candle and she runs. It is time to flee her dull, sublunary world. She makes fire, maybe by intent, maybe through her own special brand of lunacy. If you’ve read Jane Eyre, this part of the story is known to you. But if you’ve read the other story, then the mad woman in the attic is something else to you. She is a woman treated cruelly; beautiful, turned savage and formed in the heat beyond the wide Sargasso sea.
For her last few moments, she is free and I imagine that she stands, face to the cool, foreign English air, high up on the walls somewhere. Round and about – there in the countryside or beyond in the towns – there will be English ladies, in subdued colours of slate grey and cream or charcoal, with maybe an ornament of pearl or a pretty cameo. But high up on the house, Antoinette stands, in her long red dress – the dress which she had hauled from the Caribbean, all secretly smouldering in its trunk. And now she is aflame. She will rise. And she is beautiful.