This year has been an incredibly challenging one for me, what with being pregnant since the first week of 2019. This particular time is especially challenging, as I am over 39 weeks pregnant and anxiously await my baby’s imminent arrival.
So, what would compel me as a fierce lover of Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë (I even have a Currer Bell tattoo!) to read what would naturally be a very difficult novel like Wide Sargasso Sea right before going into labour? I have no idea. Maybe I felt it was the last big hurdle I needed to overcome before the peaks and valleys of motherhood…a test of strength and will, perhaps? It’s also short, so I was definitely hoping I’d finish it before my baby arrived (spoiler alert: I did…he’s still not here). I can’t give any other explanations than those.
A bit of backstory, though… I once had a vehement fight with a fellow student about this novel when I was in fourth year university. He started to go on and on (before a totally unrelated class, might I add) about how disgusting Edward Rochester is for locking Bertha in his attic because she isn’t even actually mad. I asked him what evidence he had for this because, while Brontë’s portrayal and Rochester’s treatment of Bertha is problematic in some ways (I’m mature enough to accept that), there’s still nothing in the text that says Bertha doesn’t have the issues Rochester claims she does. Well, this colleague of mine said that wasn’t what it portrayed about her in Wide Sargasso Sea…and then I went into a whole rant about how one author’s interpretation of another author’s text cannot be taken as an authority over it and said I didn’t give two figs what Jean Rhys said about Rochester or Bertha (my colleague was quick to retort, “Her name is Antoinette!”) because she wasn’t Charlotte Brontë. I told him I would never read this glorified piece of fan fiction and, admittedly, our friendship was rocky after that.
Now here we are more than 5 years later… And I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about? This is the novel that has spawned tons of literary criticism? This is the prolific tale of Antoinette Cosway Mason that is so lauded in academic institutions everywhere?
I’m undoubtedly biased, I own that fact, but this story was just not all that impressive to me. I didn’t feel any connection to Antoinette or her voice whatsoever and I also felt indifferent toward Rochester’s narration. The story didn’t drum up any sympathy in me and I don’t feel like I learned anything from it or as though it enlightened my understanding of Jane Eyre at all. There simply wasn’t enough meat to it, and I have to say that I expected much more…I expected to be violently moved by it, either in a good or bad way, but instead I felt indifference. I expected to rant about it to my husband, to feel angry and enraged by it…or I expected to be changed by it and to feel this desire to go back to the original text and revisit things. Instead, I closed the back cover and shrugged my shoulders, thinking, “So what?” There was one moment, cited below, that made me reflect briefly on Rochester’s treatment of Bertha in Jane Eyre, but it was too short and easily skimmed over, to me, to warrant an entire novel and years of academic study. I found myself wondering why I resisted reading something, for so long, that would prove to have so little impact on me.
“‘Why did you make me want to live? Why did you do that to me?’
‘Because I wished it. Isn’t that enough?’
‘Yes, it is enough. But if one day you didn’t wish it. What should I do then? Suppose you took this happiness away when I wasn’t looking…’”
I find myself thinking that Rhys’ other works must be better than this. Again, I’m sure I’m biased, but I feel that maybe academics have latched onto this story to try to understand a mysterious, shrouded character without realizing that there isn’t that much insight offered in these very few pages.
Anyway, I finally read Wide Sargasso Sea so go me! I only wish I knew why it mattered so much that I did.
❥❥❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart