View From The Glen

Friday, February 27, 2015

Wide Sargasso Sea

This novel, by Jean Rhys, is one I picked up at my last shopping spree in my favourite used bookstore in Kingston, Ontario (see below for view from the snug Sir John A's Pub - the former law office of our first Prime Minister - across the road).

As a kid, I used to tell my brother scary takes of the madwoman in the attic and we used to huddle under our attic trapdoor in shivering delightful fear, so I suppose the story of Bertha in Jane Eyre has always been of interest. I've known OF this book, but have never read it until now. I think giving a voice and a backstory to Bertha is a fairly brilliant idea, and the postmodern, feminist interpretation this novel offers is both startlingly complex, and poetically simple.

A short read, but not, I think, an easy one. I'm not sure how well readers unfamiliar with Jane Eyre will understand the plot, though the deep psychological aspects are well done and unsettling even without context. Some of the language is beautifully rendered and the imagery is evocative of both time and place, and an ironic sense of being in a dream. 

I found myself pausing to investigate Creole history in the first section, and enjoying the descriptive details. The second section gave insight into her husband....and I admit I wasn't wholly sold on their relationship, and her  descent into madness...but I found the name change to Bertha both powerful and horrifying. The final section, short and direct, offered explanation and perhaps a sense of forgiveness for the woman whose final act leads to the culmination of one of the classic novels of the 19th century.

We have been talking....I have been ranting....about how Jane Eyre is thematically a 19th century version of 50 Shades. Much better written, I grant, but when I re-read Jane Eyre last year, I was horrified to discover how different it was than what I remember. Gone was Rochester as romantic hero. In his place was a lying, manipulative, demanding wealthy man who bullied and abused the innocent servant girl in his employ. I mean yeah, context of its time and all that, but essentially an imbalance of power. So reading Wide Sargasso Sea came at the right time for me.

PS: I still like Jane Eyre. And Wuthering Heights. But Rochester? Heathcliffe? How could I have been so wrong about them all these years? 

PPS: Erik enjoying the used bookstore (see below).