The latest novel in my ‘list of betterment’ is one I have been meaning to read for a good while. The novel was published in 1966. Rhys was fascinated by the novel Jane Eyre and more specifically by Bertha, who was Rochester’s first wife – the mad woman in the attic.
The novel is set in Jamaica and the West Indies. Antoinette is a Creole who lives with her mother and brother. They face hatred from the locals and after their estate is set alight and Antionette’s brother dies, Antoinette is taken to stay with her aunt. She later discovers that her mother had descended into madness due to the death of her son.
The narrative is divided into three parts. The first part is told by Antoinette Cosway (as she is re-named in this novel) the second part is told by Rochester, and the third part is told by Antoinette after she is brought to England and locked up in the attic by Rochester.
Antoinette’s family are descended from slave owners and despite no longer being so, are hated and reviled by everyone in Coulibri, the estate and town where they reside. They face daily antagonism and apart from their loyal nanny Christophine, (who herself practises a form of witchcraft called ‘Obeah’ and gives rum to drug and soothe Antoinette) they have no friends or support.
Antoinette’s step father knows Rochester’s family and he is set up as a likely suitor for Antoinette, but in truth he marries her solely for her inheritance. A cold Englishman, he is never named by the author and it is clear from the start that he has no intention of treating his new wife with anything other than scorn and cruelty. Despite the passion between them, he takes what he wants and then refuses Antoinette the love she so desperately craves.
This is a multi-layered complex novel dealing with the politics of Jamaica, oppression, slavery, and the Gothic telling of Antoinette’s descent into madness.
What I loved most about this book was the exquisite prose, and how Jean Rhys depicts in sublime detail the oppressive nature of the setting and the characters trapped within it. For those who have read Jane Eyre (what do you mean you haven’t?!) and always wondered why Bertha had been driven insane, this novel will provide some answers. What Charlotte Bronte would have thought of it, one can only imagine!
The final part of the novel brings us to the final descent into madness of the now called ‘Bertha’ who is kept in the attic by Grace Poole. Haunting and unbearably poignant, Bertha or Antoinette hallucinates visions of the Jamaica she loved, despite the cruelty she encountered there, and in her final act she seeks to revenge those who have held her prisoner, both literally and metaphorically.
A stunning classic.