Voice and prejudice: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A double review! These two don’t necessarily need to be read together but they are a satisfying couplet. As I read them together I was struck by the theme of voice. To have voice, to be deprived of voice. Who may speak and how. But, as always with my book reviews, this is a discussion, not a lecture. You yourself must have a voice here too, dear reader. Find yourself somewhere comfortable to sit. Put your feet up. Fetch yourself something lovely to drink and enjoy a little booky love with me.

jane_eyre1I read these together after the latter was featured on ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. There were comments made about how rich and complex Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel was, particularly in context of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 classic. Dedicated bibliophile that I am, I was aghast to discover while familiar with Jane Eyre from about approximately a thousand television adaptations I hadn’t actually read it. I went straight to the naughty corner with a brand new deadtree copy (and later an e-book too, just to mix it up). No doubt my wonderful readers are far more intelligent and better educated in the classics than I, but I found it a terrible drag to read. Long interminable descriptions of Jane’s state of mind, her thoughts being interrupted by meals and conversations seemed overly laborious to my 21st Century mind. After all when are you and I not composing a blogpost, email or planning several different things in the back of our minds while doing the same? Honestly, my brain needs a task manager. But I’m distracting myself. I’m still convinced it could probably be about half the length. Nevertheless it’s a fantastic novel. Victorian sensibilities combined with gothic suspense are a perfectly enthralling literary cocktail and even though I knew the basics of the story, I was still affected by the creeping horror Brontë manages to evoke. Even the lengthy and wordy narrative has its significance, in that as a novel written by a woman, in first person by a female character, it was a rare opportunity for a strong-willed woman to be given a voice. Jane might be a little finicky and long-winded, but let her have her say. Although I confess, I wished several times she’d kick Mr Rochester in the shins and run away. What a jerk that guy is.

Which brings me to Bertha Rochester. Who has no voice. Who is so deprived of agency she uses bared teeth and stolen blades instead. Though I knew what was going to happen in the novel, I was surprised by how horrified I was by and on behalf of Mr Rochester’s poor wife, locked in an attic and forgotten. Both that he could lock her away upstairs & live with that and that she was so devoid of hope, outlet, comfort and, of course, voice make Brontë’s novel just as powerful even more than a hundred years later.

Jane Eyre is out of copyright in the US and Australia and as such is available to download for free at sites like Project Gutenberg.

Jane Eyre by Charolotte Brontë: three and a half stars.

Read it when: you’re on a long holiday, have a bit of time and a fair bit of patience.

Don’t read it when: you’re alone at night in a creepy old mansion. That happens a lot, right?

sargasso seaIn writing Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives Mrs Rochester voice. And so we discover that her name isn’t Bertha, but Antoinette. We discover her childhood in the Caribbean, the early days of her marriage, the subtexts of ownership, colonialism, race and language that put her under the power of one Mr Rochester. Who isn’t named. There’s power in naming and voice. Antoinette’s husband is deprived of his name even as he assigns her a new, better behaved, more English one. Having been genuinely disturbed by Eyre, Sargasso Sea was exactly what I wanted to read. I wanted to hear the wife’s side of the story. Sargasso Sea is equally disturbing, in a heady, intoxicating way. And through Rhys’ novel we have the subtext of voice and telling one’s own story that Brontë started in Eyre come full circle. However powerful it is to tell one’s one story, from one’s own point of view, there’s always someone else’s version that is crushed in the process. Finally, and with a sigh of both grief and relief, in Sargasso Sea the “mad” woman in the attic gets her turn.

I know these novels are old hat to many of you, but read as a couplet they are two sides of the same coin. Also, to put my femnazi hat on, they also show the ways in which women’s stories, their fears and concerns, have changed so little. While Jane has a powerful voice in a Victorian era, and given the similarities between her life and Brontë’s one assumes the novel carries a slightly autobiographical realism, Antoinette has very little control over the course of her own fate, and is ultimately silenced. Wide Sargasso Sea carries a much more interesting intersection of race, ethnicity and colonialism. However, the ideals of freedom, choice and independence have always been and will perhaps always have to be fought for by women, against (sometimes) well-meaning but ultimately oppressive social power that centres the wealthy, the white, and the male. And in among it all, we strive to tell our own stories.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: four stars.

Read it if: you want another side to the story, you want to delve into rich scents of tropical fruit, rum and dense foliage gone slightly sour in the humidity.

Don’t read it if: you haven’t read Jane Eyre. Well, you can, but I enjoyed the juxtaposition immensely. You probably should read Jane Eyre anyway.

Think you’ve seen this before? A version of this post was first published on my old blog A Shiny New Coin. But it’s still good.

About Rachel Watts

I am a writer from Perth, Western Australia. My speculative fiction novella Survival will be released in early 2018. View all posts by Rachel Watts

2 responses to “Voice and prejudice: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

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