I don’t know why I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy this. I nearly always react poorly to post-modernism. But, I really *wanted* to enjoy it. Every time I’ve read Jane Eyre, I’ve thought Bertha Rochester, née Mason, got a really shit deal. I’ve also thought it was really suspect that we don’t actually get any evidence of her going mad prior to being locked in an attic for years and years. I mean, if I’d been locked in an attic for that long maybe I would start getting a little violent and develop a fire bug, too. And who even knows what could have been construed as madness initally by the Victorians. She could have just wanted to, I dunno, wear pants, or have equal rights as her husband or something. Maybe she had epilepsy! Or she just thought Rochester was a dick!
The point is, Mr. Rochester locked his wife in an attic for years, told everyone she died, and then tried to marry someone else, like a complete arsehole. There was definitely room for expansion there. Especially since this was actually written pre-The Madwoman in the Attic, which wasn’t published until 1979. Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966.
Bertha’s origins in the West Indies also seemed like a fruitful avenue to explore. As the daughter of a wealthy creole family in Jamaica, there are definitely issues of race and class and colonialism that are completely glossed over. And Rhys, born in Jamaica herself, seems to have been familiar with the kind of life Bertha would have had.
My problem here is that, despite a large portion of the book being told in her point of view, I felt very disconnected from Bertha. It felt like more of an experiment more than anything, an intellectual exercise. It’s pretty short, at only 171 pages, not leaving much room for development. She also made the curious choice to have Bertha’s real name as Antoinette Cosway, only acquiring the Mason after her mother remarried. After marrying Mr. Rochester, who remains unnamed despite narrating the majority of the book, she loses Antoinette as well. Mr. Rochester just renames her one day. He calls her “Bertha”, and she’s like, why are you calling me Bertha? And he goes, “Oh, because I really like that name, basically it has nothing to do with you okay?”
I know it’s probably symbolic or some shit of her being completely subsumed in her marriage, but it doesn’t play well practically. It reads as absurd.
The madness here is not elaborated on, either. I left the book not fully understanding what her “madness” was. Was it meant to be open-ended? Was it meant to suggest the madness as a consequence of living as the daughter of a reviled former-slave owner? Of her marriage, in which she has no rights? The ambiguity of it wasn’t satisfying for me at all.
Overall, I appreciate this book for what it was trying to do, but I wanted a bit more from it. I wish somebody would write another take on Bertha’s story and publish it today. I would definitely read that.
Read Harder Challenge 2018: A book of colonial or postcolonial literature.