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This is Jean Rhys take on the first Mrs Rochester, the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Jane Eyre, and how she came to be there. A slim volume, less than 150 pages long, the book rocked my foundations, my secure swallowing of the mad Mrs Rochester, and Mr Rochester’s right to his anger, his resentment and his treatment of her.

Jean Rhys shows the other perspective, that of the first Mrs Rochester. A young, innocent girl, brought up between the black and white inhabitants as a creole in Jamaica. At first poor and then rich, never beloved by her mother who is slowly driven to madness by the events of her life.

And then Antoinette is betrayed by her relatives from her Mother’s second marriage, just as much as the, nameless in the book, Mr Rochester, is. She is sold to him, and yet she loves him. And at first he also grows to love her, or at least is so overwhelmed by his desire for her that it is almost the same as love. But isolated on the wild, lush estate, he starts to listen to the whisperings of the locals as they drip malicious rumours into his ears. 

Alone and unsure, his mind confused and wandering, he starts to believe Antoinette capable of bewitching him. He starts to hate her name, it reminding him of what he’s heard of her mother, and calls her ‘Bertha’ a name she sees as robbing her of her identity. His affection removed, her name erased, she slowly begins to lose her sanity…     

This is a remarkable book, pointing its lens at the hidden element in Jane Eyre, the voiceless madwoman and describing her story and the complicity of her husband in it. The book destroys the myth of the benevolent Victorian patriarch, instead showing the possibilities for tyranny that role allows. It also builds a fervid, hothouse atmosphere, with a clarity of description and prose, of the tropical, entangled, lush island where everything from nightmares can and seems to be possible.

A book to open your eyes and make you ashamed of the complacency and complicity with which you accepted the benign patriarchal lens you’d (or at least I’d) viewed Jane Eyre through before.

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This was my little treat to myself post exam. I think this is the last P.D. James I had to read, except for The Children of Men, which I never fancied given that science fiction isn’t really a genre I’ve ever enjoyed. I put off reading this one as it is a Cordelia Gray mystery rather than a Dalgliesh one, and I normally prefer my crime fiction to be headed up by a brooding detective rather than an amateur (except of course for when I am reading the great queen of crime fiction, Agatha Christie’s, works).

However, I had no need to have any concerns on that front as, as ever, James produced a neat gem, harking back to the Golden Age of detective fiction. I think that’s why she does it for me, I’ve never enjoyed the Cornwall esq crime fiction, all blood and guts and post mortems, and brutal realism. Instead I prefer the closed circle of suspects, usually isolated in some romantic spot, each with their motive and a resolution that is surprising whilst not being unbelievable.

And here James delivers. The actress Clarissa Lisle has had her nerve shaken by a succession of poison pen letters: literary quotes about death from plays she has acted in. She has one last chance to revive her career in a one-off performance in the refurbished Victorian theatre of Courcy castle, isolated on an island two miles from shore. Clarissa’s husband hires Cordelia, who is relieved to get a well-paying job that may help to keep her struggling detective agency afloat, to ‘mind’ his wife, keep any further notes away from her and discover who is sending them.

But soon the glittering romance of Courcy castle turns sinister, with the theft of a marble sculpture of the arm of one of Queen Victoria’s children as a baby, and the realisation that the play may not be able to go ahead after all…

P.D. James does it again. A carefully crafted plot, modern yet timeless, and believable characters. I think this is perhaps my most important reason for liking her. Whilst there are many mystery novels out there, set in English villages and trying to recapture the magic of the Golden Age, they often fall short. Their characterisation is trite and unbelievable, unexpected and unrealistic things are revealed about characters at the end as a way of reaching resolution, and whilst they are easy to trot through (and I often do) they are ultimately unsatisfactory.

But not P.D. James. Her characters are real and the ends, whilst obviously part of the detective fiction genre, are not strained or discordant. Given that her last novel The Private Patient showed no signs of her powers waning, despite her writing it in her late eighties, I for one wish her many further happy years of life and hope that they continue to be productive ones.