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I didn’t managed to post anything last week due to the general stress of being in the middle of attempting to get to a point of exchange on my current house and the one I want to buy. No doubt I will continue to feel frazzled for many weeks to come unless things fall apart (which obviously I don’t want) so I decided I couldn’t continue to neglect my blog and must knuckle down. And I’ve been saving up the Woman in White for a few weeks now, so I thought it was time to write it up.

This really is a great page turned of a novel. It has it all, from the opening moments of Walter Hartright’s mysterious encounter with the woman in white herself, through love denied to love found and then onto the fantastical end, it keeps you gripped. Collins was writing for a weekly which accounts for the number of cliffhangers and moments of suspense, but they all add to the atmosphere. The plot itself is highly dubious but apparently was greatly feared in Victorian times (I won’t let the cat out of the bag for those of you who haven’t read it) and the resolution is a little strained, but the masterly writing allows you to forget all that as you are swept along.

As for the characters. Well, apparently Collins’s technique of letting each character ‘tell’ the part of the story they were most associated with was a novel innovation, but it works and allows the reader to get closer to the characters. Walter Hartright is still the central character, with his devoted love for Laura Fairlie. We see him develop as a character, tested in the jungles of South America until he develops the strength to tackle the mystery of the woman in white and fight for Laura’s love.  

But it is Marion Halcombe who steals the show. Marion who does not wear stays, who has a beautiful body below an ugly face and who sets every stereotype of Victorian womanhood flying (which is a good thing after they have been so carefully hung out to dry in Laura Fairlie, a flat character if ever I saw one). And it just goes to show that the Victorians weren’t as madonna/whore about their women as I was taught in school, because apparently when the novel was serialised Collins was flooded with enquiries from male readers requesting the identity of the woman Marion was based on so they could propose. It’s good to think the Victorians, or at least some, liked a strong woman and valued something above insipid femininity and languid eyes. 

A great read, still entertaining to this day. At times Walter can seem as if he ‘protesteth too much’ and the plot is a little strained, but it still is the original sensation novel and endearing with it.

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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.