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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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I can’t begin to say just how much I disliked this book. I haven’t read a book in a long tine that annoyed me quite so much. The book starts with George and Sabine Harwood living in Trinidad in 2006. They’ve been there for 50 years and Sabine has hated it, they’ve both aged but she has transformed from a long-legged beauty into a fat old nag. George appears to be what George has always been, selfish and arrogant, drinking too much, and still running after women. A chance discovery of letters his wife wrote, but never sent, to Trinidad’s first independent prime minister leaves him shaken, wondering how much they ever really knew about each other.

I won’t give too much away but the book basically ends when the first section does. The next two sections of the book are then flashbacks through the Harwood’s time in Trinidad, and it ends, rather predictably, with them missing the boat back to England in 1970 and leaving Sabine on the island – which we knew anyway as she’s still there in 2006 when the book opens. 

My main issue is with the relationships and characterisation. Apparently Sabine still loves George, and yet he appears to have slept his entire way around Trinidad, is still attempting to sleep with prostitutes past their prime at the age of 70, and has ignored for 50 years Sabine’s pleas of unhappiness and despair, seemingly content to watch her turn into a befuddled Valium addicted drunk. Yet, while all this is happening they are still at it like rabbits (up until 1970 anyway), with George apparently able to put his head between her thighs and rip off a skirt with his teeth at the same time. And Sabine never leaves. It all just seems a bit ridiculous.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I just cannot comprehend the lack of options available to a French/English woman of that generation who had never worked and was entirely dependent on her husband. But in that case why keep having sex with him and apparently stay completely in love with him while he screws around? Again, I know that some relationships can be complicated and women fall for the wrong men, but for over 50 years? And George is portrayed as an apparently likeable person in the book, but any dispassionate examination of his character immediately reveals him to be a chauvinistic, selfish, git.

Okay, there are some interesting themes running through this book, how all men disappoint, the corruption caused by power at all levels, the unfulfilled hopes of independence and the ramifications of disappointment, the power and iniquity that money can breed. But I just couldn’t get away from the central issue of this bizarre marital relationship and the characters in it. Not one for me I’m afraid.