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This is an epic book, and not at all what I expected. When the blurb on the back tells you that it is about children growing up in the Edwardian era who will be ‘betrayed unintentionally by the adults who love them’ your mind, or mine at least, presumes that the book will have as a large part a focus on the First World War. And this is not so. The First World War does feature, but towards the end, and it an event played out on the world stage, and yes it is a betrayal. But in many ways it is just one more betrayal these young people have to face, and it is most definitely not the novel’s focus.

Instead it focuses on a set of bohemian, artistic families, who are determined to live by modern, humanistic values, and who see this as the most rational and productive way to raise the next generation. But it doesn’t always work that way. Discovered through the children’s glimpses, we see the distortions and misunderstandings that Humphry’s and Olive’s infidelity creates. Despite the magazine pictures of her as a successful children’s author, weaving tales for the charming children gathered at her knee, the reality is darker and more disturbing. The children are uncertain, unsure, who they belong to and how? And, in the age-old problem for maternity, Olive’s need to create, to be independent, drives a wedge between her and her children when their bond is needed most.

Meanwhile in the Fludd’s household Benedict’s creative genius as a potter must come first against all. This suits his protegé Philip, escaping his own demons, but the demands of genius destroy his family. His beautiful wife has given up and sits drugged amongst the dirt and ruin while Benedict sculpts obscene portrayals of his daughters.

In between, Russian anarchists and German artists flit across the pages with players from the developing museums sector and the arts and crafts movement with their children. And by each are the children betrayed, as creativity and adult needs are put first and the demands of children for stability, reason and safety ignored.

I can’t say I liked this book, but that would not be a criticism in itself if it had the power to move me, but I felt there was something lacking. Byatt knows her stuff, and it is clear that she is clever and knowledgeable. She places her characters on and in the sweep of history, describing the key elements of the time, and yet the historic sweep and lives of the characters themselves did not seem to marry together as they should. In the end I did not really care which of the characters lived or died or came through the Great War psychologically intact. Off the page they had no life for me, which is a shame because the potential for great things was there.

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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.