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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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Fo some reason I’d never really fancied reading this book, so when I saw it was on my list for a course I did with the Open University I thought I’d just have to read it as part of the curriculum and get through it, but not really enjoy it. And how wrong I was, instead I fell hook, line and sinker for it, and found one of the most life affirming books I’ve ever read.

The novel is written in the epistolary form, mainly letters from Celie to God, although later it also contains letters from and to her sister Nettie. Celie is raped by her step-father (although at the time she thinks he is her father) as a child, bears him two children who are sold, and she is then bargained off as ‘spoilt goods’ to a violent and abusive man. She is then estranged from her sister, as her husband hides her letters from Celie.

But through all of this Celie survives, due to support, help and lessons from a series of women. She learns not to side with the abuser through Sofia when she talks about her husband and says, ‘…I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me’. Through her husband’s mistress, the glamorous Shug Avery, she learns sexual love, and when she discovers the hidden letters from her sister realises that she is loved. This, with Shug’s help, gives her the strength and ability to support herself, and to curse her husband, wearing who she is as a badge of pride, ‘I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook…But I’m here’.

The only off note in the novel is the Africa section. I understand the purpose, how Walker wants to celebrate African-American heritage and history, but through trying to encompass an entire continent in a few letters the end result seems to me strained and false. Also, there is the question of whether Walker has the necessary authority to speak on ‘Africa’s’ behalf.

But that aside I love this book. Yes, the characters are not necessarily ‘realistic’ but they speak of how through solidarity women can survive and flourish in spite of deprivation, abuse and misuse at the hands of men, and retain their ability to create and be a someone in spite of it all.