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Empire Gothic in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea(21 Jan 2015)
By Miss Louise Benson James
My recent research looked at Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) as representative of Victorian Empire Gothic, and the response of the novel’s literary ‘offspring’, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Jane Eyre focuses on the romance between a governess, Jane, and the aristocratic Edward Rochester. The Gothic element at the centre of Brontë’s novel is Bertha Rochester, his first wife, literature’s most famous ‘madwoman in the attic’. For those who aren’t familiar with Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, it is a direct response to Jane Eyre. Rhys wrote it to give Bertha a voice and an identity, to tell the story of her life growing up in the West Indies and marriage to the young Rochester, leading up to the action of Brontë’s novel and Bertha’s incarceration in the locked room on the third floor of Thornfield Manor. In my reading, Rhys’s story both represents and enacts a ‘backwards birth’. As Jane’s Eyre’s ‘foremost postcolonial offspring’, the text itself is a backwards creation, a ‘post-dated prequel’: born from Jane Eyre but situated before the events of that novel take place. Which novel is the ‘mother text’ or ‘point of origin’ is deliberately confused. In the story of Bertha’s life, Rhys also enacts a Gothic reversal of the traditional Bildungsroman life story of formation and development. Rather than the ‘evolution of a coherent self’, her protagonist regresses from sanity into madness, chaos and confusion, is transported from the freedom of the West Indies and placed inside a locked room in the English manor house, which, I argue, represents a womb. Rhys’s aim is to challenge and disrupt the Victorian stereotypes and institutions that have shaped the canon, gender culture, and our understanding of colonial history.
My next two blogs will examine the two main themes I drew out of this comparison: firstly the relationship between colonial and post-colonial Gothic as represented by these two novels, and secondly the Gothic imagery of birth in Jane Eyre and Rhys’s use of backwards birth in Wide Sargasso Sea.
What defines Jane Eyre as Empire Gothic is the counter-invasion of figures from the outer reaches of empire into the English domestic scene, ‘the uncanny return of the colonial other to the centre of culture’. Bertha as the colonial other is ‘a sexually rank woman from an invaded colony who becomes a counterinvasive figure transported to the metropolitan centre of empire’. Jane Eyre reinforces the dialectic between ‘the healthy heart of England’ and the West Indies, the latter described as a ‘world quivering with the ferment of tempest’, from which ‘bad, mad and embruted’ creatures invade to disrupt the trajectory of the happy ending. There is a secret at the heart of Thornfield House, a ‘crime that lives incarnate’. This, the text reveals, is Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic. For Boumelha she embodies the colonial secret buried within Victorian manor houses: ‘the legacy of imperialism concealed in the heart of every English gentleman’s castle’.
In contrast, in Wide Sargasso Sea, England is the Gothic element for Antoinette, the ‘cold dark dream’. Rhys performs her own counter-invasion of Brontë’s novel, assaulting it with a counter narrative, that of Antoinette’s backwards birth. Antoinette is transported on a ‘reverse middle passage’ from the West Indies to England. The middle passage was part of the triangular trade route by which slaves were brought to the New World from Africa. From here she is incarcerated in the domestic womb of the English manor house, revealing ‘the healthy heart of England’ as the perpetrator of Gothic enforced stasis. As Davison points out, Thornfield is: ‘figuratively sustained by colonial blood transfusions in the form of Bertha’s £30,000 dowry, it is possessed and maintained by a violent ‘race’ who carry what is suggested is a ‘filthy burden’ of sin with their involvement in the slave trade’. Rhys’s backwards look at Jane Eyre finally births the ‘illicit burden’ from the womb of Thornfield’s third storey, revealing the guilty secret.
Jane Eyre is a novel of empire, and as such functions in part to maintain colonial authority. Rhys encourages us to re-examine Jane Eyre to locate evidence of the colonial imperative. Brontë’s novel draws on imperialist methods, presenting the civilising mission as formative, employing racial stereotyping to assert superiority, and the metaphor of sacrifice to justify death. Wide Sargasso Sea possesses and inhabits the earlier text, and ‘births’ the guilty colonial secret at its heart. It ‘discloses the ambivalence and disrupts the authority’ of Jane Eyre, that is, the ambivalence of the genre’s portrayal of otherness, and the authority of the Victorian colonial novel. Through her backwards birth, Rhys reveals the repression inherent within the canonical foundations of the contemporary world. As Fredric Jameson states, ‘the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and horror’.