July 24, 2005

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys

Continuing in my quest for fiction which emerges from other fiction, I finally filled a gap in my knowledge and read Wide Sargasso Sea the other week.

This is the story of Antionette, a Creole girl who finds herself marrying a man newly arrived from England in the 1830s. Her background, rejected by an insane mother, and his fear of her culture turns the relationship sour and causes her to go mad. Eventually, he takes her back to his home in England and locks her in the attic. The man is never named, but it is obvious who it is: Mr Rochester, the hero of Jane Eyre.

Rhys admitted when working on the novel that she had become fascinated by 'Bertha' from Jane Eyre and wanted to tell the other side of the story. Rhys came from a Jamacian background but had settled in London: in short, she wanted to see what had sent 'Bertha' mad. What, then, makes a novel such as this - or such as Pemberley - acceptable yet fanfic unacceptable to so many? Rhys's motivation was to fill in a story from her own perspective, to expand a character who was just a cipher in the original work. And she didn't have permission to use all these Bronte characters. Yet, as if the act of publication is alchemical, this is considered real fiction and not fan fiction. Strange.

What of the novel? I can see why someone was surprised I'd not read it. It plays with different points of view, it gives us conflicting narrators and cultures, with the voices of Antoinette and [Rochester] clearly expressed. Those are things which always tick my boxes - or push my buttons. It is rather sexy - the seductions of [Rochester] hum with night heat - and rather disturbing - the fractured voice in the final third is so far removed from the girl at the start. It also toys with imagery from Jane Eyre - storms and trees being split apart - which add to the knowingness: there can be no happy resolution to this gothic romance because as readers we already know the happy ending will go to Jane instead.

One difficulty I have in trying to describe the novel is resisting the urge to call it "the story of the first Mrs Rochester". Why resist? It's a neat phrase which immediately gives an idea of the story etc. Yet the novel is about reclaiming "the first Mrs Rochester" as a person in her own right, and about how Rochester forces her to sublimate her own identity under that of his idea of what a wife should be. It therefore seems to go against the theme of the novel to describe it with the neat phrase.

Fianlly, I always enjoy a novel which causes Orson Welles' voice to purr in my head.

July 02, 2005


This morning, I decided to try tidying the shelves of the study/attic. So far I've managed to literally decimate them and have twenty books stacked up waiting to go to the charity shop. They're mostly:
  • UFOlogy
    A subject I lost interest in quite a while ago. I did keep the small section of 70s "gods are aliens" paperbacks. I should maybe call that "von Daniken's corner". As a child I was fascinated by his books: the text is not particularly readable, although you can argue charitably that its the translation which is at fault, but I loved the images and ideas. On the other hand, a lot of Fortean mass market books tend to have a particular style. I've been reading The Case of the Cottingley Fairies and have been stuck by its failings. I'm not going to review it here as I'm going to try for the Fortean 'classics' review slot with my opinion.
  • Cat care manuals
    I used to worry about things like "why is the cat eating grass?", "are they supposed to walk backwards as they puke?" etc. but I think my basic cat maintainence skills are now sufficient for me to ignore the manuals. Although I've kept Dr Xargles Book of Earth Tiggers, obviously.
  • The Da Vinci Code
    I was going to pass it around for others to enjoy my marginalia ("that's wrong!") but I think it's better off in the charity shop. The novel was always going to have a hard time with me: I work in internationally reknown museums, I've read a lot of articles over the years on Rosslyn and the Templars, and I've got an art history degree. But even if I allow that most readers will not know the backrooms of museums, the Temple in London or that Leonardo Da Vinci's name should be shortened to 'Leonardo' not 'Da Vinci', I still didn't find the novel enjoyable. Highly readable, of course, but my airport thriller choice will remain Robert Harris.

The main problem is that even with these books taken out, I still don't have room for the Warring States research books. I want to keep them together. I need more shelves.

Note: I have no idea if my CSS and HTML is OK under bloggers new code. If it isn't, I'm afriad I won't be fixing it straight away...