This book was chosen for NUSS May Book Club read. I was intrigued to learn that there was actually a book written about Rochester’s first wife, the mad woman in the attic from the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Author Jean Rhys decided to write about Antoinette Cosway as she shared a similar background with the protagonist, growing up in exotic Caribbeans. Readers of Jane Eyre may remember that Jane falls in love with Rochester, only to discover that he has a mad wife locked up in the attic, who is of mix descent. Rochester was tricked by his father and brother to marry her so as to be paid a sum of money. She is eventually killed in a fire she started, blinding Rochester in the process at the end of the book.
In this book, we are introduced to Antoinette Cosway’s growing up years in the Jamaica Caribbean, a child born to a white father and a native mother, the second wife. Her childhood is filled with loneliness, a depressive mother, a mentally disabled younger brother and a nanny, Christophine, who is a convicted witch doctor – a recipe for herself becoming mad. and made worse when she married a man who married her for money, depriving her of the love and security she craved.
The book is divided into three parts – the first being her childhood, the second part being told from the perspective of Rochester during their honeymoon in the ‘strange land’ and the final part her last few days in Thornfield Hall (never mentioned but we know), locked in a room, and watched over by a nurse, also as mentioned in the book Jane Eyre,
The book is written in the first perspective in all three parts. First part by Antoinette, second by Rochester, although there was a switch mid-way of perspective which had confused me and the final part back to Antoinette. Also confusing was why Rochester insisted on calling her Bertha, which is not her name, instead of Antoinette.
An introduction of the book by Francis Wyndham is a big help to readers or one would be thoroughly lost in the ramblings. I did a Coursera online literature course on Jane Eyre (https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/reading-charlotte-brontes-jane-eyre/) and thought this book would really give a different perspective. Well, it did. I ended up really disliking Rochester, although there is no mention of his name or Thornfield Hall or Jane Eyre. I can’t say I sympathize very much with Antoinette as well, she coming across as whiny and temperamental.
What Jean Rhys succeeded perhaps, was giving us a glimpse of Jamaica and how different races view each other with suspicions during that period, where slavery had just recently been outlawed. Mixed race people like Antoinette was called White Negroes and gossiped about.
If you have read Jane Eyre, I would recommend you to try reading this. If not, don’t bother.