Blogging/editorial note from bobbygw: In celebration of the UK publication of Alice by bestselling novelist Christina Henry (also author of the highly successful Black Wings trilogy, comprising Black Spring, Black Heart, Black City), this post is by her as part of her blog tour series to promote this great novel. There’s more info about her entertaining tour at the end of this post, so you can read all her posts in the series at your leisure. Note: Titan Books publish Red Queen, the sequel to Alice, on July 12 2016 in paperback and ebook editions.
One of the most influential fantasy stories of all time is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’ve written before that Alice and her story have become embedded in our cultural memory in such a way that even people who’ve never read the original story feel as though they must have.
Alice’s story is so iconic and has such a fairy-tale-like, almost mythical quality that many filmmakers and authors (including myself) have dipped into that sandbox to create our own Wonderlands (or in my case, more of a Nightmareland) and shape our own versions of Alice.
There have been lots of direct interpretations of the story, and I love many of them, but I’m especially interested in the stories that have Alice’s DNA without being specifically Alice stories. After all, any story that has a hole for the hero/heroine to fall through or a magical door to another world owes a debt to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Here are my four favorite Alices (and almost Alices):
4) Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland film – This is the first version of the story that I remember seeing, and it remains one of the most enduring for me. The Cheshire Cat, in particular, becomes much more whimsical and charming in this version. In the book I always felt he just enjoyed thwarting Alice, but his mischievous expressions in the film mitigate that to some degree.
3) C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Supernatural passageway to another world? Check. Young heroine who discovers a magical world and creatures and accepts them in a matter-of-fact way? Check. Much is made of both the Christian allegory and epic fantasy elements of this story, but at its heart this book is Lucy’s Adventures in Narnia.
2) Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – Here Alice is called Coraline, and the passage she goes through brings her to a place that seems wonderful at first but quickly turns dark and frightening. There’s even a black cat whose helpful unhelpfulness rivals the Cheshire’s.
1) Angela Carter’s “Wolf-Alice” from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories – This story has a loose tie to Through the Looking Glass and also to a version of Little Red Riding Hood. I adore Angela Carter and the way she interpreted the darkness in well-known fairy tales. In this story Alice becomes a self-aware adult, which is a theme that runs underneath the Carroll stories – all along Alice is becoming less childlike, more grownup.
When Donald Trump flounced onto the American political stage, with his usual gaseous blatherings and foul mouth, I wondered to myself whether we had entered the beginning of the end of times.
Let’s hope not. After all, we have enough problems to deal with, thanks to life’s bountiful and glorious pageant.
In the meantime if, like me, you have experienced one or more emotions of shock, depression, dumbfoundment, apoplexy and hysterical laughter about the ascendancy of The Donald and his shenanigans―then I think my new tall tale may be the restorative respite you have been searching for.
If you relish satire and a dash of gonzo storytelling, then I hope you’ll find this story is just your cup of tea―as we (sadly) don’t often say nowadays in merry ol England (which never existed, worst luck).
As always, please know that I’d be deliriously happy and foaming at the apertures―eugh, I know―to send you a free Kindle edition or PDF of the complete story for you to read, if you wouldn’t mind possibly, ever-so-slightly-considering writing a review of it.
But fair warning, good folk: those with delicate stomachs, nervous dispositions, a tendency to the right wing of society, the rich―well, this monstrous imagining ain’t for you, and I apologise for any offence I may have caused by my presumptuous outrageousness in criticising The Man with thatHair.
Cheers and thank you for reading. Holler me with comments or feedback. I’ll always respond.
It’s astonishing to consider that, of the two most intense, passionate heroines of 19th century literature, both are written by sisters. But this, as most readers of literature know,
is indeed the case, given we have Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights(1847).
From the start, you’re drawn into a first person narrative – and it remains active throughout the novel – which is compelling and becomes evermore powerful, emotionally complex and engaging as you journey into the eponymous heroine’s life.
Many things have been written about Jane Eyre as a character: to me there’s no doubt that reading her story from her own perspective means you easily identify and empathise with this highly intelligent, independently-minded personality. Such identification includes specific psychological, intellectual and emotional experiences from her own female view (such a view nowadays should rightly be described as feminist, but I mean the term to be worlds away from its popular
mischaracterised, frankly just plain wrong definition as it’s used by the mainstream in today’s society, where it has sickeningly and sadly become synonymous with ‘man-hating’ and/or being a destructive and inflexible force in society.
Actual real-life feminists know, of course, such stereotypes are nonsense; an urban myth relentlessly perpetuated by a right-wing, conservative, sexist fake news “media” and their BS pundits.
Unfortunately, such widespread misunderstanding is compounded by there appearing to be little or no basic education in schools about the history of women’s rights, their works both creative and academic, besides their hard-fought, hard-won political battles.
So what is a feminist viewpoint of Jane Eyre? Don’t worry — I’m not going to get all Gayatri Chakravorty Spivakon your brain and induce a violent headache by talking to you about “the margins at which disciplinary discourses break down and enter the world of political agency” (quoted from The Spivak Reader, 1996). Nope, rather I think it’s actually straightforward and reasonable to characterise it as the following (which may sound suspiciously contemporary and akin to popular self-help literature written for women and men!): Be true to your own sense of integrity; manage your circumstances as best you can — but don’t give in to compromise that undermines your own authentic sense of self lest you are reduced to a shadow of yourself; speak up however and when you can, if possible, about circumstances and events that really matter to you; assert your independence of heart and mind; maintain your self-respect against the odds and the social/political/societal status quo and adhere to your own high standards, not ‘theirs’. And how could I forget this one? Never let the bastards grind you down (or at least not long enough for you to stay down).
Having said that, Charlotte unfortunately seemed oblivious to the implications of what little effort and depth she put into portraying the character of Bertha Mason, the white Creole heiress who is the ‘madwoman in the attic’. The brilliant novelist and short story writer, Jean Rhys, with her own Creole background, felt Mason’s character reflected Brontë’s English imperialist, racialist attitude towards Britain’s colonies and its indigenous populations; hence Bertha is not a woman as such in her own right: she is disembodied; never having a voice of her own (apart from the occasions when she cries out like an animal) and is effectively silenced once forever to Mr Rochester.
I won’t go into further detail here about Rhys’ position on this matter, because I address it on this website with my review of Jean Rhy’s novelistic response to Jane Eyre, with her own award-winning novella, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which gives a voice and full identity for the first time to the original Mrs Rochester, from childhood to her death. That work also contributed to what became known as ‘post-colonial’ fiction (a term that you will see from the link embedded within it that has itself come under critical scrutiny for a number of reasons, including its Eurocentric approach) and, interestingly,
Maryse Condé, the celebrated, distinguished Guadeloupean feminist writer, wrote Windward Heights(1998), a novelistic response/reinterpretation of Wuthering Heights (it is excellent, with an evocative atmosphere, characters and richly poetic, rhythmical prose. It also challenges bias on race, gender and traditional relationships, while having her own distinct voice and perspective; in fact, for all these reasons, I was reminded of Zora Neale Hurston‘s fiction).
To put Jane Eyre into a social and literary context, the 19th century in the West, while being an age of great industry and innovation, was essentially a deeply moralistic society, pious, conformist and judgemental on the surface and corrupt and compromised and hypocritical from within its own outspoken values.
The norm for women was that they had no independence, no rights, nor an identity or life of their own; society (read: men who dominated in power both at work and home) prescribed and enforced women (whether upper, middle or working class) to rigidly defined manners, conduct and employment (as governess, wife, spinster, worker, house maid, cook, cleaner, etc.).
Jane, being poor and without parents, is forced into a tyrannical charity boarding school, the Lowood Institution — more a prison than a school; in fact, you could say that the headmaster, Mr Brocklehurst, in his demeanor and treatment of the children, as compared with the spoiling of his own brood, encapsulates all the horrors and hypocrisies of the 19th century. If he is representative of all that is bad about the 19th century, by stark contrast, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (see the picture on the left, here) is the very epitome of what is right in that period (read: Empire); brilliant, a visionary, a pragmatist, a man of action and achievement always wanting to scale greater heights.
Even before Jane’s arrival at Lowood, Brocklehurst makes it clear what he thinks of her, calling her a child of the Devil (a charming man, eh?) and in no uncertain terms she must accept and obey all of his rules and regulations, while half-starving from the meagre portions and poor-quality of the food. Yet while she conforms on the outside, she remains resilient and always inwardly defiant; in fact, even before she is abandoned to the school by her loathsome aunt, when Jane is barely 10 years old, Jane’s intensity, integrity, independence of mind and action are already well-established; especially her passionate, deeply intelligent articulation of her perspective in conversation with her aunt; with her departing words to her comprising only devastating criticism that will haunt her aunt for years afterwards. Keep in mind that Brontë published this during a time when it was absolutely unheard of for children to be seen and heard, never mind for them to challenge, criticise and protest to adults, but protest she does. For these reasons in particular, and the way such behaviour and her honesty and integrity grows, as does her confidence, throughout the novel, Jane Eyre is a marvellously unprecedented, radical departure as a portrait of a heroine compared with novels published before 1847.
That last point may be seen as contentious or perceived as doing a disservice to the many superb women writers who came before Charlotte Brontë, when taking into account the marvellous female heroines of Jane Austen in the early 1800s — the most well-known, course, being Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice (1813); besides those of other wonderful novelists who bridged the 18th and 19th centuries in their lives, including in the work of Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Lennox, and indeed those who published before them. All of these writers in various ways, both through their fiction and non-fiction, challenged male preconceptions of women’s roles and their prescribed social/intellectual identities. You could say, in fact, that they were challenging what is now called ‘evolutionary psychology’, which increasingly strikes me as being an excuse for anti-feminists to insist that women who speak up and work are distorting the ‘natural order’ of the sexes. What gargantuan bollocks.
(BTW, an outstandingly well-researched and -written book on neglected pre-19th century women novelists was published by Dale Spender in 1986, entitled Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen; sadly, it’s out of print, but you can click on the image of the book, on your right here, and the link will automatically take you to a search of the title on the excellent Bookfinder website. It’s likely you’ll be able to buy it for pennies, and it remains a fantastic work in the field of literature studies.)
Arguably, in the 19th century, Jane Eyre is the novel most noteworthy for expanding the possibilities and potential of what women’s characters could do and be, how they could behave and talk, what they could become, in novels by both men and women (William Makepeace Thackeray, for one, was decidedly impressed and influenced by the novel). I also think you can see some of the psychological qualities inherent in Charlotte Bronte’s writing in later Dickens and George Eliot. Both Charlotte and Jane, together, as it were, became a benchmark to contrast and challenge traditional attitudes and thinking about women’s lives; in particular for two key reasons: that women do indeed have their own interior lives and consciousness and, of equal importance, that women had legitimate viewpoints and intelligence to express on equal terms with men. While it may be overstating the case, I believe Jane Eyre’s character was one of the many social contributing factors for women increasingly to recognise opportunities for and empowerment of themselves; to express themselves using their own voices with their own thoughts; to be passionate and determined to challenge their straightjacketed lives that in turn evolved into the suffragette movement.
The only other novel that springs to mind in the 19th century that is as passionate and as vivid as Jane Eyre, is Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights, and her character, Catherine Earnshaw (and anyone who’s read that will know the passion reflected through the characters and descriptions of nature are far more vivid and intensely alive than that of Charlotte’s/Jane’s own viewpoint; certainly Emily’s/Catherine’s intensity of expressed feelings about nature and Heathcliff are far more radical and deeper when compared with Charlotte’s/Jane’s. As one critic put it, Emily Brontë “captured the zeitgeist of romanticism despite her physical and cultural isolation”. Nevertheless, Jane Eyre’s sense of her own integrity and character remains intact, despite her circumstances and the many challenges she has to suffer and overcome; whereas Catherine, according to Emily’s narrative, is never given such a choice, or options of such freedom; the fatalistic qualities that drive Wuthering Heights are both one of its huge strengths and its claustrophobic weaknesses as a novel (but it’s still brilliant).
Jane Eyre is an astonishing novel and, besides her sibling’s unique work, it remains one of the most vivid, dramatic, compelling and emotionally rich fictions published in the 19th century. I suspect if you’ve read this far, you’ll already know my answer to the question-posing title of this article: Jane Eyre – Wonderful, radical heroine or just an uppity loudmouth feminist? She is, of course, a wonderful, feminist radical heroine; there’s nothing whatsoever that is uppity or loudmouth about her and she is only perceived that way by those who themselves are obnoxious and badgering. I suspect the evolutionary psychologists would present a different answer, but then I’m bloody well jolly delighted to say I’ve never believed in the ‘natural order’ of things; to paraphrase de Beauvoir, we are made, not born, into our gendered lives, and what we make of them is, ultimately, up to us. Who better for us modern readers, than Jane Eyre as the representative motivational standard-bearer of this truth, who ultimately achieves true happiness in her life by learning, always thinking and, when she can, challenging the status quo on a journey defined not by any sense of achieving an ultimate goal, but by finding meaning and understanding in response to the journey itself by being true to herself. Jane Eyre the novel, and Jane Eyre the character, are remarkable achievements, irrespective of genre, sex of author or century and, as with all classics, remains in print and continues to be lovingly read and widely loved.
Note on a Great Edition
First, if you don’t mind, let me highlight an important point about the choice of what particular edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to buy/loan. Obviously there are a number of perfectly respectable cheaper paperback versions available, instead of the one I’m recommending to you — the Penguin Classics paperback edition of 2006 (not earlier; see the image on your left, which you can use to buy the book) — such as this one from the wonderful Wordsworth Classics publisher and which is less than half the price of the Penguin version, even after discount. Sorry!
However, the very good reason I’ve selected this one is because of the excellent and unmatched introduction and other editorial material, commissioned by Penguin Classics for its 2006 edition, written by Stevie Davies, the well-respected novelist and academic. Not only does she write with grace and style, but also she delivers much insight, wisdom and appreciation about the novel, its themes, symbolism, psychological perspectives, as well as on Charlotte Brontë and her historical, social and literary contexts; in addition to which, as you’d expect from an authoritative edition, Davies provides excellent notes, further reading, appendices and more besides. Okay, so moving on …
I’ve just read The Blind Owl, first published in Farsi in 1937 by Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat (confusingly, his name is spelt in two different ways, depending on when/where he was published in English/American editions). It is a hallucinatory tale that is simultaneously sinister, troubling, disturbing — yet always compellingly so. The eeriness itself, its atmosphere, is reminiscent of Poe’s famous short story, The Tell-tale Heart, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Kafka’s claustrophobic environments and strange experiences in The Castle and in the city of Joseph K.’s The Trial. It strikes me that the author has consciously accounted for these influences, though there may be many others from Persian/Iranian literature, which provided his own cultural background.
So how could you not be drawn in? After all, it is a story of madness, obsession and horrific murder, even — perhaps — necrophilia, and of lying down with her in bed as she decomposes (I say perhaps because his madness or at least derangement and hallucinatory frame of mind makes uncertain whatever he says or claims to have done). Some of this, understandably, does sound like some sort of gross-out horror story, right? Actually, parts are, just a tad, but nothing compared to the provocative gross-out crimes to be found in certain fictions by such entertaining writers as — sorry, these examples are just off the top of my head, not some well-thought through/ranked list — Joe R. Lansdale, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates (especially her novel, Zombie), Stephen King, Val McDermid and Hubert Selby, Jr..
But I assure you, while shocking/horrific, it’s more that you feel disturbed than grossed out, I think (unless I’m some sort of psychonut and just can’t tell anymore — ahem). The tale is sophisticated and complex and at the same time it is ‘told’ to you in such a matter-of-fact way — albeit in a poeticised form of mad narrative, it does all remain coherent, rather than something out of Joycean stream-of-conscious — that inevitably it is disturbing, though surely this should be the case of any tale of madness?
The English translation by D. P. Costello — in fact, it is the one originally commissioned and first published in the UK way back in 1957 — is clear, using accessible language, and yet, as I’ve indicated, it is also deeply poetic. The language itself, though, is part of the tricksiness/duplicity of the story, in that you begin to realise — by which time it is too late anyway to do anything about it — that you are being lulled into a false sense of security, of trusting the narrator, and you become increasingly aware that the simplicity of the telling is part of a trap the author has set you, the reader… you, read on innocently, uncertain of the future you are about to imbibe, and almost immediately the author has a stranglehold on you as you’re imprisoned in the character’s mind; yet the quality of the language, and the compelling strangeness of the story itself make you feel as if your eyelids are forced open and you’re being made to watch. Akin, I felt, to that famous scene — I refer you, dear reader, to the lovely image left/above in this paragraph — with Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971), in which the charming sadist Alex is being forcefully ‘reconditioned’ to become conformist and obedient. Except here, the power alone of The Blind Owl is enough to glue you to itself. Now that’s quality fiction for you.
The narrator comes across as an unassuming, simple man, who makes his living as an artist creating designs on the lids of pen-cases. The design is always the same image — ‘in the grip of a mad obsession’, as he sometimes unconsciously refers to himself as if his actions were those of another — the design is of ‘a Cypress tree at the foot of which is squatting a bent old man bent like a fakir [… and] a woman ‘holding a flower of morning glory in her hand. Between them runs a stream’. This is one of many phrases he repeats throughout the telling of his tale.
You soon realise that madness is central to the story as is murder (or, that the madness itself is caused by the murder). A handful of pages in, and he’s describing to you the severing of his wife’s head with a knife, and his disposal of her body is grotesque and surreal, involving amputation, a heavy suitcase — three guesses as to why — and a creepy old man who helps him bury it. But has he really done these things or are they, in fact, delusions/fantasies? Either way, whether he’s ‘only’ deranged and has fantasised about killing of his wife, or if he actually has, you can’t help but read on, Alex-like, ‘looking’ at what is happening to him, in the same unhealthily curious way drivers/passers-by often look at a traffic accident, wanting, yet not wanting, to ‘witness’ the horror, blood, guts and terror of it in stark reality. Yet probably most of us do look. It is like that here; it is genuinely disturbing to think we, in ways comparable to the narrator, can’t help ourselves.
Clearly, the narrator is having — or has experienced — what seems a complete nervous breakdown/break from reality, and the world he describes is that of a socio/psychopath, though he never really sees himself as such or, if he does, it’s only momentary; a fleeting thought. He has no real sense of time, admitting that an event of a thousand years ago may seem to him more real than something that occurred yesterday. On top of which, he has an addiction to opium — in ever-increasing daily doses, and is drinking wine. You know from how he describes himself and his situation that he is absolutely conflicted and confused in a number of ways: he wants — is compelled — to tell you his story, yet at the same time he tells you he smokes opium because he wants to forget; and that he’s not even sure what really happened: ‘life is a fiction’, he says early on, ‘a mere story’. And here we are, smack in the heart of it. He doesn’t seem to sleep, he hardly eats or if he’s eating, it’s making no positive difference to him… he is becoming a ‘shadow’, he says, just wasting away: ‘A sensation which had long been familiar to me was this, that I was slowly decomposing while I yet lived’. He is alienated, an outsider, despising and being disgusted by others and has no value for or appreciation of his own life: in these ways he is reminiscent of the central characters of two existentialist novels in particular (though this novel was published before both of these; did this novel influence the two authors and their fiction I’m about to cite?!): Meursault, in Camus’ Outsider, and Antoine in Sartre’s Nausea. In The Blind Owl, the character thinks that ‘For some reason all activity, all happiness on the part of other people made me feel like vomiting. I was aware that my own life was finished and was slowly and painfully guttering out’; he has nightmares of beheadings, of butchering; the butcher’s opposite drawing his eye when the former works away with his knife into the flesh of his dead animals just delivered to him; he obsesses about the knife, he buys one exactly like the butcher’s own.
Such a breakdown doesn’t exclude his own sane insights into his self and circumstances and events, yet these thread through as a pattern in a cloth of a different colour overall (for example, just two pages into the story, while admitting his one ‘fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself’, he immediately goes on to say ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people’). These and others demonstrate moments of genuine self-awareness/insight, yet you know they’re not the threads holding the entire cloth together anymore; his sanity is in that sense a sort of occasional, remote echo, one of many operating levels both psychological as well as verbal in the telling of his story. In fact, only in the first an very very brief chapter, in effect a prologue, does he seem to be entirely compos mentis, as he leads on to say he is determined to make sense of it all ….
You know that he utterly loathes his wife, and he obsesses and returns time and again to key phrases and expressions, just like someone with a serious psychological fissure/crack in their worldview. Yet even his hatred for his wife — he only ever refers to her as ‘the bitch’ ‘because no other name would suit her so well’ and he believes her to have had countless affairs; not even affairs, as such, but animalistic, sexual betrayals, sleeping with anyone she chooses — and yet his hatred appears to be based upon love and lust turned dark, inwards, brooding, sadistic in tone and, ultimately, vengeful. You come to understand that because his love for her is unreciprocated (as we know, this perennial theme of revenge/murder occurs often, whether in real life or in fiction). He believes she never truly cared for him, unless possibly when she was a child; he has loved her since then. You’re also never quite sure what is part of his own inner world; his temptations and perceptions based on manifestations of rage and frustration, and instead to what degree he has truly acted upon what he refers to — especially, of course, the killing of his wife. You do know that he is morbidly consumed by her, and wants to consume her; that he feels humiliated, ridiculed and belittled by her sexual betrayals and the whole local population knowing what’s going on.
It ends as it begins, the character with his psychosis, his derangement, his endless circling, repeating thoughts and memories and hallucinatory memories; his guilt weighing down on him … or is that weight he feels on his chest bearing down on him actually the body/remains of his wife? You decide.
At first the author’s relentless use of certain stock phrases may irritate you, as it did me, and you may find yourself thinking is this just bad writing?! and doesn’t the author know he’s repeating himself?! But of course, he’s not obsessively repeating himself, rewinding and spiralling down and up and back and forth like a distressed mouse in a mad scientist’s maze. Rather, you recall, that you are in his character’s world (doh — yes, I know I is a muppet!). The stock phrases are typically haunting and seemingly disconnected/disassociated from the real world; hey include ‘I am writing only for my shadow’; ‘I saw a bent old man sitting at the foot of a cypress tree with a young girl […] The old man was biting the nail of the index finger of his left hand’. He often hears a ‘mocking laugh, of a quality to make the hairs on one’s body stand on end’; the laugh issues from his own mouth – sometimes he’s aware of this, sometimes not and attributes to others, or perhaps it is others, or bother; but there is darkness, and there is a sense of death he, and you the reader, have. He thinks ‘Only death does not lie’; well, he’s not dead, so is he telling the truth? Besides which, there are many other strange memories/and repeated, recollected phrases. All of these are hugely effective; you go from thinking WTF to god, this is bloody good and creepy!; voyeuristically, sadistically, you delight in the telling of the tale; you’re thinking, wow, this guy really is deranged and you keep on turning the pages, reading as quickly as you can. And at the same time you feel for him, knowing he could well be a sadistic murderer of his own wife, so you also feel disgusted, appalled; creeped out; yes, horribly, delightfully so, for a fiction reader’s need of suspension of disbelief. Yet you also feel conflicted, because he may ‘only’ be deranged and actually needs therapeutic help (and staying off the opium and wine wouldn’t be a bad idea — unless he did kill her!). The narrative, then, has real power.
It is well worth the read, despite its cover price (after all, it’s only 150 pages in length, and that’s because of some generous layout/design — my first Harvill paperback edition of the same translation only had 98 pages). On this point, however, the link I have embedded in the book cover’s image at the top of this post is to online booksellers, BookDepository.com, and they have provided a 19% discount from the RRP and include free delivery wherever you are in the world, so you’re paying a total, inclusive price of €7.21 / £6.45 / $10.38, which surely we all agree is better than a kick in the rubber parts, right? (Okay, so most things are…) On another positive note, OneWorld Classics, which has produced this edition, is an imprint within an excellent indie publisher and, as with their other editions and imprints, this is high-quality, as you should rightly expect.
On a sad note, however, it is disappointing that this marvellous fiction and Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat himself don’t seem more read or known to non-Persian readers of world literature, as it deserves a wider audience and reputation, along with the publication and promotion of some of his other works into English (there’s only one other, listed in my last sentence, below, as far as I can tell, that is available). After all, during the author’s lifetime he was regarded as the foremost Persian/Iranian writer of fiction and I believe he remains so in Iran and among Persian readers and, no doubt, a select group of others. Also, English-speaking reviewers and publications have already raved about it since its first publication here by Calder publishers in 1957, including The Guardian — I’m afraid this link is the only one to an actual review and not general info about the name highlighted, unlike the others in this paragraph — the award-winning, throbbingly big-brained playwright Tom Stoppard, the award-winning poet, Ted Hughes, The Times Literary Supplement — which I regard as the world’s most respected, widely-read and most wonderful of all intellectual journals — and the novelist, Alan Warner, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award for his first and most well-known novel Morvern Caller. But, of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that a literary classic and great writer has been overlooked or is republished in subsequent decades, yet still has the tendency not to be more widely known (Paula Fox comes to mind as one such example of this phenomenon). Anyway, I can assure you that, once read, you certainly won’t forget it. So! …Now I can’t wait to read a collection of Hidayat/Hedayat’s short stories: Three Drops of Blood. Bring it oooooon (erm, yes, I do get rather excited by great books — phwor!).
Jean Rhys wrote this as a novelistic, literary response to Charlotte Bronte‘s classic and brilliant 19th century novel, Jane Eyre. (If you haven’t read the latter, it is not necessary to do so first, to appreciate Rhys’ work; however, if you do read it first, and Wide Sargasso Sea afterwards, inevitably, I think, you will gain a richer, deeper appreciation of just how clever and powerful Rhys is in this novella and will see it as a sort of dialogue across the centuries between two brilliant novelists from two vastly different childhoods and life experiences.)
The reason Rhys felt compelled to write this sort of creative response to Jane Eyre, was because she wanted to re-position and put to the forefront of her readers’ attention the character of Mrs Rochester, the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’ of Bronte’s original novel. Rhys felt that Bronte had treated Mrs Rochester poorly, not only because she remains in the background, like some scary Gilmanesque wallpaper, but also because of her portrayal there as somewhat two-dimensional – if you think this is unfair, just remind yourself of the depth and complexity Bronte gives her other secondary characters in Jane Eyre). Instead, we meet only disembodied madness, in lieu of any literary effort to convince the reader that she possesses a real identity (and is not simply being possessed!), of her comprising flesh and blood and having her own thoughts and feelings; she certainly has no voice of her own in the original and Bronte seems to think nothing of this (perhaps because of her being influenced by Gothic novelists, as so many 19th century writers were, and in such fiction, mad characters were usually ghoulish and unreal; absurdly so, even). But Rhys, whether rightly or wrongly, also attributed these problems of characterisation to Bronte’s own ideological viewpoint and socialisation (educational and social/societal upbringing): namely one where many of her own class, and others besides, in the 19th century society, were typically pro-colonialist/pro-imperialist and often racist, too (so Mrs Rochester’s Creole history is innately attributed to her madness).
Rhys challenged such perspectives by writing her own interpretation in fiction, a novella that in part is a ‘pre-history’ of the events in Jane Eyre (although, significantly, her last section corresponds to a major event in that novel, with the burning of Mr Rochester‘s house). Most importantly, Rhys focuses her attention on the female white Creole, Antoinette Cosway – in Jane Eyre we know her only, first, as the mysterious madwoman in the attic, until later, when we know her as Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester. (By the way — if you’re interested in the subject of how women and madness – and mad women! — is represented in literature in the 19th century and beyond, by male and female writers, there are two truly outstanding, landmark literary feminist studies readily available: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary ImaginationElaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980. And for one focused on the sexual politics of literature, I still think the landmark feminist literary classic, Sexual Politics by Kate Millet, is the best.)
As a result of Antoinette/Bertha’s character being placed front and centre in Sargasso, Rhys creates a range of reader perspectives, understandings and emphases that contrast sharply with Jane Eyre — not least in that, with Rhys’ fiction, Antoinette at long last has been given her own voice and thoughts, as a result of which she gains her own identity and humanity for the first time, instead of being relegated to the status of symbol, and ‘only’ being imprisoned in a space of madness and silence, one that for which — in both fictions — Mr Rochester is responsible. But Rhys is no optimist as a writer — see below for further comments on this matter – more a ‘negative realist’ to Bronte’s ‘positive realism’ and so Antoinette/Bertha’s outcome remains the same in both fictions. However, in Sargasso, we none the less have something else, too – something fundamentally richer and more rewarding in one important regard: when it comes to Antoinette/Bertha, unlike in Jane Eyre, we have gained an in-depth understanding of and insight to the character’s original circumstances and motivations that lead to her madness and death.
This is a powerful, haunting, hallucinatory and deeply poetic fiction (the style, in these terms, is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved); it is a compelling and heartbreaking story of love unrequited, leading to madness. The story, split into three parts, has the first set in Jamaica, from the viewpoint of Antoinette as a child and in her youth, living on her plantation; the second section in Dominica, is about the marriage and is from both Mr Rochester’s imperialist viewpoint and patriarchal sensibility — he only marries her as an arrangement established by his father to gain Antoinette’s sizeable dowry and land – as well as from Antoinette’s perspective. Through both of them, we come to understand her troubling, unbearable circumstances: not least, that she knows that Rochester has had a sexual relationship with one of her female servants, while all the time supposedly being devoted to her. Meanwhile, you experience Rochester’s own confusion and growing revulsion towards the local people and their way of living, his loathing of the heat and the tropical intensity of the Caribbean, so alien to his upper-class English background. The last – and most dramatic part — has the reader returning to ‘Antoinette’, now Bertha, who is not only left without anyone who cares and feels for her plight, but is imprisoned, literally — the original ‘mad woman in the attic’ — in Rochester’s house in England; a terrifying, distressing world she neither understands nor values, and in which there is no love for her, nor communication – and symbolically, too, in silence and her nightmarish visions; she is effectively made persona non grata as a result of her being locked away and out of sight, before she commits her last act of desperation.
Throughout the story, you experience the intense feelings and views of all those involved, and the stifling physical environment of Antoinette’s original home; you also feel the insecurity and uncertainty of the prescribed gender roles and psychological and material motivations of Antoinette and Mr Rochester, as well as the locals, including the servants. There is no ultimate exit or freedom for the female; and for Mr Rochester there is only unremitting nature of the patriarchal power structure and his troubled self, such that it deprives him of any meaningful identity, beyond that of his family’s expectations and a prescribed role for his own masculinity and authority. Sargasso is a powerful read, troubling and passionate, and a unique and profound creative take on issues of identity (especially including Colonial, slave, and the power dynamic between England and the Caribbean), sexuality and madness.
It is a fascinating, moving and clever re-interpretation of the story told in Jane Eyre. Frankly, it is remarkable and, also, it is genuinely unique in Rhys’ oeuvre – nothing else she wrote before compares with it in terms of its poetic, hallucinatory atmosphere; yet what is consistent ever-present in her writing, including within this novella, is the depth of Rhys’ psychological understanding of female isolation, anguish, subjugation and survival (in her oeuvre, her women characters, sadly, rarely have the opportunity to live and enjoy themselves; in this way, interestingly, she echoes Anita Brookner’s women, though the latter writer’s own seem always to have some ‘room of their own’, of financial independence, and often find some way eventually to live on their own terms, all be them compromised in some way from experience as a result of their dealings with men).
RECOMMENDATION FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T READ JANE EYRE, BUT INTEND TO
Even though there are cheaper, decent editions available, such as the one by Wordsworth publishers, I highly recommend instead that you buy/read the Penguin Classics 2006 edition, especially because of its outstanding, wonderful introductory essay — both insightful and wise — by Stevie Davies, the novelist and academic. Please note that it must be at least 2006 copyrighted/publication date, otherwise you won’t find Davies’ essay in it, as there are several other Penguin editions before this one, with Davies as editor.
RECOMMENDATION FOR STUDENTS:
If this novella is on your reading list, then I recommend Penguin’s Student Edition, edited by Hilary Jenkins. This is a genuinely worthwhile and helpful edition for students. Jenkins has written quality editorial material from start to finish: she provides not only a clear introduction, highlighting the distinctive qualities and structure of the story, but also a brief chronology of the author’s life, very helpful notes on Creole language and phrasing, as well as historical points, exam- and essay-related questions you’d expect to have to answer as a student, as well as a separate section on the story’s geographical, cultural and historical setting/context. Importantly, Jenkins concludes with Critical Responses to the novella, as well as suggested further critical/academic reading. None the less, do please try to read Stevie Davies’ introduction in the Penguin Classics edition. Frankly, either edition would suit you as a student, and both editions’ introductions are worthwhile to all other readers interested in a more in-depth approach that explain clearly both Sargasso and Jane Eyre in terms of their respective literary histories, authors and themes.