The Madwoman in the Attic

Awhile back, I wasted an evening watching the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre, something that every former lit major should avoid. I loved the novel for its depiction of the vivid, rich inner life of a proud introvert who is passionately engaged in her life despite the fact that she knows it to be outwardly pathetic. The movie, unable to reproduce the character's inner liveliness, reduced the story to a melodramatic and utterly unlikely romance between a poor orphan and an arrogant nobleman. I had wasted marital chits on a movie that I hated as much as my wife knew she would. (Sports movies, here we come. Sigh.)

Watching the movie sent me back to Jean Rhys’s astonishing Wide Sargasso Sea, which I remembered as an imagining of Bertha Rochester’s backstory, asking how, exactly, did the madwoman in the attic get there to begin with? I’ve lately been stripping my bookshelves, getting rid of novels I know I won’t read again, like Rhys’s earlier sharply drawn portraits of women I have no interest in reading about: alcoholics waiting for some man to save them and getting dumped over and over. But Wide Sargasso Sea will remain with me. I had forgotten—or did I never quite register?—the fact that it’s a keen micro-portrait of what happened to the Dominican Republic after emancipation.

Americans forget, sometimes, that the British led the way on ending slavery, and did so without a war, despite tremendous costs to powerful British colonial merchants and landowners. After decades of moral debate, the British anti-slavery movement (led in part by crusading Member of Parliament William Wilberforce) ended the British slave trade in 1807; in 1833, Parliament passed an act to end all slavery in the British empire. They didn’t do it perfectly; slave owners were partly compensated for their losses, while those who were freed got nothing for their years of forced labor and ended up much as the American South’s freed slaves did: poor, barely paid, and abused. (Speaking of which, today's organization Free the Slaves is working hard to learn from that experience; when they free contemporary slaves in India or protect African children from being captured into slavery, they make sure they offer the education, capital, and services those people need to survive afterward.)

Ending slavery in the British colonies, early in the 19th century, was an unmitigated good. There is no defense whatsoever for owning human beings. But reading about a heroic movement’s struggles does not tell us what it was like for those involved. How does the shift from one way of life to another affect individual people, black, white, and Creole? Who profits and who is crushed by enormous historical transformations? What small and large cruelties can human beings inflict on one another, avenging themselves even on those personally innocent of historical crimes? In particular, what happens to a poor Creole girl whose family has been destroyed from the outside in and the inside out, who cannot go out to make her fortune, as a boy might?

That’s where great fiction comes in. Rhys’s sentences are like Picasso’s line drawings: perfectly drawn, every word implying far more than you’d imagine possible, making the white space between the sentences come deeply alive. Here the young and terrified Antoinette Cosway walks for the first time to a convent school, tormented by two black children who are preying gleefully on her family’s weakness, simply because they can:

The boy only said, ‘One day I catch you alone, you wait, one day I catch you alone.’ … A long empty street stretched away to the convent, the convent wall and a wooden gate. I would have to ring before I could get in. The girl said, ‘You don’t want to look at me, eh, I make you look at me.’ She pushed me and the books I was carrying fell to the ground.

I stopped to pick them up and saw that a tall boy who was walking along the other side of the street had stopped and looked toward us…. As soon as they saw him, they turned and walked away…. I would have died sooner than run when they were there, but as soon as they had gone, I ran. I left one of my books on the ground and the tall boy came after me.

‘You dropped this,’ he said, and smiled. I knew who he was, his name was Sandi, Alexander Cosway’s son. Once I would have said ‘my cousin Sandi’ but Mr Mason’s lectures had made me shy about my coloured relatives. I muttered, ‘Thank you.’

I am moving very slowly through the tiny book, because I want to reread every page, listening to what is not written there. I haven’t even met Mr. Rochester yet; I keep rereading the tormented beginning. Do read it. And don’t watch the movie.

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