Charlotte Brontë May Have Started the Fire, But Jean Rhys Burned Down the House
Brooklyn, New York
Wide Sargasso Sea and The Limits of Bronte Feminism
In November of last year, Tin House published the text of a speech given by the author Claire Vaye Watkins, in which she spoke frankly of the various intersecting systems of privilege that affect the publishing world. Her main focus was the industry’s domination by men, their tastes and their interests, which even writers who are not men keep in mind when working toward literary success. The rousing essay ended with this call to arms: “Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”
I thought of this speech this week, on the 200th anniversary of a famous literary house fire otherwise known as Jane Eyre—Charlotte Brontë’s novel about the eponymous “poor, obscure, plain and little” governess who quietly triumphs over several archetypal gothic adversaries: poverty, cruelty, a castle, a ghost, a brooding Byronic lover. Jane Eyre endures because it’s the story of an underdog, surely, as is the story of the author herself. Diminutive Charlotte and her sisters published their novels from their home in the Yorkshire moors, first under male pen names before being welcomed into important literary circles as women writers. Of Brontë, whose heroine notoriously requires the gruff, hot Mr. Rochester to regard her as a true partner before she will wed him, “equal—as we are,” Matthew Arnold complained in 1853: “The writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage, and therefore that is all she can, in fact, put in her book.” This, of course, is an excellent blurb for a novel in 2016, and cause to study Jane Eyre as a proto-feminist text….
There are other reasons that cultural objects get to hang around for multiple centennials, however, and rarely can a book’s radicalism alone account for its longevity in popular imagination. You might consider how Jane Eyre, not unlike the work of another famous but non-fictional Jane, in addition to being groundbreaking, is very safe. Jane E. might at first deny the hands of Rochester and her cousin St. John Rivers because they want to control her, but she does get married, eventually, all while maintaining her quiet dignity, her resilience, and her piety—meaning that her self-actualization is still in the service of morality, a Christian, patriarchal one. It is important to remember who exactly burns down the house in Jane Eyre, because it isn’t Jane. The arsonist of the novel is Bertha, Rochester’s shut-in wife, the infamous woman in the attic, and if a radical core can be found in Brontë’s work, it’s with her. Which is to say that the novel’s real potential for systemic annihilation is not the novel itself, and brings me to another anniversary, a 50th birthday, of Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre: Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966…
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