Scarlett and Lady Jane and I will begin a five week study of The Brontes on Wednesday. The Humanities Seminars' summer classes last for one month; the three sisters in the parsonage are our choice for May. Jane Eyre, Violette, and Wuthering Heights from the Brontes, Wide Sargasso Sea from the 20th century.
PBS, fortuitously, ran a three hour biography of the Bronte family, To Walk Invisible, in March, and Scarlett and I spent a lovely afternoon watching (with subtitles, because otherwise it was incomprehensible) these three young women care for their dissolute brother and their father and their home while they were writing, always writing, because It's what we do.
They took their own stories and embellished the details, just as they'd been doing since childhood. The juvenalia our professor provided as pre-class tantalizers echoes the PBS scenes of the children's fantasy play. They were creating their own stories from the world around them as soon as they could remember a plot. As they grew up, nothing really changed. Work as a governess? There's Jane Eyre. Wonder about the creepy big house looming over the town? It's Wuthering Heights incarnate. The background made the well-known stories more layered, perhaps a bit more sinister.
And sinister is what we found when we picked up Jane Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys's backstory to Antoinette, Mr. Rochester's mad wife. It had been my leave-in-the-car-for-when-there-is-nothing-else-to-read book for years; my copy was water logged and bent and unread past the first twenty pages or so. Scarlett bought one for her Kindle. Lady Jane purchased a pristine new copy. None of us could get past the first few pages.
Lady Jane, whose recovery is not helped by negativity, loaned me her nice new book; her bookmark was nestled deep into the first section and she wasn't going any further. Scarlett wondered if I was having trouble with the assignment; this was not an easy read. I, having started and stopped several times, spent Friday wondering if I'd try again and then, nursing TBG's gigantic headache on Saturday afternoon, I took out my hearing aids, snuggled next to my dozing-to-the-basketball husband, and opened it up.
It's 171 pages long. It ebbs and flows and I'd say it was like the ocean waves (banal) except there is no ocean in this Caribbean setting; there is only the river, deep in the forest, the forest the Rochester character finds so ominous and his wife finds so comforting. Rhys's Caribbean is sensual and scented and beautiful and terrifying. Set after Emancipation has come to Jamaica, the tangle of race and money and safety and beauty and love hamstring Antoinette, confusing and captivating and exposing her vulnerability.
It's the vulnerability which haunts the book, which she recognizes and is helpless to combat except when she (why? oh why?) acquiesces and the story tumbles on to the ultimate and awful conclusion. Except that the raging fire which ends both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea is as freeing to Antoinette as it is to Charlotte Bronte's Jane; I found myself smiling as I closed the back cover.
It took a few hours on a sunny afternoon to finish what I tried to stop reading several times along the way. The book takes you deep into awful places in the soul. It exposes fleeting thoughts of generosity and desire and disgust with equal weight and measure. While I couldn't help but judge their actions, I could also find myself completely understanding their motivations. Deftly, without much description, Rhys defines them and damns them.
This isn't an easy read. There are times when it is almost too painful to turn another page. I kept looking at page 171, wondering how soon I'd arrive. When I got there, though, I wanted to start it all over again. This is a work of literature - and work it most certainly is.