In this prelude to Jane Eyre, Ms. Rhys breathes life into the insane first wife of Rochester — Bertha Mason — from Charlotte Bronte’s book, Jane Eyre. This story is set in the 19th century, in a chaotic, confused, post-emancipation Caribbean. Rhys artfully depicts the complicated ethnic mosaic of the time. She put faces on the suffering and the hatred; the things which lead to a terrible tragedy. The story unfolds in an untamed forest, dark, dangerous, and beautiful.
We learn about the events in Bertha Mason’s life which led to her madness. Rhys humanizes this mad woman in the attic; it is a sobering indictment of colonialism. We “see the other side” of the story.
My favorite quote from this book, comes from Antoinette (the Bertha character) when she is trying to explain to Rochester why her own half-brother hates her so much:
He hates all white people, but he hates me the most. He tells lies about us and he is sure that you will believe him and not listen to the other side.’ ‘Is there another side?’ I said. (Rochester)
‘There is always the other side, always.”
The style of Rhys’ writing definitely breaks with the customary. The narrator changes, the pages are peppered with vivid imagery, the dialogue toggles between a dream-like lilt and a fevered staccato, and it really took quite an effort to hang in there. Very much worth it, though!