Law and Conversation

February 21, 2012

Back Stories and Sequels: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre, and P.D. James and Jane Austen, too

From another literature-loving family member comes this link to a hilarious commentary by Sarah Rees Brennan on Charlotte Bronte’s classic 19th-century novel, “Jane Eyre.” It reminded me, of course, of Edan Lepucki’s wonderful essay from The Millions, “Mr. Rochester is A Creep,” which I noted some time ago.

I love Jane Eyre, and will defend her to the death, but Brennan and Lepucki have a point. Years before they wrote their pieces, in 1966, Jean Rhys wrote the back story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, nee Antoinette Cosway and explored Mr. Rochester’s creepy qualities to a degree that I’m certain Bronte never considered. Rhys’s novel is “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” awarded the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006.

Rhys’s novel was enthralling, at least in part, I think, because she didn’t try to imitate Charlotte Bronte’s style. The tropical colonial setting she chose for her story of Antoinette’s upbringing was as different as could be from Jane Eyre’s and Mr. Rochester’s England, which went far toward explaining Antoinette’s breakdown, and deserved its own style—not warmed-over Bronte.

Rhys did a great job of taking another author’s characters and putting them into her own story. But not all writers are as effective. A dear and thoughtful friend (thanks, MSH!) gave me P.D. James’s recently published sequel to Jane Austen’s 19th-century “Pride and Prejudice,” “Death Comes to Pemberley,” in which James uses Austen’s characters to continue the story. The book was a mildly fun read and held my interest, but ultimately left me only lukewarm. I think part of the problem was that, unlike Rhys, James strove to imitate Austen’s style. James may be a very fine writer when she tells a story in her own voice (alas, I haven’t read her other novels, though I know James has many, many devoted fans), but let’s face it: Nobody can possibly do Jane Austen the way Jane Austen did Jane Austen.

I’m glad I read James’s book, though: Her treatment got me thinking about the characters and led me to some insights that I might not have reached otherwise. It also gave me a good push to reread P&P after a couple of decades. In fact, as a result of reading James’s novel as well as Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” (my personal Best Book Read in 2010), I’m certain that I enjoyed this reread significantly more than I would have otherwise.

Lawyer literary buffs will be interested to know that James included passages on 19th-century English legal procedure in her book. She worked for years in contemporary British courts, and I’m certain she did her research on past practices. As I wrote earlier, “Jane Eyre” and “The Wide Sargasso Sea” raise a multitude of legal issues, especially about the treatment of women and of the mentally ill in days not so far gone by.

Wouldn’t it be fun to hear Charlotte Bronte’s and Jane Austen’s reactions to Rhys’s and James’s explorations of their characters? Would Bronte see that Mr. Rochester really is a bit creepy? Would Austen  agree with James’s continuation of Lydia’s unqualified dreadfulness? What do you think?

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