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?


  1. Interesting, Helen! I have not read The Wide Sargasso Sea, but completely agree with you about Death Comes to Pemberley. Great title, awesome cover, legendary author, but it was a bit of a hollow visit with familiar characters.

    I’m reading Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy now, which has been called a modern-day Jane Eyre. I have to say, I’m enjoying it. Wonderfully atmospheric and even though I have a sense of how things will develop, she takes her time and really wallows in the details, which I like.

    To answer your question, I think Austen would agree with James’ treatment of Lydia because she painted a full-on narcissist (sp.) even before there was such a diagnosis. There is no redemption for Lydia because it is not in her character. Glad James was true to Austen’s creation.

    Comment by Pat — February 21, 2012 @ 12:27 am | Reply

  2. Years ago I read a lighthearted and fun sequel to P&P that was also a murder mystery, so I was a bit confused about this new PD James book (and I have read a lot of PD James, love Adam Dalgliesh). I can’t find it now among all the sequel/fanfic novels available. But I can agree that trying to write like Austen is probably the wrong tack.

    Let me be clear about Rochester. He’s not just a bit creepy. He is everything you would not want your daughter to fall in love with. Regardless of Bertha, he lies, manipulates, stalks, has a short temper, and will not take Jane’s desires into account. For me one of the most telling scenes is when he wants to take her shopping and refuses to listen to what she wants (a few practical things) but instead wants to lavish her with expensive things to his taste. And he flies off the handle when Jane told Adele she could come. He has no empathy. Zero empathy. I think the book is about power. He has all the power and does not even begin to understand or accept how he is misusing it. Jane can marry him in the end because she has some money, so therefore a bit of power herself, but also because he has lost vision and strength. That takes me back to the shopping scene. He wanted to adorn Jane to please himself. Now, he’s blind and Jane can wear whatever she damn well pleases and he won’t even know! And how obvious is the losing of his right hand to ameliorating his quick temper! So he might still have a temper, but cannot strike out. Sure, years and years of her devoted love and he is mellowed and therefore Charlotte allows him to start getting his sight back, but he is not in a position to abuse that increased power anymore.

    Comment by Dorothy — February 21, 2012 @ 10:04 am | Reply

  3. Pat and Dorothy, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad to hear about both Gemma Hardy’s book and P.D. James’s other works–if you recommend them, they must be worth checking out!

    Certainly Lydia’s behavior that Austen chooses for inclusion in her story is completely narcissistic, but after reading James’s story, which portrayed Lizzie as well as Jane as So Very, Very, Good, I started wondering whether those older sisters might have been just a bit TOO full of Goodness for their younger siblings to take. What might Lydia have to say about their upbringing, I wonder–or Mary, whom Austen portrays as such a plodder?

    Dorothy, I love your passion and refusal to mince any words about Rochester. Points well taken, and I hope to write another post on this subject in the near future. In the meantime, for a real-life 19th-century example of a man you would never, EVER want your daughter to fall in love with or marry, check out “Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais,” by Suzanne Fagence Cooper.

    Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — February 25, 2012 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

    • Effie sounds good! Will check it out. Thanks, Helen.

      Comment by Pat — February 25, 2012 @ 11:44 pm | Reply

  4. […] Deresiewicz’s “A Jane Austen Education” was a delightful companion read. (Disappointingly, P.D. James’s “Death Comes to Pemberley” didn’t come close to doing Jane justice and mainly underscored the rule against settling for substitutes. It did, however, raise some […]

    Pingback by From 2012 to 2013 « Law and Conversation — January 2, 2013 @ 12:01 am | Reply

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