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Wide Sargasso Sea

Sunday, 24 July 2005

Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys

Continuing in my quest for fiction which emerges from other fiction, I finally filled a gap in my knowledge and read Wide Sargasso Sea the other week.

This is the story of Antionette, a Creole girl who finds herself marrying a man newly arrived from England in the 1830s. Her background, rejected by an insane mother, and his fear of her culture turns the relationship sour and causes her to go mad. Eventually, he takes her back to his home in England and locks her in the attic. The man is never named, but it is obvious who it is: Mr Rochester, the hero of Jane Eyre.

Rhys admitted when working on the novel that she had become fascinated by ‘Bertha’ from Jane Eyre and wanted to tell the other side of the story. Rhys came from a Jamacian background but had settled in London: in short, she wanted to see what had sent ‘Bertha’ mad. What, then, makes a novel such as this – or such as Pemberley - acceptable yet fanfic unacceptable to so many? Rhys’s motivation was to fill in a story from her own perspective, to expand a character who was just a cipher in the original work. And she didn’t have permission to use all these Bronte characters. Yet, as if the act of publication is alchemical, this is considered real fiction and not fan fiction. Strange.

What of the novel? I can see why someone was surprised I’d not read it. It plays with different points of view, it gives us conflicting narrators and cultures, with the voices of Antoinette and [Rochester] clearly expressed. Those are things which always tick my boxes – or push my buttons. It is rather sexy – the seductions of [Rochester] hum with night heat – and rather disturbing – the fractured voice in the final third is so far removed from the girl at the start. It also toys with imagery from Jane Eyre – storms and trees being split apart – which add to the knowingness: there can be no happy resolution to this gothic romance because as readers we already know the happy ending will go to Jane instead.

One difficulty I have in trying to describe the novel is resisting the urge to call it “the story of the first Mrs Rochester”. Why resist? It’s a neat phrase which immediately gives an idea of the story etc. Yet the novel is about reclaiming “the first Mrs Rochester” as a person in her own right, and about how Rochester forces her to sublimate her own identity under that of his idea of what a wife should be. It therefore seems to go against the theme of the novel to describe it with the neat phrase.

Fianlly, I always enjoy a novel which causes Orson Welles‘ voice to purr in my head.

Universally Acknowledged Truths

Tuesday, 10 May 2005

Pemberley: Or Pride And Prejudice Continued
by Emma Tennant
(1993)

It is a truth universally acknowlegded that all Pride & Prejudice pastishes, spoofs or reviews must be in want of an opening line which mimics the opening line of P&P. Right, that’s that over with.

I’m pro-fanfic. My Microcon talk a couple of years back was on the history of forms of fanfiction and the idea that, once a story is ‘out there’ a sign of its universality is if becomes reworked, rewritten and generally posessed by the audience. You can argue that the myth cycles (Arthur, Norse, Indian) etc are such stories: they capture your imagination to such an extent that you want more about the characters and situation. It is only in the industrial age that the notion of copyright, and the related idea of idea theft, comes into its own (I could disgress here about the commercialisation of the printed word but this isn’t the review for that). There’s notions of ‘canon’ and ‘fanon’ etc etc. It’s a fun world of shifting ownership of ideas.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is one of the first novels to gain a fan following, way before Dickens was packing them into the theatres or queues were forming outside the Strand magazine for the next Holmes installment[1]. P&P echoes through English culture: Gaskell’s North & South (185?) suggests the Mancunian novelist was utterly smitten by Elizabeth and Darcy’s sparky romance whilst Bridget Jones’ Diary reworks it as a modern chicklit novel. Obviously Lizzy & Darcy are not unsimilar to earlier romances (Beatrix and Benedict spring obviously to mind[2]) but they are the ur-romance of the last two centuries. Women still fall for Darcy.

Which is where Pemberley, Or Pride & Prejudice Continued comes in. Austen herself continued to consider her heroines’ lives but she had no knowledge of the intimacies of marriage. Indeed, there’s an argument that we never see happily married couples in Austen (Mr & Mrs Bennett being the most extreme example but Maria and Mr Collins is clearly only a sanguine relationship due to Maria’s diligence in avoiding her husband’s company). Tennant picks up the story of Lizzy Bennett a year into her marriage to Mr Darcy and, as one might expect, things are not perfect in this ‘happy ever after’.

Tennant, as far as I can tell from having read about half of The Bad Sister, writes about the interior lives of women and Pemberley, naturally, focuses on Elizabeth’s reaction to her new life. Jane is married to Bingley and about to produce a second child. Lydia has a whole passel of brats with Wickham. Mr Bennent has been summarily despatched to the great beyond and Mrs Bennent is concerned to secure a future for her two as-yet unmarried daughters, bookish Mary and impressionable Kitty. Elizabeth has yet to have a child and Lady de Burgh is preparing to ship in a distant cousin to take over should no heir arrive. And it’s going to be a family Christmas at Pemberley.

As with P&P, the differences between exterior and interior life – both mental and physical – are played with: the extended families go on a shooting party to the Yorkshire moors and Lizzy chided for wandering about the countryside. Confusions abound, causing Lizzy and Darcy to seperate. One major element is Lizzy’s belief that Darcy has had a child with “the Frenchwoman” who has now died. Combined with the Yorkshire moors and Lizzy’s running off to become a governess there are moments where this seems to be borrowing as heavily from Jane Eyre as from P&P (I must get around to Wide Sargasso Sea).

This could be a great sequel but for one key element: I didn’t find Tennant’s authorical voice convincing enough. We’ll slide over the fact she gives Mrs Bennent a narrative point-of-view (unlike the almost entirely Lizzy-based narrative of P&P) because really it’s the lack of a wickedly sly authorical voice which meant the novella left me cold. A Lizzy who lacks her spark is not terribly interesting, and Darcy’s absence makes this into a rather lacklustre sequel. Obviously, some of the point is to show the banality and new worries and fears of an older woman who is now married into social and familial responsibilies but it doesn’t put any relish into the authorial commentary on Lizzie’s behaviour.

Having been searching for this book for a while, as it helps me move into a more literary discussion of the story-reclaiming urge, I was pleased to find it in a charity shop. Having read it I’m vaguely disappointed that it does not make me want to believe it is ‘canon’.


[1] Although the Doctor’s “I’m your biggest fan!” scene with Dickens in the new Who made me roar with delight.

[2] “I do love nothing in the world so much as you, is that not strange?” Benedict remarks – a sentiment Darcy shares with his “I have struggled against my reason…” proposal.

Murder in Baker Street

Friday, 25 March 2005

Murder in Baker Street
edited by Greenberg, Lellenberg & Stashower
(2003)

I’ve been having a bit of a Sherlockian craze over the last few months and, having reread the Canon, I’ve moved onto the non-Canon. (Some of this I can blame of Kelly Hale, whose non-Canon Holmes novel I read a couple of years ago and which is finally getting published.)

This is a collection of short stories featuring Holmes and Watson by modern crime writers. There’s nothing very wrong, just the occassional jarring Americanism or a not-quite-right Watson voice, but they do seem to lack a certain something. It’s not that I am wedded to the Canon – I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Rupert Everett non-Canon adventure on the BBC – but the devilish detail doesn’t work in most of these. Some suffered from what we in the Doctor Who trade would call the HGWells effect: let’s get our famous fictional character to meet a famous author/person of the time and the historical one will be inspired by him! Thus Holmes is brought into a case, involving mysterious marks on someone’s neck and Mittel European servants getting all superstitious, by one Abraham Stoker.

The best was, I thought, A Hansom for Holmes which put aside Watson as a narrator in favour of a cabman who gets entangled in a case. This had the lively narration you want from Holmes, without trying to mimic ACD’s style.

Ah well, it passed the time until the New Annotated… arrived.


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