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This is the prequel to Jane Eyre, the story of Antoinette Cosway, later Antoinette Mason, later Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester. It starts with her childhood; she lives with her mother on a decaying plantation surrounded by newly liberated and angry slaves. They are burnt out of their home and rescued by Mr Mason who marries Antoinette's mother who then goes mad. Following her step-father's death, Antoinette is 'sold' to Mr Rochester, a second son in need of money who marries her for her extensive dowry. An idyllic honeymoon goes sour when accusations are made about Antoinette's ancestry (the letter arrives almost exactly half way through the book) which suggest hereditary insanity (possibly caused by white blood tainted with black?). Mr Rochester (never explicitly named), once an attentive lover, becomes distant. She tries to win him back with Obeah and love potions which he perceives as an attempt to poison him; he shags a servant girl. Antoinette, called Bertha by her husband, goes mad and is taken to England. The final part of the book is narrated by Grace Poole, her keeper.
There were moments of extraordinary beauty in the book. The descriptions of the colourful and shrieking West Indian countryside were perfect and sometimes made perfect metaphors: "small pale flowers too fragile to resist the wind". Yet somehow the physicality enters with Mr R: perhaps it is because his part, part two, is the section which deals with two young adults on their honeymoon whilst section one deals with the perceptions of a child. There were wonderful moments: "The rain began to drip down the back of my neck adding to my feeling of discomfort and melancholy."; A man who has "A magnificent body and a foolish conceited face."; "The room was full of the scent of crushed flowers" )after Mr R has stepped on a wreath of frangipani; interesting use for wreath which can be for bridegrooms or, as the dialogue suggests, for emperors but can also betoken funerals).
The unreliable narrator is very much to the fore. Given that one of the narrators (Antoinette) goes mad and that there seems to be blame attached to the other main narrator (Mr R), this could scarcely not be the case. But the whole damn island is full of lies. Mr R finds a road in the jungle and asks one of the West Indians: "No road" is the reply. Blank denial, bare-faced lying. These people all lie and not just the blacks but all of them. There is never any idea of what might be the truth.
One of my favourite lines is: "I was young then. A short youth mine was."
A very interesting, very short novel. February 2016; 123 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57