Most conversations we hold in person, sitting next to another as we travel on a train to an unknown or familiar destination, or as we enjoy a coffee break at work, or wait at a busy corner for the light to turn green. And then there are long-distance conversations, some by phone, others by instant message or email. And still others through more literary methods, with one author talking to another, even with one author's characters talking to another. This rather attenuated (though certainly not tenuous) form of communication is evidenced in the dialogue between Jean Rhys and Charlotte Bronte, or more accurately between the characters in Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea and Bronte's Jane Eyre.
The theme of Rhys's novel, and to a lesser extent of Bronte's, is that of doubling, of an image and its reflection, of a world that cannot be considered to be complete without twins. Rhys's novel contains a number of explicit references to doubled images, but on a broader level her entire novel is, of course, a double, a sort of doppelganger of Bronte's novel. For Rhys's novel is a second version of Bronte's novel. It is the same story told by a different person for a different reason. Rhys's version of the story is one in which nearly everything that Bronte assumes is questioned and often upended. The conversation that thus arises between the two women and their literary creations is one in which the truth of what is written by each is made clearer by what might be seen as the discrepancies between the reflections.
The main characters in the two novels are women who will greatly and greatly affect each other's lives as the two of them enter into the biography of the same man. As the first and then the second wife of the same man, the serve the same familial function in a world in which women were in many ways interchangeable. And yet both -- and especially Antoinette, Rhys's protagonist -- refuse simply to be an auxiliary in their own lives. Antoinette will not simply be a reflection of the world that she sees. She will claim a slice of life as her very own. Or go mad.
Doubling Across Gender
In general, the two books and the two women see another woman (often each other, but sometimes not) as their other self. For femaleness is replicable, is repeated in other femaleness: Women are always their own twins, the authors seem to suggest. But there are also times, and especially for Rhys, writing in a different time and for a different purpose than was Bronte, when women can find their other half in a man. So prevalent, and so pervasive, are the images of a doubled consciousness, that one can understand how this imagery alone would have prompted Rhys to write her answer to Bronte's novel, to make manifest the dialogue that was immanent in the text.
Both Jane and Antoinette can be seen as half-formed characters, half-finished souls. There is something essential missing from each one of them, something that has been taken from them at a young age that leads each one to a constant examination of herself. Ironically, that diminution of self is acted out in terms of a mirroring of self-identity: Knowing that they are somehow not enough, each woman constantly seeks completion in a mirror image of herself. Completion, and understanding of herself that can only be developed through a consideration of how others see her.
Miller (1985) argues that one needs to be attentive to different types of doubled-ness. A double of the self can come from the outside. When this happens (as it does in both novels) that doubled self feels as if it were a ghost or a possession, a demon that becomes part of one, a phantasmagorical pregnancy. But a sense of doubled-ness can also arise from the inside, from within the character herself that produces a sense of splitting and so of madness.
Madness as Sanity
Both novels address the issue of madness; indeed, the idea of madness is central to each of the books even though it appears to lie on the periphery, especially in Jane Eyre. The character of Bertha, that archetypal madwoman in the attic, is neither the hero nor the protagonist of the novel. She may or may not be the villain: Whether one believes her to be the villain (rather than Rochester himself, an equally valid reading of where the fault lies in the cast of characters in Bronte's novel) depends in no small part on how one reads the action of gender in the novel, a reading that depends itself in no small part on what year one is reading th novel in.)
Bertha's madness stands as a warning to Jane about her potential fate. Bertha's fall, her confinement, her isolation, her lack of being loved -- all these things haunt Jane in different ways. These terrors are only kept in check through the intervention of Grace Poole, a woman who is also a double for Jane. Grace is the external manifestation of Jane's internal controls. It is Grace her keeps under control all the uncontrollable aspects of Bertha that Jane feels bubbling up in herself. Or fears that she might feel bubbling up inside of herself.
Bronte makes it clear that Bertha would do untold damage without another woman there to protect her from herself as well as to protect the rest of the household. A woman on her own, for Bronte, is a dangerous force. Or, perhaps, a woman on her own in Bronte's world, is a dangerous force. The woman who is safe in Bronte's world is one who is either dogged and controlled by another woman (and so, not incidentally, kept from using the power of her fertility) or one who is subservient to a man (who, in the case of the damaged Mr. Rochester, also seems likely to keep Jane from the power of her fertility). By keeping women from getting pregnant, the other characters in the novel rob from them a healthy and productive way of doubling themselves.
Jane is putatively the sane one in Bronte's novel, but this is in large measure a teleological one: After we have finished reading the novel and realize how dangerous Bertha has become and how mad she truly has been forced into being, we see Jane as a measure of sanity and gentleness, restraint and trustworthiness. But if we go back and examine the textual evidence, we can see that Bronte has presented us with numerous points of evidence that Jane is at least for much of the novel on the same path that has lead Bertha to her terrible destination. (A path laid out, of course, in large part by Mr. Rochester's behavior.)
Jane's own name -- with its suggestion of "ire" -- is a continuing clue that she contains an internal anger that can bubble up in the danger of madness very easily. As such, as a woman with the potential for madness within her, Jane and Bertha can be seen not as opposites to each other, not as foils, but rather as doubles. Jane is, in many ways, a preview of Bertha, who serves as a sort of time traveler, allowing Jane to see where her future will take her. Each of us is accompanied by our pasts and dogged by our future, something that we often try to ignore much of the time. But something that Jane herself seems unable to ignore.
We see Jane's anger, that telling synonym of madness, in the opening of Bronte's novel, when she appears in the "red room" and is threatened with being tied up, a preview of what will happen to Bertha, of what can happen to any woman in Jane's world if that woman is not sufficiently docile. As Jane faces the threat of being put in bonds (just as Bertha will be tied down after she attacks Rochester) she is described as a "mad cat" (p. 7). Her comparison to a cat is a typical trope of patriarchal discourse, cats are never fully domesticated and so, like women who retain a sense of agency and autonomy, are always suspect. The cat -- the kitten -- that Jane is as a child becomes the "tigress" that Bertha becomes as she "worries" Mason in a decidedly undomesticated fashion (p. 253).
Jane can only find a safe place (safe from attack from the outside, that is) if she suppresses her anger and especially her anger at the patriarchal controls that exist in her world, indeed that define her world. But the only way in which Jane can restrain herself, can silence essential and central aspects of her self, are through the creation of another self. Bertha might well be nothing more than a false image, a hallucination of Jane's anger. To paraphrase Voltaire, if Bertha did not exist, then Jane would have had…