Lessons from Bertha
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
One recognizable aspect of literature emerging evolutionarily is when one story follows directly from another, as when an author expands on a character briefly mentioned by another. An example of this mentioned in class is Sena Naslund's Ahab's Wife, inspired by Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, which is written about Una Spencer, Ahab’s wife, who received only a passing mention in Melville’s work. Another example is Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which describes the life of Antoinette Cosway, or Bertha, the crazy women living in the attic in Jane Eyre.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys illustrates many aspects of the life of Antoinette, describing her sense of alienation living as a white person in Jamaica shortly after the end of slavery and her loneliness prompted by her distant mother. She describes the death of her brother. And she describes in detail the beginning of her relationship with Rochester, and the realness and intensity of her feelings towards him. Rhys also describes the tumultuous decline that follows, which is prompted in part by Rochester’s belief that there is madness in Antoinette’s blood.
These types of books following from others, of which Wide Sargasso Sea is an example, are evolutionary in the sense that an entirely new set of ideas are generated that are both different from and built upon previous ideas. It is possible to appreciate and find depth and meaning in either book without ever having read the other. But, like any evolutionary process, reading both offers an even fuller understanding. This is true of both the fictional stories and the context of their writing. Rhys’s story adds complexity to the fictional world of Jane Eyre and invites fuller exploration of the characters within this world. Asking why Rhys wrote such a story leads into a deeper exploration of the mindset in which Jane Eyre was written and how the state of the world shapes literature.
These stories are also evolutionary in the sense that they demonstrate an important aspect of evolution—its complexity. They help demonstrate the interrelatedness of human interactions that are often overlooked or oversimplified. In Generosity, there is a quote that expresses the sentiments of some scientists regarding fiction,
“ He wants to live long enough to witness a new, post-genomic fiction, one that grasps the interpenetrating loops of inheritance and upbringing so tangled that every cause is some other cause's effect. One that, through a kind of collaborative writing, shakes free of the prejudices of any individual maker." (309).
It seems that from this point of view a major problem with fiction is that no single work could appropriately convey the multitude of events leading to any other particular event. However, the type of story created by Naslund and Rhys which expand from characters neglected in other stories helps address this flaw. Practically they face the same problem as all novels in that two novels cannot really be any better at representing the total than can one. But really it is the idea that matters. By creating a new story, only loosely tied to its inspiration, an author suggests that every character, no matter how briefly mentioned, has a story that could fill a book all on its own. And this idea is evolutionary both in its celebration and recognition of complexity and in its generative power.
The mindset created by this type of story could be expanded into everyday life, and perhaps prompt us all to live a little more compassionately, or at least a little more mindfully. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is dismissed as crazy, or as alien, or an obstacle, but she, and everyone, is more than that. There is a reason Antoinette is crazy by the time she reaches the attic which she famously inhabits in Jane Eyre. Perhaps not a reason in the sense of why as we discussed, but definitely a complex series of hows, of causes and effects, both in her life and in the course of the world at the time, which combine to create enough of a why for some of us. A history of imperialism and slavery, her troubled upbringing, perhaps a little genetics, Rochester’s greed (which surely has its own explanations), a young woman named Jane Eyre (with her own complex story) and an untraceable number of other factors, all lead Antoinette Cosway, renamed Bertha, to die a fiery death thousands of miles from her birthplace.