Here’s a different view of the “madwoman” in the book Jane Eyre. Author Jean Rhys, a Caribbean/British mid-twentieth century novelist, presents her version of Antoinette Bertha Cosway, born into a wealthy white Jamaican family fallen on hard times. The first part of the book is narrated by the young Antoinette. Her widowed mother is too self-absorbed to raise her; Antoinette is tended to by Christophine, a native servant. Slavery has recently ended in Jamaica, and some of the former slaveholding families are belittled and bullied; Antoinette’s family among them. After the mother remarries, there is a downward spiral in which she becomes increasingly insane. Antoinette is sent off to a convent school, during which time her mother dies.
Part two is narrated by both Antoinette and Mr. Rochester. When Antoinette returns home from the convent, a marriage is arranged between her and Rochester by her stepfather. Rochester is not the sympathetic character we see in Jane Eyre. Emphasis is put upon his lust for both Antoinette’s dowry and her physical self. Their marriage deteriorates as Rochester puts stock in rumors about the insanity streak that runs through her family tree. Antoinette is bewildered and seeks a magical cure from Christophine so that Rochester will “love” her again.
Part three is narrated by an increasingly bizarre Antoinette, now in England and locked in the attic with a servant to guard her and virtually ignored by Rochester. She is completely out of touch with reality. We are given the impression that Antoinette jumps to her death during the fire, as she does in Jane Eyre.
Rhys’s viewpoint leads the reader to realize Antoinette as a fully fleshed-out individual, capable of love even though she didn’t receive much during the course of her life and with her freedom limited, almost to the point of being a slave. We see that Antoinette’s life is as tragic as that of Jane Eyre’s, except that Jane is able to attain equality by the end of her story and Antoinette’s release only can come through death.