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A Perfectly Respectable Lady


Discussed in this essay:
A View of the Empire at Sunset, by Caryl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
336 pages. $26.

Few writers have written as seductively about the free fall from self-control as Jean Rhys. She is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a reimagining of the backstory to Edward Rochester’s disastrous youthful marriage in Jane Eyre (1847). In Rhys’s version, the first Mrs. Rochester is neither depraved nor even necessarily destined to go mad. She is the Jamaican Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway Mason, emotionally unguarded and lethally innocent in her passion for the chilly En­glishman, who marries her for her money and is terrified both by her ardor and by the physical desire she awakens in him. He soon rejects her, pronounces her insane, and locks her up in the attic of Thornfield Hall. After many years, by now truly crazed as the result of her incarceration, she escapes by setting fire to the building and throwing herself from the roof. The rest is literature: Rhys’s prequel and Brontë’s novel have between them generated more critical evaluations in the fields of nineteenth-century, postcolonial, and women’s studies than perhaps any other two linked texts.

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