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By Pepper, Tara | Newsweek International, September 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

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Pepper, Tara, Newsweek International


The harrowing, unhinged presence of Bertha Rochester hangs heavy over Charlotte Bronte's classic 19th- century novel, "Jane Eyre." Bertha, a Creole from Jamaica, moves to England after marrying the brooding Mr. Rochester, who proceeds to lock her in the attic of his huge, isolated mansion. She periodically emerges to engulf his bed in flames, shred the wedding veil of his new love, Jane Eyre, and bite and scratch anyone who comes near. In "Wide Sargasso Sea," her acclaimed 1966 prequel to "Jane Eyre," novelist Jean Rhys brought Bertha out of the shadows and put her life--and descent into madness--into the context of her rootless, immigrant experience. Now Rhys, herself a Creole from Dominica who identified strongly with Bertha, is at the center of Polly Teale's rich and fascinating West End production "After Mrs Rochester," which explores the anguished life of immigrants.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of her death, Rhys's work is ripe for reassessment. Her contemporaries were uneasy about her morally ambiguous, fractured characters and the seedy world she dwelt in, as well as wrote about. After her parents sent her from their home in the West Indies to England in 1907, she slipped into a career as a chorus girl, married a Dutch con man in 1919 and headed for Paris, where she became a protege of the English novelist Ford Madox Ford. Today, argues Ruth Webb, author of a new biography of Rhys due out next year, her world would be much more acceptable. "Rhys writes about failures, people who would have been perceived as not part of the mainstream," she says. "[Her increasing popularity] has to do with a tremendous loosening up in our way of seeing people now. We're much more open to what would have been considered a demimonde before."

The intertwined voices of three women dominate the set of "After Mrs Rochester," which is as spare as Rhys's prose. Bertha (Sarah Ball) crawls around the floor, tearing at her hair and weeping. The mature Jean Rhys (Diana Quick) provides laconic commentary on her turbulent past. The audience also sees Rhys as a young girl growing up in Dominica--pretty and carefree, but already beginning to realize that she belongs nowhere. That sense of homelessness is at the root of Bertha's bouts of insanity, as well as Rhys's own mental instability. Throughout her life she was plagued by periods of depression and violent rages; in 1949 she was sent to Holloway prison for assaulting her neighbors. …

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