"Weary of Our Own Legacies": Rethinking Jane Eyre's Inheritance through Jamaica Kincaid's: The Autobiography of My Mother

By Pelt, April | ARIEL, July-October 2010 | Go to article overview

"Weary of Our Own Legacies": Rethinking Jane Eyre's Inheritance through Jamaica Kincaid's: The Autobiography of My Mother


Pelt, April, ARIEL


In a 1998 interview with Kathleen M. Balutansky, Jamaica Kincaid claimed, "You can't begin to understand me until you read certain things. I didn't begin to understand myself until I read certain things. The things that were most important to me were written by people who didn't look like me" (799-800). Indeed, the majority of the writers whom Kincaid cites as her influences--authors as diverse as John Milton, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf--"look" more like the British settlers who colonized her native island of Antigua than like Kincaid herself. Given her concern with the destructive legacies of colonialism in the West Indies and her vehement criticism of the colonialist British education she received as a schoolgirl during the 1950s and 1960s, Kincaid's avowed indebtedness to these canonical British authors seems to be at odds with her body of work. This seeming incongruity is highlighted by Kincaid's admiration of Charlotte Bronte, whose 1847 novel Jane Eyre has, in recent decades, become emblematic of the nineteenth-century British imperialist project. Bronte's (in)famous depiction of Bertha Mason, the "mad" Jamaican Creole woman whom Edward Rochester marries and subsequently imprisons in the attic of his English manor home, has drawn criticism from numerous postcolonial and feminist scholars, including Gayatri Spivak. In "Three "Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" (1985), Spivak argues that Jane Eyre's imperialist subtext complicates straightforward feminist readings of the novel because Jane Eyre's movement from the margins to the center of Victorian society happens at Bertha Mason's expense (259). Yet, despite--or perhaps because of--its imperialist subtext, Kincaid maintains that Jane Eyre is an important text, insisting in her interview with Balutansky that "[she] would sacrifice any amount of reading of any of [her own] books for people to read Jane Eyre" (799).

Kincaid herself read and reread Jane Eyre as a child (Garis 42), and its influence shows in her three novels, Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), and The Autobiography of My Mother (1996). In her discussion of Kincaid and canonical English writers, Diane Simmons suggests that when read as a two-part bildungsroman, Kincaid's Annie John and Lucy bear a striking

resemblance to Jane Eyre (77). She identifies many similarities in the novels' plots: both Annie John and Jane rebel against unjust treatment by authority figures, form close relationships with mother-figures, and leave unhappy domestic situations in order to attend school (79-80); both Lucy and Jane work with the children of the wealthy, endure insults from their employers' insensitive friends, and learn secrets that lead to the dissolution of the households in which they work (80-82). In all three novels, Simmons notes, the heroines are "constantly and unfairly put in the wrong by those whose interest is power, not justice" (77). In her 2006 article on Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, Joanne Gass remarks upon the similarities between Bronte's novel and The Autobiography of My Mother, noting that both Jane and Xuela are motherless girls raised by women who do not care for them (65); both end up married to representatives of patriarchal British imperialism, powerful men who are, at the story's end, almost completely infantilized (71). (1)

Given Jane Eyre's resonance within her body of work, it is unsurprising that Kincaid would declare Bronte's novel essential to understanding both her and her writing. But while Jane Eyre provides useful insight into Kincaid's novels, Kincaid's novels offer an equally useful commentary on Jane Eyre. Simmons asserts that the "fairy tale" ending available to Jane is impossible for Kincaid's protagonists because "[in] Bronte's world wrongs can conceivably be righted; in Kincaid's they cannot" (84). Thus, for Simmons, Kincaid enters into a dialogue "on power and oppression" with Charlotte Bronte's novel by foregrounding the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racism in Annie John and Lucy (85). …

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