“We think Ms. Baker was shooting for something less mercenary and more ambitious: the Wide Sargasso Sea of the Jane Austen oeuvre; by which we mean a paraliterature title that strives for literary achievement as well as, or perhaps even more than, popularity. We have long wondered why no one has written such a novel.”
This has set me to wondering: what would such a novel be like? Although there are other more or less well-known answers to famous books (The Wind Done Gone, Rebecca) WSS stands alone, at least to my way of thinking. For its audacity and its heart, and the way it doesn’t feel enslaved by/wedded to “Jane Eyre” even though it is so clearly inspired by it. Maybe the closest thing would not be a novel but a play, Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, ” which imagines those two minor characters from “Hamlet” as if they were real people, the center of the action, with lives and concerns of their own. (Which they are of course. We are all the heroes of our own stories.)
It would have to feature a minor and overlooked character from one of the six, a person who’s important but unknown, as Bertha is in “Jane Eyre”: vital to the plot, but a cipher. It would not be simply the retelling of one of the six from someone else’s viewpoint: it would be a completely new story, yet (this is really important) offering a new perspective on the one we already know.
The most obvious candidate for this treatment might seem to be “Mansfield Park,” with its West Indian slave plantation looming in the background. Something that Sir Thomas Betram, who I think qualifies as important but essentially mysterious, would encounter there? It would have to involve the evils of slavery and colonialism, and here I start to think this project isn’t very original and is too obvious. First of all, we are leaning too heavily on WSS; second, the whole slavery in Mansfield Park thing feels done to death. Can anyone, in 2013, be surprised that it is underpinning the comfortable life they all live at Mansfield Park? That Fanny herself is a sort of house slave?
No. Been there, done that. What else?
Colonel Brandon’s early romantic life is kind of interesting — but he is not minor enough a character to qualify. Plus, what can the two Elizas tell us about the story of “Sense and Sensibility” that they are not already doing, with their cautionary lessons about the perils of female passion? Anne Steele — what if she was not the idiot JA has portrayed, but shrewd and raging beneath her uncouth exterior, seriously envious and annoyed with Lucy, and seeking revenge? Interesting, but in what way could that flip the story of “Sense and Sensibility”?
“Persuasion.” I think of hapless Dick Musgrove, who could easily wander into a Patrick O’Brian novel, yet he does not really inspire me. Mrs. Smith … but we know her story. It has to be someone who is important and yet…
The gypsies of “Emma”: can some Roma author toiling in obscurity write their story? But they do not really impinge on Emma, the way Bertha does on Jane. Mrs. Elton? Bleh.
To think about this harder, what is the other revolutionary thing that WSS does? “Jane Eyre” itself was a revelation, an instant literary sensation, and deservedly so: its ardent and unforgettable first-person narrator stood up for the governess, the person one never notices, a heroine without looks or fortune, a heroine who demanded respect simply through the force of her will, her humanity.
But there was another person whose humanity Charlotte Bronte failed to recognize, and the genius of Jean Rys was to see this glaring hole and turn “Jane Eyre” on its head: the madwoman in the attic, the crazy colonial.
Miss Bates. It’s got to be Miss Bates. Everpresent, yet invisible. Who was the young woman who grew up to be that nattering yet perceptive busybody? And how does her story, whatever it is, inform the current life of Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, and Emma? Did she also have a secret engagement, maybe one she was forced to break off? What her mother like before she was “a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille”? l What does she actually know about Jane Fairfax’s connection to Frank? What does she actually think about Emma? Do we even know her first name, for the love of God?