The great thing about literature is that it is capable of change. New forms of literary expression appear and our personal views about books can change with each reading. New authors are also capable of effecting change on old classics through the form of revisionist fiction, where a writer creates a different version of a text written by another author in order to express new opinions on the story. Many British classics have been revised in this way such as Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea, Robinson Crusoe in Foe and most recently Rebecca in Rebecca’s Tale.
The main point of much revisionist fiction is to give a voice to a character in the story who has been denied one. They may lack the ability to express their thoughts for many reasons; in Rebecca it is because of death, in Robinson Crusoe because of a physical inability to speak and in Jane Eyre because of madness. All these books contain characters who have been rendered speechless, for some reason, by the authors who have created them, and the revisionist companions to these books aim to give them a measure of justice by providing them with a forum in which to explain their side of the story. As this is revisionist fiction’s purpose, it often gives voice to the thoughts of minorities as they were traditionally denied the means to refute the opinions of the main narrator who is usually associated with the dominant portion of society in some way.
Jane Eyre boasts a truly independent female narrator but her happy ending comes from the death of another woman, Mr Rochester’s first wife ‘Bertha’ who he met in the West Indies. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea follows the assumption of many critics that while Charlotte Bronte championed female emancipation in Jane she found it easy to subjugate Bertha, once she realised that it was necessary. This idea is based on the feeling that Bertha is quietly marked as a woman of mixed race in Jane Eyre. It is judged possible that Charlotte Bronte understood the realities of her world well enough to see that a strong, sensible female narrator created by a female writer would be derided, so she included a mad, evil woma to divert their hatred from Jane. By making her West Indian and almost certainly mixed race could have been Charlotte Bronte’s way of separating her from the main body of women, who she wished to champion. Her male audience would be unable or at least unwilling to tie Bertha to Jane as white women were supposed to be a higher order to black women. This allowed her to make Jane self-reliant while also showing an agreeable reflection of men’s idea that females were weak, unbalenced and dangerous. No suggestion that Jane shared this madness of gender would be allowed as no white man would want to admit any kind of equality, even a negative one among women of different races. Charlotte Bronte would be able to create a successful case for the great abilities of her gender yet also give men someone to dislike and sneer at, appeasing them and diverting them from sniggering at Jane.
In this way we can see how Bertha’s madness appears not as a natural facet of her character, as is maintained in Jane Eyre, but as a lie imposed by the dominating force of her white author. This is the idea that Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea translates into fiction as she removes Bertha’s madness and gives Rochester’s first wife a means of expression. In doing so, she analyses a fictional novel as if it were a historical source relating to real events. She thinks about who has created this source and looks at how their biases, social position or race may have given them motives for portraying events in a certain way. Based on an examination of the author’s probable biases Rhys determines it unlikely that the book shows Bertha as she really was and in doing so follows a school of literary criticism that has been around for years. Rhys and her fellow revisionists then take it one step further by setting out to rewrite events in a different way and shaping a novel around how they think things might have happened.
This is my favourite thing about revisionist works; their authors have become so involved another’s fictional world that they are invested in characters as if they were real people who could be treated unfairly by their own authors. To some people it may seem unbelievable presumptuous or ignorant to butt into another author’s creation but I see it as a sign of good literature when it stimulates debate and encourages rebuttal. This argumentative stirring is a sign that people are talking about books and fiction as seriously as they might about the state of the economy or politics. It is an encouraging indicator that the arts are still important to people.