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Catherine ROVERA, Genèses d’une folie créole : Jean Rhys et Jane Eyre

Paris : Hermann, April 2015
Kerry-Jane Wallart
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Catherine ROVERA, Genèses d’une folie créole : Jean Rhys et Jane Eyre, Paris : Hermann, April 2015, 160 pages, ISBN: 978-2-7056-9046, 22 euros.

Texte intégral

1Catherine Rovera’s noteworthy study concerns itself with the famous prequel to Jane Eyre that Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea constitutes. The volume is rather short, yet it is bursting at the seams with ideas and enlightening hypotheses. In addition to this, it proves indispensable as it is partly the result of the examination of unpublished manuscripts and letters.

2A first part deals with “the primal scene” in two sections; it scrutinizes the ambiguous ’creole’ context (“Prémices de la crise : malaise dans la plantation”) before moving on to the superstitious backdrop and its aesthetic implications (“L’Esprit des lieux : primitivisme et possession”). A second part goes more systematically back and forth between the two novels by Charlotte Brontë (“le théâtre de la folie”) and Jean Rhys (“les voix de la folie”), respectively. Its first section tackles the dramatic dimension of Bertha Mason’s character while a second one examines the voices of madness in Wide Sargasso Sea. The appendix provides a precise description of the manuscripts, and the bibliography is a model of simplicity and relevance as it lists out only books that have actually been put to use in the course of the argumentation. Genèses d’une folie créole is dedicated to the memory of late, and much missed, Professor André Topia.

3Catherine Rovera includes several fascinating and previously undisclosed manuscripts, so that the ’genesis’ announced in the title is to be understood in that meaning as well. Tacitly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s belief in retrospective intertextuality, Catherine Rovera discusses what she calls a case of “inverted legacy”. This anteriority is double: it is that of the origins of Bertha Mason, but also of the manuscripts. The discovery made by Catherine Rovera upon scrutiny of Rhys’ manuscripts is that the last novel by Jean Rhys should actually have been the result of early writings, as she had started to jot down childhood memories as early as the 1930s and had endeavoured to write a novel, Le Revenant, some of whose scenes have been re-used for Wide Sargasso Sea. This factual departure point resonates in many metatextual directions, including the way in which past and future are recurrently collapsed by the novel’s construction. The manuscripts (no less than 15 boxes of archives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as well as 179 pages at the British Library for the manuscript to the novel properly speaking) that are used and quoted here are not merely taken from fictional writing but also from letters, some of which have not been included in the collection published by Penguin in 1985. Such a genetic approach is never overwhelming and always relevant, making this volume extremely accessible for scholars not previously trained in genetic methods. Catherine Rovera thus explains clearly and carefully the difference between process writing, where the author follows the sudden inspiration, and programmatic writing, where an outline, a pattern, a storyline, have been predetermined. This becomes quite interesting as surveys of the manuscripts indicate that, without the shadow of a doubt, Jean Rhys belonged to the former category of writers whereas her reputation for having purportedly ’written back’ to Victorian prejudice would have let us think otherwise.

4Catherine Rovera’s take on this case of postcolonial ’writing back’ is that Jean Rhys’ frustration with the character of Bertha Mason had nothing to do with moral issues, but was a literary one at core. Jean Rhys’ letters reveal that she had found Bertha unlikely, unaccounted for, and simplistically sketched, then done away with. Catherine Rovera shows how the madness and overall deviation are not dispelled, but traced back, by Wide Sargasso Sea. Another subtlety in the demonstation appears as the author shows that Jean Rhys overcame her dissatisfaction with the novel in general, and with ’Part II’ in particular, by modifying her characterisation of Rochester. From the “stone” he had appeared to be (a first conception partly inspired by his name), he starts bearing strange resemblance to Antoinette as he gets influenced by magic, haunted by desire and starts verging upon madness indeed - a sensual and exceedingly sensitive man, as lost as Antoinette between two worlds, and unable to situate himself into any stable perspective. The genetic approach contributes greatly to that moment in the demonstration as Catherine Rovera explains that the very final months of such a long creation also corresponded to a return to poetry writing. The pages (124-136) dedicated to the analysis of Jean Rhys’ poems, and their influence on the novel, would make this contribution worthwhile by themselves.

5The approach is both structuralist and post-structuralist, as it balances very fine moments of close reading with a fully knowledgeable contextualisation. One of the skills of the author is to navigate between the various labels that Jean Rhys has come to be associated with over the decades: modernism and postmodernism, colonial and post-colonial, or even postcolonial, writing. She belongs to no particular group, and Catherine Rovera’s commentary allows the reader to navigate between them as she goes. The author follows the method of cultural studies as she engages a discussion upon the evolutions, and general instability, of both Bertha Mason’s and her own identity, as ’Creoles’ - a term whose designation used to be more narrow than in the 1960s. Further along, she strings together a discussion of Jane Eyre as pertaining to the aesthetics of the melodrama, and a fine commentary on the few pages when Rochester ’shows’ his wife to Jane after the notoriously interrupted wedding ceremony. Her reading of Jane Eyre is fed by references to Victorian painting and melodrama; these pages (81-105) posit Bertha as the focal point of a peep show in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. The theme of madness does not lead to the psychological developments one might have feared upon reading the title, but feeds narrative reflection and confirms the fact that if Jean Rhys was somehow a modernist, she also had one foot firmly set into post-modern territory - as befits a text published in 1966, but whose origins date back to the 1930s.

6If the study is primarily concerned with Wide Sargasso Sea there are numerous delvings into Voyage in the Dark, whose Anna Morgan somehow announced Antoinette. Moreover a number of pages on language and the manumission that it can yield women through various negotiations will hold true for the entire oeuvre. Catherine Rovera’s analyses shall thus prove highly precious to researchers interested in Jean Rhys or in Caribbean women writers at large. It makes an infinitely welcome addition into the field.

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Kerry-Jane Wallart, « Catherine ROVERA, Genèses d’une folie créole : Jean Rhys et Jane Eyre », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 19 | 2015, mis en ligne le 05 avril 2016, consulté le 22 avril 2018. URL :

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Kerry-Jane Wallart

VALE EA 4085, Université Paris-Sorbonne, reviewer

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