I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Born into an oppressive, colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. But soon after their marriage, rumors of madness in her family poison his mind against her. He forces Antoinette to conform to his rigid Victorian ideals.
The accepted wisdom of writing is to “write what you know.” And Jean Rhys knew the Caribbean area, about being a woman there, and about the effects of colonialism. Like Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway (the future madwoman in Mr. Rochester’s attic in Jane Eyre), she was a Creole woman from Dominica and she led a difficult life when she was sent to school in England. Did she feel like she belonged in neither the Caribbean culture nor in England, perhaps feeling mired in the seaweed of the Sargasso Sea which separates the two areas? Rhys certainly knew poverty, alcoholism, and struggling to survive in a system which favours men.
The heat of the tropical location matches well with the heated nature of Antoinette’s relationship with Rochester and contrasts nicely with the coldness so evident in Jane Eyre in both climate and people. Rochester, being young and used to emotionally controlled, cooler English women, has no idea how to deal with her. He truly only wants her money, not her person, so he uses his Victorian male prerogative to declare her mad, to change her name to Bertha, to force her to move to England and to be confined to the attic. She is in practical terms owned by Rochester, just as any slave would be, by virtue of having married him, despite where she may fall along the white/black continuum (too white to fit in to Caribbean society, not quite white enough for England).
Who wouldn’t go mad under those conditions?