Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the most-discussed texts on the first-year literature module I convene. Something about Jean Rhys’ novel catches the students’ attention and imagination, resulting in both animated seminar discussions and a lot of exam answers. In fact, having moderated that set of exams, I suspect Wide Sargasso Sea appeared on more scripts than any other book on the course, with Jane Eyre a close second.
This may mean that I’m seeing those two novels everywhere, but yesterday some reading for a research project I’m undertaking brought me back round to Bertha in a surprising way. The project is a study of Agatha Christie’s later novels and their harping on Shakespeare, witchcraft, the King James Bible and folklore – I’m tracing the way these references and themes weave their way through the books, attempting to put them into context and explain how they work. So whilst going through Dead Man’s Folly I was on the lookout for particular clusters of features, and I duly found what sounds like a reference to the Witchcraft Act and its repeal/ replacement by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. However, I was not expecting the much more significant clutch of literary reference which the book contained.
Spoiler warning: the whole narrative of both books is discussed below, so don’t go beyond this point if you don’t want to know how either ends.
The novel’s narrative is centred around a fete in the grounds of a country house, which involves a “Murder Hunt” in which players must find “clues” planted by the detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, before discovering the “body”. The latter is supposed to be a girl playing dead, but in reasonably predictable mode she ends up actually dead. At the same time, Hattie, the mistress of the house goes missing, and Mrs Oliver and Poirot have to unscramble what happened, and how the two events are connected. It was during the first descriptions of the woman who disappears, who is much younger than her husband, that I raised an eyebrow at the page:
Bowled over old George Stubbs all right. Nothing’s too good for her! Jewels, mink, all the rest of it. Whether he realizes she’s a bit wanting in the top storey, I’ve never discovered. Probably thinks it doesn’t matter. After all, these financial johnnies don’t ask for intellectual companionship.’
‘What nationality is she?’ Poirot asked curiously.
‘Looks South American, I always think. But I believe she comes from the West Indies. One of those islands with sugar and rum and all that. One of the old families there – a creole, I don’t mean a half-caste. All very intermarried, I believe, on these islands. Accounts for the mental deficiency.’
There are plenty of characters from beyond Britain in Christie’s novels, but they are more frequently Anglo-Indian colonels, lost relatives from Australia or suave Mediterranean men. A mentally fragile Creole woman is rather more unexpected. Especially given the details which continued to accumulate:
It is in a way a sad story. Her people had estates, sugar estates, in the West Indies. As a result of an earthquake, the house there was burned down and her parents and brothers and sisters all lost their lives. Hattie herself was at a convent in Paris and was thus suddenly left without any near relatives. It was considered advisable by the executors that Hattie should be chaperoned and introduced into society after she had spent a certain time abroad. I accepted the charge of her.’ Mrs Folliat added with a dry smile: ‘I can smarten myself up on occasions and, naturally, I had the necessary connections – in fact, the late Governor had been a close friend of ours.’
The mention of the house burning down and the French convent particularly caught my attention, as they seemed to fit so well with the Rhys’ novel, in which Coulibri is burned by a mob and Antoinette goes to a convent to be educated before her marriage to [the man never actually named as Rochester]. There is also a touch of cynicism in the mention of having “the necessary connections”, which hints at the later development of the backstory. When Poirot realizes what has happened, and recounts what he has deduced to Mrs. Folliat (the speaker in the extract above), the reader discovers the real basis of the marriage:
‘Do not imagine I have no sympathy for you, Madame. Life has been hard for you, I know. You can have had no real illusions about your younger son, but he was your son, and you loved him. You did all you could to give him a new life. You had the charge of a young girl, a subnormal but very rich girl. Oh yes, she was rich. You gave out that her parents had lost all their money, that she was poor, and that you had advised her to marry a rich man many years older than herself. Why should anybody disbelieve your story? Again, it was nobody’s business. Her parents and near relatives had been killed. A firm of French lawyers in Paris acted as instructed by lawyers in San Miguel. On her marriage, she assumed control of her own fortune. She was, as you have told me, docile, affectionate, suggestible. Everything her husband asked her to sign, she signed. Securities were probably changed and re-sold many times, but in the end the desired financial result was reached. Sir George Stubbs, the new personality assumed by your son, became a rich man and his wife became a pauper.
Here we see the development of the plot in a direction which strongly reminded me of Rhys. Not so much in its narrative detail – though the manipulation and erosion of the young woman’s personality is telling – but in the moral and emotional tone of the story. Hattie is the victim here, and the English gentry are exploiting her for their own benefit, a twist on the Bertha/ Rochester narrative which has more in common with Wide Sargasso Sea than Jane Eyre. In Brontë’s novel (at least on the surface) there is much more sympathy for the young Englishman who is “entrapped” by the family of the beautiful but unstable Bertha, and he is presented as the main victim of the situation. Rhys’ novel writes back against that assumption, exploring the possible lives and stories which have been supressed in the figure of Bertha, and we see Christie apparently picking up on that creative critique of the original novel’s politics.
There is a final twist in the narrative, as Poirot explains:
‘You never dreamed – and your son carefully did not tell you, that at the time of the marriage he was already married. Oh, yes – we have searched the records for what we knew must exist. Your son had married a girl in Trieste, a girl of the underground criminal world with whom he concealed himself after his desertion. She had no mind to be parted from him, nor for that matter had he any intention of being parted from her. He accepted the marriage with Hattie as a means to wealth, but in his own mind he knew from the beginning what he intended to do.’
It seems to me quite a remarkable engagement with both Eyre and Sargasso: having reproduced the vulnerable Creole young woman in Hattie, Christie then reworks the previous marriage plot to involve another woman. Hattie becomes doubly victimised, as both the manipulated and destroyed figure of Bertha, and the wronged but worthy second wife represented by Jane.
The Italian gangster wife apparently represents both the threat to Bertha and the threat to Jane, and her part in the plot provides yet another reworking which I hadn’t expected. It turns out that the “Hattie” the reader has seen in the early part of the novel was in fact George’s first wife (the criminal from Trieste), who has conspired with him to murder Hattie before the novel started and then literally take her place. Since no-one in England knew Hattie personally, she simply put on lots of makeup and slightly bizarre clothes and gave the impression of being mentally unstable, intending to eventually “improve” in the “healthy” atmosphere of England and live happily ever after.
In my reading of Dead Man’s Folly, this is essentially the transposing of the emotional and cultural logic of Sargasso into the technical plot mechanism of a detective novel. Where Antoinette has her personality eroded by the neglect and cruelty of her marriage, culminating in her mental breakdown, Hattie has literally had her identity stolen. Where Jane replaces Bertha in Rochester’s affections and the household of Thornfield, Hattie is literally replaced by someone else pretending to be her. In an intriguing detail, the novel ends with the sound of pickaxes breaking up the foundations of the Gothic folly under which Poirot has deduced Hattie’s body is buried: the life of George and his second wife as the squire and lady of the manor is almost literally “built upon” the body of his previous wife, trapped underneath a Gothic edifice.
This, as I said, was not what I was looking for when I reread Dead Man’s Folly. I certainly thought Agatha Christie was a much more complex novelist than she is often given credit for, and certainly far more engaged with the literary and cultural world of the mid twentieth-century. (My other research on her explores how the nexus of themes I mentioned – witchcraft, the Bible, folklore and Shakespeare – have a distinct logic in her work, and emerge from the reassessment of these ideas which was taking place in the 50s, 60s and 70s.) But the thoroughness with which Dead Man’s Folly appears to engage with Rhys’ novel, and its critique of Jane Eyre, was entirely unexpected. The multiple echoes, reworkings and ironic references are fascinating.
Even more unexpected was the dating I found when I rechecked the publication histories involved. I’ve been using a lot of “appears” and “seems” in this piece, partly because this is a new reading of these texts, and as a literary scholar proposing hypotheses I tend towards the tentative, aware that someone else could have information which invalidates what I’m putting forward. However, I’m afraid I’ve also planted a small mystery as well avoiding directly lying to you by that phrasing. Some of you may well have seen through me already: if you know (or have checked) the chronology of what I’ve been suggesting, you’ll know it doesn’t work.
Dead Man’s Folly was published in 1956, and Wide Sargasso Sea didn’t appear in print until 1966. I’ve been caught out on dates when working on Christie before (there’s a draft article on my desk in which I declare how well a certain novel fits with her late style, before realizing she wrote it forty years earlier and left it in a bank safe…) but I can’t think of any way in which Christie could have read Rhys’ novel before she wrote her own. As the chronology stands (and I’ll be happy to be corrected), Dead Man’s Folly is not drawing on Wide Sargasso Seas critique of the cultural and gender politics of Jane Eyre.
If that’s the case, then it is something even more remarkable: it is Christie’s own writing back to Charlotte Brontë’s work, even before Rhys had publicly done so. The sympathy for Bertha/ Hattie appears in Christie before Rhys’ Bertha/ Antoinette ever saw print (though possibly not before it existed in manuscript, given the multiple drafts Rhys went through.) The idea that the English in Jane Eyre were scoundrels who defrauded and destroyed a vulnerable young woman is Christie’s own reading of the novel apparently. Her integration of the plot of Jane Eyre – reworked, repeated and reversed – into the crime story of Dead Man’s Folly offers us an example of a genre detective novel carrying out a remarkable piece of critical intertextuality.
There are even two details I mentioned above – the burning down of Hattie’s house, and her education in a French convent – which I don’t think appear in Jane Eyre, but certainly do in Wide Sargasso Sea. (That was part of the reason I made the connection so immediately.) If there is no source connection between the two books, then Christie and Rhys both picked up on the mention of Lowood as a “convent” and Eliza Reed’s disappearance into a French convent, and wove them into the backstory of Hattie/ Antoinette. Likewise the burning house (Thornfield) at the near-end of Eyre provided both of them with a motif which became Coulibri/ the sugar estate in their version of Bertha’s life. These are both very possible, given the importance of these motifs in the original novel, but the coincidence is striking. Could Rhys have even read Christie’s novel and incorporated some of the crime novelist’s details into drafts of her own work whilst unaware of it?
Thus the mystery is even more remarkable than I had thought. My initial solution to the puzzling appearance of a fragile young Creole woman at an English country fete turned out to be mistaken. I must have been wrong about her origins, on closer examination of the timetables and everyone’s past history. A familiar problem for many English readers of Jane Eyre, according to both Agatha Christie and Jean Rhys. I’d be very interested in any further information that any of you might have – maybe there’s a Rhys scholar who can explain the apparent dating discrepancy, or a Christie specialist who knows about her engagement with literary criticism – but Dead Man’s Folly shows a startling critical and creative engagement with both the details and the overall meaning of Brontë’s text. And I was only looking for some witches…