Contesting (Post-)colonialism: Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea and three neo- Victorian rejoinders

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CONFERENCE: School of English Seminar Series

School of English Seminar Series

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Ho, Tammy Lai-Ming
English Language and Literature
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This paper explores the connection between two contemporary responses to Victorian literature — namely, the wider neo-Victorian genre and one of its sub-genres, which re-imagines the nineteenth century from a postcolonial perspective. These two responses are brought together and manifested in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a novel widely considered to be the first neo-Victorian text. I argue that, as well as incorporating canonical nineteenth-century texts and celebrities, contemporary authors also appropriate notions of the Victorian empire. That Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is the foundational postcolonial neo-Victorian text prompts the reading of its pre-text, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1874), as a foundational colonial Victorian work. In this paper, I first identify the cannibalistic, Caribbean and (post)colonial elements in the two novels. I then explore several Anglo-American neo-Victorian novels that return to both Brontë’s and Rhys’s models, focusing in particular on how they reorient the narrative away from the empowered Creole Antoinette (a reworked version of Bertha Mason) in Wide Sargasso Sea back to the primarily British characters of Jane Eyre. I consider this shift away from Antoinette/Bertha as a problematic commentary on (and possible rejection of) the corrective postcolonial agenda found in neo-Victorian novels such as Wide Sargasso Sea.