I will be discussing the representation of childhood in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. I will be particularly focused on the cultural differences in childhood and the representation of the transition between childhood and adulthood. I will focus particularly on the characters of Antoinette, Lucy, and Polly.
I think it would be best to start with Villette first. It seems only fitting that we should focus on the seemingly classic English Victorian childhood that we have been educated about first rather than the culturally different childhood across western waters. I would first like to draw attention to the childhood of Lucy, particularly to when she first meets Polly, “When I say child I use an inappropriate and undescriptive term – a term suggesting any picture rather than that of the demure little person in a mourning frock and white chemisette, that might just have fitted a good-sized doll.” – Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Chapter 2. I’ve come to review this encounter of Polly as being somewhat uncanny for Lucy at least. The uncanny is something that we have seen in other Charlotte Bronte novels, most famously Jane Eyre. However, I’d like to point out that this feels like mirroring between the two characters. As most Victorian children (and more specifically female children) were taught to conceal their emotions it is interesting that Bronte uses mirroring between two female characters in order to represent their childhoods. Polly’s purpose in the novel, for example, is to exhibit a spotlight on Lucy’s past (and thus, her childhood).
As we know, Lucy Snowe is the main protagonist of Villette and as such, it is customary (as it is in the majority of Victorian novels) for us to be sucked into her childhood in some way, shape or form. In this case, she recalls on it herself in her memories. Although Lucy appears (to me at least) to be a character of little joy she does mention that she urges us as the readers to imagine her as once being an untroubled child, “Picture me then idle, basking, plump and happy, stretched on a cushioned deck, warmed with constant sunshine, rocked by breezes indolently soft.” – Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Chapter 4. This urging of us to imagine her to be something that she isn’t suggests that she subconsciously and painfully desires that her childhood had been a happier one. It feels as though she desires us to imagine a different childhood for her so that she may believe it herself.
However, Lucy reassures us otherwise, “I too well remember a time–a long time–of cold, of danger, of contention…all hope that we should be saved was taken away.” – Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Chapter 4. This reassurance that her childhood was not as happy as she may unconsciously desire it to highlight the typical Victorian childhood that a lot of Victorian authors write in their main characters. We see a trauma in Lucy hidden and repressed deep within herself and I think that this is a cultural thing as well as a childhood to adulthood self-taught societal repression. In fact, we see Lucy herself mention her emotional repression, “Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of passed day I could feel.” – Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Chapter 12. This is a perfect example of the cultural-emotional repression that a Victorian upbringing may have undergone on a child. In fact, it may have made the trauma worse. Although we see trauma in Wide Sargasso Sea through Antoinette in both childhood and adulthood I think that Antoinette felt freer in her childhood (even with all the racial and slave horror) than Lucy had because she had Christophine whereas Lucy had that of the rigid English socially emotional repression that children and adolescents would have experienced and Lucy also had no true mother figure and Christophine was an excellent mother figure to Antoinette.
Throughout the novel, we notice sooner or later that Lucy is surrounded by children. Polly, in the early chapters, is soon replaced by that of Madame Beck’s offspring in chapters ten and eleven. In addition, Lucy is also surrounded by t Madame Beck’s pupils. However, it is quite clear to the reader that these characters unsettle Lucy somewhat. The most disconcerting of these children is Polly. From the very beginning, this particular child is described as being strange. There is even some description of her being similar to that of a Victorian doll, “demure little person in a mourning frock and white chemisette, that might just have fitted a good-sized doll.” – Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Chapter 2. This suggests that there is something not quite right about Polly, as though she is not real. This links back to the Victorian gothic genre and it makes the childhood aspect even more disturbing. It feels as though she is some disturbing miniature, the way she dresses highlights the similarities of the way a Victorian child would dress and yet the way she speaks, “Put me down please…and take off this shawl.” – Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Chapter 1. This suggests that she is older than she is. This highlights the cultural and gothic representation of children as being ‘other’ as well as women. There is something otherworldly and disturbing about them that can disturb and shock adults. This may not have meant anything at the time but in modern pop culture, Victorian dolls are considered a horrific part of the gothic horror genre. Essentially if there is a horror movie set in the Victorian era such as The Woman in Black then you will most likely see a Victorian doll somewhere in it.
Furthermore, carrying on from Polly being an unsettling child we observe that Lucy finds herself feeling ‘haunted’ when she is in the same room as Polly, “Whenever opening a room-door, I found her seated in a corner alone, her head in her pygmy hand, that room seemed to me not inhabited, but haunted.” – Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Chapter 2. This suggests that not only is Polly ‘other’ but that she is perhaps ghostly in her childhood which is once again a very typical representation/interpretation of Victorian childhood in Victorian literature. Charlotte Bronte’s children are often viewed as being ‘other’ and disturbing which I imagine mirrors her own experiences and the cultural views of children at the time.
The second novel I will be turning my focus to is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. As we know, Wide Sargasso Sea was written after Jane Eyre by Jean Rhys as some sort of homage to Bertha/Antoinette. However, I am interested in looking particularly at Antoinette’s upbringing due to the cultural difference it made her in being across the water from England. The first hurdle I would like to cover is that of Antoinette’s racial background. As we know from reading Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s racial background is far more complicated than one would think. She is a Creole – descended from a European background and yet her family are plantation owners in the West Indies. This causes a variety of problems for Antoinette’s family as a child. Despite the Emancipation Act already being in effect during Antoinette’s childhood, there was still hostility between the black population and the white colonisers. Antoinette’s family is subject to this hostility from both sides. Whilst their black servants still dislike the family despite them being seen as ‘white cockroaches’– Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. they are also alienated by new white plantation owners. They are already in some strange sort of purgatory from both sets of society when the novel sets off which is strange in comparison to what we expect to see.
There is an example of physical but more importantly emotional conflict rather early on in the novel between Antoinette herself and her childhood friend Tia after her family estate has been set alight by freed angry slaves, “We stared at each other. Blood on my face, tears in hers.” – Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. This conflict from her best friend suggests how odd life must have been for Antoinette as a child, unable to be accepted by the black Caribbean community when she had so much respect for them and yet she couldn’t even be accepted into the community of the white colonisers due to the fact that she is a Creole and a ‘white cockroach’. – Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. She literally has no one to identify with.
Antoinette’s relationship with her mother also plays a very important part of her childhood. I think that having a mother figure(s) in her life is what makes the entire trauma she experiences so bearable. Lucy doesn’t really have anyone that she can truly rely on. Not even as a child, otherwise I imagine she would not be so guarded throughout Villette. Annette’s mental condition is often hidden from Antoinette as a child although it would seem that Antoinette knows that something terrible is going on to her mother and it terrifies her, “I’d put my hands over my ears, her screams were so loud and terrible.”- Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. This highlights that the subconscious knowledge of her mother’s madness must absolutely scare and already traumatised young girl to new levels. Antoinette’s childhood is already represented as being scary due to the racial issues happening in her young life. The idea that deep within her subconscious Antoinette understands that whatever is happening to her mother could somehow happen to her must take her childhood trauma to a new level thus making her mental instability heighten to a fragility that makes it vulnerable to Rochester’s eventual touch in her womanhood.
Antoinette’s relationship with Christophine clearly has an effect on her as she ages. It would seem that the two are quite close. So much so that it seems as though she has a closer bond with Christophine than she does her mother, “When man don’t love you, more you try, more he hate you, man like that. If you love them they treat you bad, if you don’t love them they after you night and day bothering your soul case out.” – Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. This highlights to me that unlike Lucy, Antoinette has a support network. She seems comfortable enough with Christophine to discuss things that a girl should discuss with her own mother (but Antoinette doesn’t). It is her transition from depending on strong women such as Christophine to weak minded men like Rochester that bring forth her ruin. I suppose you could argue then that whilst Lucy’s childhood prepares her emotionally for the horrors of adulthood as a woman, Antoinette’s isn’t quite so educational and Christophine doesn’t have time to school her enough before it’s too late.
Both Rhys and Bronte have succeeded spectacularly at representing the trauma of childhood in both cultural backgrounds. They both manage to highlight the effects that struggles from both backgrounds can have on childhood. Lucy is emotionally repressed and traumatised over something that has occurred in her past. She struggles to let anyone in including the reader and that, perhaps, makes her somewhat unreliable. On the other hand, Antoinette starts her life off as being sane. Rhys represents her as being an innocent child ruined by the conflict of races around her. A girl who just wants to fit in. I suppose she is similar to Polly like this – both are uncanny characters and unable to fit in. However, Antoinette has motherly figures whereas Lucy doesn’t seem to have that as much and perhaps this made Antoinette’s childhood (as painful and traumatic as it was) more bearable. One could argue that Bronte’s representation of childhood and the cultural repression that English Victorian society impacted on children provided them with knowledge of how to handle the adult world as they aged given that Lucy is reserved but sane in contrast to Antoinette. Lucy starts as a sad child but ends with a somewhat happy ending in comparison to Antoinette who starts of somewhat happy (to me at least) and is ruined in her adulthood by her husband.
Word Count: 2014 (Including Quotes)
Spelling and Grammar Check: Complete.
Ø Bronte?, C. (n.d.). Villette.
Ø West, C. and Bronte?, C. (2008). Jane Eyre. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Ø Rhys, J. (2016). Wide Sargasso Sea. Place of publication not identified: Penguin Books.