Who Shot First?
Modeling, an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit, is that sort of legal fringe where plagiarism becomes the art, becomes craft itself. When Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, she modeled extensively on Jane Eyre, almost foreshadowing today’s fan-fiction. At times Rhys’ excess was a detriment to her narrative, which could have been a brilliant standalone novel.
Should someone escape Jane Eyre’s torturous grasp during high school tenure, he could still read Wide Sargasso Sea with complete understanding. The average reader has a closer connection to Kevin Bacon than Rhys’ work has to Brontë’s, because the timeline order of the two novels is inverted. WSS is an origin story for Brontë’s character, Bertha Rochester, but takes place a half century later.
The central tension in WSS, which Rhys uses to explain Bertha’s craziness in Jane Eyre, is only possible because of the unique historical climate the so tightly woven into the narrative. The racial tension in the Creole culture exists because of an 1833 Emancipation Act that freed slaves in all British colonies. The events in Jane Eyre take place roughly forty years prior to that act, around the turn of the century. By contrast, Jane Eyre’s central tension hinges on how Jane will resolve her love for Bertha’s husband if she is alive, well, and crazy up in the attic.
Bertha would have been kept a secret by an aristocratic family in either time period, but in the Jane Eyre timeline, it’s more plausible for Bertha to be locked away in the home instead of an asylum. Mental institutions weren’t as plentiful and didn’t have the prominence they would in the late 19th century. As a little girl in the 1830s, Rhys’ version of Bertha would be well into the 1840s before she married Rochester. By the time she was a completely filled bag of crazy, locked away in an attic, time would have slipped into the latter half of the century. By then, WSS as a prequel becomes as plausible as Greedo shooting first.
When a writer’s efforts to model on others begins to undercut her own effort, as with Rhys, the work becomes more of an homage or poor tribute to the original piece, than something of true literary merit. There are moments in WSS where the modeling goes so far, the pieces seem shoehorned: Bertha’s doppelganger, Antionette, seeks out a voodoo woman who sets in motion the events necessary to make the Jane Eyre narrative happen in the future; Rochester’s doppelganger mentions he’d trade his eyes, something he loses in Jane Eyre, to have never married Bertha. It’s unfortunate Rhys chose to take her modeling to such an extreme, because she wrote a brilliant novel, which explores an interesting time and place.
Antoinette is an intriguing protagonist in her own right and deserves to be her own bag and blend of crazy. Everything about her circumstances is interesting and relatable in ways that neither Jane nor Bertha proved to be, throughout Jane Eyre. Short of a butler, live-in maid, or a nanny, who really identifies with Jane on any level beyond love that can or should not be? Anyone can identify with a woman driven to madness by insufferable circumstances; anyone can sympathize with a little girl growing up in the middle of racial tension and horrible violence. The reader doesn’t need Brontë’s Bertha to feel deeply for Rhys’ Antoinette.
As a writer, modeling should be an exercise; it should be a tool for improving the craft and developing one’s own stories, through inspiration from the past. We should emulate the great authors who inspire us. We should strive to understand what makes their voices unique, dissect the humble beauty of their sentences, and reprocess it all through our own lenses and pens. Going too far with our modeling, doesn’t always doom us to plagiarism. Sometimes, a runaway modeling exercise just creates too large an anchor, which then drags our writing down from a level at which it could have been.
Never be afraid to let your own voice shine brightly through your disguises, modeled on the great writing of others. That’s how we get Bradbury’s Leviathan ’99, brilliantly modeled on Moby Dick. Otherwise, we get lip-service fan-fiction. On the plus side, instead of Twilight, when someone writes Jane Eyre fan-fiction, we get something far more literary than Fifty Shades of Gray.
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