“You have not quite forgotten little Adele, have you, reader?” – Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Emma Tenant’s latest re-imagining of a Bronte classic, “The French Dancer’s Bastard” appears to give the character of Adele a voice that was previously absent; suggesting that Charlotte Brontë wrapped up Adele’s story too easily, and “It was all a little more complicated than that.” Tennant thus uses this novel as a platform to create the figure of Adele, a complex character who is heavily affected by the events at Thornfield Hall, as well as her own roots. It is interesting that while Jane Eyre and even Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea point towards post-colonialism, especially towards the Caribbean, Tennant chooses to focus on the image of France as a post-revolution region. As a result, we are left with a stateless Adele, she feels as if she has been torn from her roots in a changed France, and is unable to assimilate herself in a cold, foreign England. It is something to note also, that this novel aligns itself neatly with Wide Sargasso Sea rather than using Bronte’s Jane Eyre as its canon. Thus, many details in this novel are familiar concepts from for readers of Wide Sargasso Sea, as the author takes familiar literary concepts and ‘re-writes’ them.
We are presented with, initially, an image of France as a happy, delightful “glass palace”, in which Adele’s life is surrounded by clowns, dancers and entertainers. Through the world of theatre, acting, pantomime and imagination, Adele’s childhood appears very much to be presented through rose-tinted glasses, which heightens the enchantment of her colourful life, as well as charismatic her beautiful mother Celine Varens. The flowery language and poetic descriptions appear to symbolise the vitality of Paris, which helps to disguise the underlying financial problems that Celine faces, as well as the social stigma which has been subtly weighed on her due to her occupation and her care-free attitude. In contrast to this is the prospect of a grey and foreign country, that is, England which primarily is presented as synonymous with the dark ‘Mr Edward’. The stark difference in the gloomy, mysterious and English Mr Edward compared to Adele’s light, gay and French mother further polarises the two world that Adele faces. Thus it becomes easy for Adele to dislike her rigid Papa, preferring to root herself in the easy Paris lifestyle, and choosing to retain its manner in her own personality, which becomes more apparent when she is uprooted and sent to England. Both Edward/Adele’s perspective in the beginning are full of innocence, remaining ignorant to what will happen, which it oculd be argued eventually leads to their disillusion.
Adele shows her awareness of Edward buying her mother, and perhaps by connotation his oppression of Celine. This is no accident, hinting to history and the French revolution in which the ‘Ancien Regime’ was overthrown. As Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre point to the colonisation of the native by the English, similarly, The French Dancer’s Bastard appears to show how the French, namely in the guise of both Celine and Adele, have been tamed by the symbolic English figure. Celine consistently asserts that the French has been ‘freed’ after the revolution, but the author suggests otherwise, stating that it may not be as black and white as this.
And so, the character of Bertha/Antoinette also becomes a significant feature in addition to this theme. While her madness ensures a form of prison for her, similarly, England is a prison for Adele, in which is it shown as a as dark, unpleasant place to live, showing echoes of a young ‘Antoinette’ from Wide Sargasso Sea. In this way, Adele identifies with Bertha, even seeing Bertha as a different strand of the French variety, unable to distinguish the difference in her own French roots and the exotic Creole prisoner. Describing Antoinette as her French queen, Adele attempts to put a different slant on her ‘madness’ and how she has been presented to the outside world. Contrasting Celine’s ideas of ‘freedom’ and revolutionary policies, Antoinette appears to be more of a maternal figure to Adele than her own detached mother. While asserting that “Antoinette may be white but bears effect of slavery”, we see a similarly in how the identity of Adele, just like Antoinette, is distorted and shaped, particularly by Edward. From small details such as changing her name to ‘Adela’ from ‘Adele’, and effectively Anglicising it, to her very way of life, Edward asserts his authority on Adele, symbolising a patriarchal domination, as well as symbolising a colonial power.
Throughout the novel, Adele always seems to be playing a role – for her mother, for the circus, as a ‘bastard’, a loving child for Edward. This always appears to be a role, which makes it clear why she ultimately bottles up her own true self and her love: “Why do you live the life of someone who doesn’t exist?”
Corresponding to this, Edward himself finds it difficult to relate to Adele, feeling as if he is haunted by her, and viewing her as a “devil’s child”, expressing doubts that she is even his child, yet at the same time acknowledging that it is likely she is his due to their temperaments. The novel itself is has a fairly tragic tone, sympathising with Adele and her quest for love: “One day Papa will love me all the time”. Coupled with the reader’s knowledge from the start of the novel that her mother will soon leave her, Adele is presented as a very lonely figure, and it is no wonder that she further becomes a confused, complex character.
Throughout the novel, we see both Edward’s perspective corresponding to Adele’s, assumingly this is to show their similarities in their natures, as well as their own confusions and uncertainties. Although Tennant puts across a valid point in ‘rewriting’ a history for Adele, since she was previously ignored and neatly tied up with the rest of Jane Eyre, there are a lot of inconsistencies, mainly due to the novel aligning itself too Wide Sargasso Sea rather than using Jane Eyre as its canon. There are various details, especially in the figure of Antoinette/Bertha and the history of Edward and his mistresses and conquests, which are not elaborated in Jane Eyre. The subtle differences and changes in both Adele’s character and her relationship with Mr Rochester are also something to consider, as there appears to be stark difference in their characters, which does not quite seem to add up.
There are also, almost comical, ‘explanations’ to the events in the first novel, such as Mrs Fairfax attempting to make both Jane as well as Adele take responsibility for a fire that she herself started, and the vagueness in the circumstances of Bertha’s death. Also something which is difficult to take in is the idea that Celine is the ‘one’ true love of Edward Rochester’s life, which is something he is unable to let go of, and essentially begins to unravel the themes in the original novel. Similarly, features such as Celine’s occupation from being simply a dancer to a circus wirewalker and entertainer are a little incredible to accept for this era, suggesting that Tennant attempts to add some sensationalism to the novel, in order to make Adele seem more angst-ridden and to heighten the contrast between French and English.
Also something to look at here is the idea of colonisation and the whole master-servant relationship explored here. Whereas Wide Sargasso Sea provides a voice for the West Indian side and writes back, this novel attempts to describe the ‘freedom’ of the French and the idea of truth as a form of freedom, which for some readers may not always ring true.
The novel is split into three parts which symbolise significant eras of Adele’s life, with Part One focussing on her childhood in France and her feelings of alienation in England, Part Two looking at her verge on adolescence and her wanting to go back to her ‘roots’ in following her mother’s steps, and Part Three in which she attempts to reconciliate her two sides of her and her incompleteness. Despite her assertion that “I belonged nowhere”, Adele’s search for her roots, identity and her family show that like Jane Eyre herself, she is looking for love and acceptance. While there are many incongruities in the novel which do not match the original plot, I think that Tennant is attempting to create a similar type of ‘new’ heroine in Adele. While Adele very much at times seems like a lost, emotional teenager, she does not let this shape her, choosing to accept what she does have and choosing to simply “move into the next stage of our lives”.