The most conventional approach to Bertha's story comes from Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys' Bertha, here called Antoinette Cosway, is a Creole heiress in the West Indies, whose family, having fallen upon hard times, marries her off to young Englishman. According to Brontë, Bertha's insanity is the result of her promiscuity and (she not-very-subtly hints) her non-white lineage, but Rhys turns the tables by stridently insisting that it is Rochester and the English society he represents who drive Antoinette (Rochester even strips her of her name, claiming that Bertha is more proper) to madness, of which promiscuity is only a symptom. Antoinette becomes a representative of generations of subjugated women, sold into marriage by a white, male establishment, and then told to be ashamed of their femininity and their sexual impulses. The sexual politics are conflated with race politics--Antoinette's family home is surrounded by disgruntled former slaves, who reject Antoinette for her whiteness just as thoroughly as Rochester derides her for not being white enough. Caught in the middle of several conflicts, without friends and allies, treated with indifference and eventually cruelty by her uncomprehending husband, Antoinette's mind snaps, and her removal to cold, wet England after a lifetime spent in the jungle only serves to further her deterioration. The book ends with Antoinette fantasizing about her final release--burning down the house that has become her prison.
Although powerful and compellingly written, Rhys' retelling of Jane Eyre seems to have borrowed from Brontë her tendency to use her fiction as a pulpit. The book is strident and often shrill. Rhys piles the tragedy and melodrama on with a shovel, but unfortunately she is neither as talented as any of the Brontë sisters, nor does she have the excuse of writing during the first century of the novel's existence. Wide Sargasso Sea often slips away from Rhys' control, becoming the very book she was trying to lambast. (There's also the question of whether reading Bertha Rochester as a victim of the patriarchy is even remotely original or shocking for modern readers, although a quick look at the book's Amazon reviews reveals many readers who complain that Rhys has ruined their enjoyment of Jane Eyre by damaging their opinion of Rochester.)
Taking an opposite approach to Rhys was Daphne du Maurier in her most famous novel, Rebecca. Where Rhys' Bertha was a victim, du Maurier's is a victimizer, far worse than Brontë's. Bertha Rochester was insane--she couldn't help making Rochester's life a living hell, and she certainly suffered more than he did. Du Maurier's Rebecca de Winter, on the other hand, is perfectly sane and perfectly evil. She uses people--mainly men--for her own purposes and cares for no one but herself. She torments her husband, Maxim, with her infidelities, but also with his inability to dominate her and make her love him as much as he loves her. When she discovers that she's dying of cancer, Rebecca plays one final trick on Maxim by goading him into killing her, thus ensuring that even after her death, she will blight his existence (don't be fooled by the Hitchcock version, in which Maxim is innocent. Excellent as it is, the movie so thoroughly soft-pedals the ending as to completely change the story).
According to du Maurier, Rebecca is triumphant even after death. Whereas Brontë's Bertha never had a hold on Rochester's heart (and whereas Rhys' Antoinette briefly manages to entice her husband but quickly loses him), du Maurier assures us that Maxim will never forget Rebecca. He marries the novel's narrator, the unnamed Jane character who is thoroughly unlike Rebecca--meek, quiet, young and impressionable--because he hopes she will make him forget his pain, not because he loves her. Throughout the novel the narrator finds herself overshadowed and overwhelmed by Rebecca's memory, and as the novel ends we find her and Maxim living in seclusion the quiet, bland existence of shell-shocked soldiers or penitent hermits. The destruction of Manderley--which in Brontë's version of the story and in the Hitchcock film is a release for Jane and Rochester--is here presented as Rebecca's final, irrefutable victory, one last twist of the knife from beyond the grave.
Probably most intriguing about du Maurier's version of Jane Eyre is the fact that, having unapologetically sided with the bad girl (although Maxim, an unrepentant murderer, and 'Jane', who unhesitatingly helps him cover up the murder, can hardly be said to be 'good'), it is now being subjected to the same rethinking as Jane Eyre itself. Sally Beauman's Rebecca's Tale retells du Maurier's story from the dead woman's point of view through Rebecca's journals. As Beauman writes in her introduction to Virago's 2003 edition of Rebecca:
One way of reading Rebecca is as a convention-ridden love story, in which the good woman triumphs over the bad by winning a man's love: this version is the one our nameless narrator would have us accept, and it is undoubtedly the reading that made Rebecca a bestseller. Another approach is to see the novel's imaginative links, not just with the work of earlier female novelists, such as Charlotte Brontë, but also with later work, in particular Sylvia Plath's late poems. Rebecca is narrated by a masochistic woman, who is desperate for the validation provided by a man's love ... This woman, not surprisingly, views Rebecca as a rival; what she refuses to perceive is that Rebecca is also her twin, and ultimately her alter ego. The two wives have actually suffered very similar fates. Both were taken as brides to Manderley ... Both were marginalised within the confines of the house ... The difference between them lies in their reactions: the second wife gladly submits, allowing her identity to be determined by her husband, and by the class attitudes and value systems he embraces. Rebecca has dared to be an unchaste wife; she has broken the 'rules of conduct' Maxim lives by. Her ultimate sin is to threaten the system of primogeniture. That sin, undermining the entire patriarchal edifice that is Manderley, cannot be forgiven--and Rebecca dies for it.The third reexamination of Bertha Rochester comes from Michel Faber's gargantuan Victorian potboiler, The Crimson Petal and the White. Crimson is not simply a retelling of of Jane Eyre but a remixing of it, with a healthy dollop of Victorian sexual politics mixed in. The Jane/Rochester/Bertha triangle is recreated in the novel through Sugar, a successful prostitute who, in her spare time, writes a violent novel about woman who murders men; William, a failed author whose cosmetics business is transformed into an empire with Sugar's help; and Agnes, William's wife who is being driven slowly insane by a brain tumor. Faber tells Jane's story in reverse--Sugar starts out a common prostitute (which is probably where Jane would have ended up after leaving Rochester with no money or references), becomes William's mistress, is brought into his home as governess to his daughter Sophie and finally leaves him, going out into the world as a proper young lady.
Faber references and plays with our received notions of the Jane Eyre story in many ways (one of the joys of reading The Crimson Petal and the White is discovering these subtle jabs at the novel) but the most interesting one is the way in which he commingles the Jane and Bertha characters. Sugar, the Jane character, is the sexually promiscuous one, whereas Agnes is not only chaste but in complete denial of her sexuality. Agnes is in many ways infantile, almost a child. She sublimates her sexual nature and even her adulthood in religious hysteria, and her only sexual contacts come when William forces himself on her. In Faber's tale, Jane/Sugar's responsibility is not to Rochester/William but to the women he hurts--Bertha/Agnes and Adele/Sophie, both of whom she rescues from William's obliviously damaging clutches. Faber's Bertha is once again a victim, but for once she is treated to something resembling a happy ending.
For Charlotte Brontë, Bertha Rochester was a hurdle to be placed in her lovers' path. If she thought of Bertha's life at all it was to condemn her for her choices, for being the slave of vice and lust and for dragging a fairly innocent Rochester down with her. In one form or another, the authors I've mentioned here (and, I'm sure, others I've yet to read) have challenged that view. I've listed them here in the order of my opinion of them as novels--I disliked Wide Sargasso Sea, enjoyed Rebecca, and loved The Crimson Petal and the White. But regardless of my personal feelings, I have to wonder what it says about us that for more than 60 years, we have struggled with the fate of Bertha Rochester--was she a victim, a villain, or something in between? Did she deserve her fate, and did her husband and her successor deserve theirs? This fascination with a little-seen character is a testament to Charlotte Brontë's strength as a writer, I think, however little she may have intended it.