Wide Sargasso Sea- Jean Rhys
As fans of Jane Eyre will probably know, Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel- or an implied prequel, at least- to Brontë’s classic love story, detailing the life of Bertha Antoinetta Mason (Rochester’s ‘mad woman in the attic’ first wife) before and during the early days of her marriage to Rochester. It’s a novel which has always divided opinion, with one friend of mine telling me it was ‘bitter, feminist crap’ and others proclaiming its brilliance. I’ll admit I didn’t expect to like this novel, partly because I’m a Jane Eyre lover and I’m also not a big fan of colonial and postcolonial fiction. However, it turned out to be a very interesting read…
The novel is set a short while after the Abolition of Slavery in 1834. Antoinette Cosway is the daughter of a former slave owner and along with her disabled brother and widowed mother, has been somewhat abandoned in the Caribbean. The family does not fit in with the local black population, nor the new class of white immigrants settling in the Caribbean. There is a profound sense of isolation throughout the novel; indeed, the first line reads “They say that when trouble comes close ranks, so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks“. Although the peculiar societal position of the Cosway family is crucial to the story and creates the unique perspective of slaveowners as a victimised minority, it did irritate me that Rhys changed the time frame of the story to achieve this effect. Were she to have stuck to the time frame of Jane Eyre, Antoinette’s childhood would have taken place in the 1820s when slavery was still practised and her family would have been affluent, as well as belonging to the ruling class of Jamaica. Although Rhys’ changing of the time frame allows her to explore a fascinating transitional period in history, and one that has seldom been explored by other writers, it seems almost as though she’s done it to make Antoinette a victim from the off, and thus rendering Rochester more of a villain- essentially, being extra anti-establishment, just for the sake of it. It also irritated me that his infidelity was made much of, whereas hers was kept very quiet until the end, despite it being much more frequent.
However, although Rhys does present Rochester as the ‘bad guy’ in much of the novel, he is a victim too, of scheming on the part of his father and brother. Due to cultural influences and vicious rumours, he genuinely believes that his wife is his enemy. Rhys tells much of the story from Rochester’s perspective and so we are able to understand and sympathise with him, even if we know him to be mistaken. In the end, Antoinette and Rochester are both victims, of society and of each other.
Not only this, the novel helps the reader see Bertha Mason as something other than the symbol she is in Jane Eyre. She becomes a character with thoughts, feelings and fears, and Rhys’ beautiful, yet haunting, writing style draws us into the dark centre of her psyche as she becomes increasingly isolated and out-of-touch with reality. In fact, Rhys’ writing style is one of the best things about this novel, and makes it an absolute pleasure to read. It’s very ambiguous and full of hints and shadows rather concrete facts, which achieves a very appropriately disconcerting effect, since the novel deals with a mental breakdown. But Rhys’ prose isn’t the only thing that haunts the novel; Wide Sargasso Sea is haunted by the ghost of Bertha Mason, since as soon as you pick up the novel, you know it can only end in one way…
Wide Sargasso Sea is, in short, a fantastic novel. Its disturbing power borders on hypnotic, meaning that it won’t take you long to read it. You can enjoy it whether you’ve read Jane Eyre or not, and I suspect that the novel you read first probably impacts your perception of the other. Jean Rhys has created a masterpiece which is as beautiful, abstruse and troubled as the Caribbean itself.
Have YOU read Wide Sargasso Sea? How well do you think it interacted with Jane Eyre? It’s one of those novels I could discuss for hours and I’d really love to know what you think, so please please leave me a comment!