Wide Sargasso Sea

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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!

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This is my seco…

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This is my second Jane Eyre post today and my third overall so you’re probably sick of the sight of her now, but it’s such an interesting book that I wanted to do a more in-depth post about it.

Charlotte Brontë did not lead a charmed life- she was well-educated and respectable but she wasn’t involved in ‘high society’- much like Jane herself. She was welcome to observe the fun but she was merely a spectator- she wasn’t to play the game. Writing was her way of imagining a better life and although she originally published Jane Eyre under the male pseudonym of Curer Bell, when her gender was revealed Jane Eyre became something of a milestone for women’s writing.

Jane is able to transcend the social boundaries, starting off as an orphan living off the charity of others and ending up as the wife of a rich man, Mr. Rochester. What poor, orphan Jane ends up with is essentially every girl’s dream- a rich and loving husband and a fantastic romance. It’s no wonder that this book was written during a time of rigid class boundaries- I imagine it would have been a welcome escape from the insurmountable social barriers.

The novel also explores the idea that women are independent, intellectual creatures with strong feelings of their own. Jane experiences hate and desire which at the time were seen as vulgar in a young woman. However, she also has a strong sense of morality, leaving Mr. Rochester when she finds out they cannot be married. There is also a moment with her cousin, St. John, which is supposed to be a religious experience but I feel is actually sexual on many levels. When he touches her she is “paralysed” and forgets her refusals, almost like she is being seduced. She describes Angels beckoning and a future of “safety and bliss”- she is swept off of her feet by this attractive, if cold, man. Religion and sexuality seem to intermingle here, as St. John is a clergyman but he is also an attractive man and so it is natural that what he makes Jane feel is a mixture of the two. This harks back to the incestuous theme found in so much of the Gothic and I honestly thought for a moment that Jane was going to fall into St. John’s arms and run off to India with him!

Jane Eyre is not just a tale of romance- it is also a social criticism and an examination of the conflict between passion and morality in 19th century Britain, as well as a turning point in women’s literature. If you haven’t read it- what are you waiting for?

30 day book challenge; day 28, the last book you read

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I posted about this fairly recently and I DO keep meaning to do another post on it, which I’m hoping to get done tonight. It’s one of the greatest romances of all time and I absolutely loved it. I’m really getting into the Gothic and this book helped me see another side to it- it’s not all monsters and ghosts. It also kept me guessing- the mystery surrounding Thornfield was enthralling and I kept wondering if Jane and Mr. Rochester were going to get together (even though I’m not his biggest fan, as I’ve already mentioned). This is a great book for anyone, even if you’re not that much of a fan of the classics.

Jane Eyre

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I picked up Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ at a garden centre a couple of weeks ago in a sale. I’d heard it was good from several people and I must say that I completely agree! I immediately loved the character of rebellious, impulsive Jane and was intrigued by the nature vs. nurture element to the book- at first she finds it hard to control her emotions and verbally lashes out at her cruel aunt but the strict and controlling environment of Lowood boarding school makes her quiet, restricted and virtuous. However I wasn’t so keen on her love interest, Mr. Rochester. I know he’s considered as one of the greatest literary romantic heroes of all time but I found him bossy, egotistical and slightly creepy- but perhaps that’s due to Jane’s description of his “ugly” face, massive torso and large head. He later won me over though with his heroism during the fire and I thought the ending was terribly romantic, with Jane devoting herself to care for her blind love.

The tale is also recounted in a richly descriptive pose, using beautiful language and charming dialogue. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the enriching surroundings, which is a common feature in Romantic literature. It wasn’t as “wordy” as one might expect and was relatively easy to read. It also moves fairly quickly and although it’s a long book, it doesn’t feel that way. I did get irritated with Jane’s decision to leave Mr. Rochester because he couldn’t marry her; but then that was a reflection upon society at the time. But more on that next time, when I’ll be doing an exploration of the text rather than a review…

What did YOU think of Jane Eyre? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment!