Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel by Jean Rhys first published in 1966 and is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). It tells the story of the marriage of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason. Bertha, in Jane Eyre, is the 'mad woman in the attic', Mr. Rochester's monstrously insane wife locked in his attic in Thornfield Hall and cared for by Grace Poole.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha is in fact Antoinette Cosway, her 'real' name not the one Mr. Rochester referred to her as. It begins in Coulibri in Jamaica when Antoinette is a young girl shortly after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was passed. The family, having relied on slaves, becomes very poor, especially after the death of her father, and despised by both the white and black population for being Creole. Annette, Antoinette's mother, remarries to Mr. Mason, a wealthy Englishman, but their house is burned down by the freed slaves killing their son. Annette has a complete breakdown and is sent away, then Antoinette is sent to her Aunt Cora's in Spanish Town. There she goes to school, and when she returns she finds Mr. Mason arranging a marriage for her.

That is the first part of the book: in the second we see Antoinette married to Mr. Rochester and in Dominica. It is not long before things begin to fall apart: Antoinette's estranged half-brother Daniel tells Mr. Rochester of the family's past, particularly the mental illness that runs rife through the family. Mr. Rochester rejects Antoinette, pushing her into a sharp decline of madness exacerbated by his cruel treatment of her, and by the end of it we see her in Thornfield Hall under the guard of Grace Poole.

For such a short book there is an awful lot going on: Rhys examines themes of race and colonialism, as well as patriarchy with Antoinette being stripped of her name and taken away, left in an attic without real care and no love, someone who in Jane Eyre was an inconvenience, a Gothic monster whose death brought happiness to Mr. Rochester. Jean Rhys gives her her own story, she is finally allowed to speak after over 100 years of being the complication in Jane Eyre. For that, and the fresh take on a classic, Wide Sargasso Sea is a remarkable work. It's suffocating, dark, and suffused with magic and the overwhelming scent of flowers, it's enough to make the reader dizzy, and it's remarkable that so much was achieved in a mere 160 pages. It's a great work, not a favourite of mine, but one I'll always be very impressed by.

Comments

  1. This is a book I've often heard about but hadn't really looked into. I don't know how I feel about an out-and-out villainization of Rochester, who I feel is supposed to be a gray character, but it does sound intriguing from a literary perspective. Maybe I'll give it a try one of these days. :)

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    1. That's why it's not a favourite - I think it's an interesting interpretation, and that is its merit, but I think I loved Jane Eyre so much any kind of prequel or anything 'inspired' by Jane Eyre wouldn't quite sit right with me. But do read it when you can, it is really very interesting!

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  2. "It's suffocating, dark, and suffused with magic and the overwhelming scent of flowers, it's enough to make the reader dizzy, and it's remarkable that so much was achieved in a mere 160 pages." PERFECTLY put. I just love this description. I've only ever read this one once but I vividly remember feeling just that way while reading it.

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  3. I've been curious about this book for sometimes, but your review convinced me. I think I'd like the book--straight to wishlist! :)

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    1. Excellent! Let me know what you think :)

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