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Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was a Creole, born in the West Indies to a Welsh father and a white West Indian mother, although she spent most of her life in England. After publishing three novels between 1920 and 1940, she was presumed to have died soon afterwards. 'Wide Sargasso Sea' was first published in 1966.
The story is a kind of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre'. In the latter, Jane falls for Mr Rochester, whose estranged first wife is mad and living in the attic. Rhys constructs an earlier life for her in a very brief tale (perhaps it only counts as a novella), which is only about 120 pages long.
Part one, set in Jamaica in the 1830s, is narrated by Antoinette Cosway, later Mason, the central character. In it she tells of her early life with her mother and disabled brother, after the emancipation of the slaves and the death of her alcoholic father. Mrs Cosway meets the wealthy Mr Mason, who marries her and puts the estate back on its feet. Unhappily they fall foul of the local community, Antoinette's brother dies, and she herself is sent to a convent.
Part two is narrated by an Englishman. Although never named in the book, he is evidently Mr Rochester, and has married Antoinette (who now becomes Bertha), but mainly for her money and inheritance. He has been left more or less without any money by his father, who settled everything on the elder brother. However the marriage does not prove a success, and Bertha's reason begins to give way. In a brief third section, the action has moved to the 'Great House', Mr Rochester's mansion. A small part of the narrative comes from the servant Grace Poole, before Bertha takes up the thread.
As the story is told by four different characters, it makes for a rather disjointed book. Rhys certainly paints a vivid picture of life in Jamaica during an unstable time, and her portrayal of life on the island in the immediate post-emancipation era probably makes for the best part of the book. She also writes tellingly of the breakdown of reason in two of the main characters. It is maybe all the more poignant when we consider that Rhys herself was a heavy drinker, and she knew how it felt to be the underdog. Having come from the West Indies, she experienced some degree of racism herself, was married three times (the last time to a man who spent part of their marriage in prison), was accused by neighbours of being a witch, and was at one stage taken to mental hospital after attacking one of her accusers with a pair of scissors.
Although short, I did not find this book a particularly easy read. The elements didn't really fall into place for me, and I found that what is basically a good story tended to become submerged. Perhaps the best way is to describe it as a psychological novel. Rhys gets inside the mind of her characters well - in fact, the story could be said to be autobiographical to a certain extent. She also describes Jamaica from the viewpoint of a child born of two very different, even opposing, cultures. Maybe it was because of that that the narrative tended to suffer.
I read 'Jane Eyre' some years ago, and have also read Daphne Du Maurier's 'Rebecca', which has certain elements in common with the general story and theme - a mysterious woman who was formerly married to the main male character. I loved them both, and as a result, maybe I expected too much from 'Wide Sargasso Sea'. Other people have also read this, and from reviews I have seen elsewhere, they thoroughly enjoyed it. It has been regularly reprinted, and is now part of the Penguin Modern Classics series.
I won't dismiss it, but it wasn't the gripping read which I hoped it might be. Part of me feels tempted to try it again after a decent interval, maybe after revisiting 'Jane Eyre'. It might make more sense then, but unlike Charlotte Brontë's classic novel of the early Victorian era, I can only recommend it with great reservations. It's certainly interesting but not light reading.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
If you've read and enjoyed Jane Eyre, you probably think that Mr Rochester is a good and honourable man. Well, if you read Wide Sargasso Sea, you might just change your mind.
This book was written by Jean Rhys, who was born and raised on the Caribbean island of Dominica. It was published in 1966 and was an immediate hit. Wide Sargasso Sea is regarded as a prequel to Jane Eyre, written largely from the points of view of Rochester's first wife and Rochester himself. However, nowhere in the book does it state this categorically.
Antoinette Cosway, is a white Creole, living in the West Indies on the island of Jamaica, and the book catalogues her life on the island and her subsequent marriage to an English gentleman. The gentleman in question, we are led to believe, is Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre fame, although throughout the book he is unnamed.
Antoinette has been raised, in the main, by her native nurse, Christophine, because her mother suffered from mental instability. Christophine is a huge influence on Antoinette's life and she regards her as a surrogate mother. As Antoinette grows to maturity she develops a sense of separateness, surrounded as she is by seething unrest and resentment from the newly emancipated slaves and because of her mother's French heritage and fragile mental state she is not truly accepted by the other Creoles on the island. Even after her mother's remarriage to the wealthy Mr Mason, who one assumes is the same Mr Mason that appears briefly in Jane Eyre, Antoinette maintains that sense of belonging to neither the white (Creole) or the black world in which she lives. The descriptions of life and events on the island and the steamy jungle atmosphere which pervades the early part of the book give a strong feeling of suffocation, fear and death.
Because the first part of the book is written from Antoinette's viewpoint, beginning with episodes from her childhood the reader begins to identify with her and empathise with her. She has had a less than happy childhood and following her mother's death, her family try to subdue her passionate nature fearing that this may be the early indications that she is like her mother.
Rochester has been paid a great deal of money to marry Antoinette, which gives him freedom from his family in England but he soon realises he has married someone completely different to an English wife. For him the marriage is predicated on money and lust. The honeymoon period shows Rochester that Antoinette is as sexual a being as he is, something unacceptable to an English Victorian gentleman and when he receives a letter from Antoinette's half brother, he begins to think maybe she is mentally unstable like her mother and the marriage is doomed from that point on.
One of the most poignant episodes in the book is where Rochester refuses to call Antoinette by her name anymore but says he will henceforth call her Bertha, and with this one action he begins to strip away her sense of self and condemn her to her descent into madness. This is further exacerbated by the couple's move to England where Bertha is separated from all she's ever known and is now living in, to her, a cold, grey land with an unloving husband. We all know that this story ends badly.
Maybe because I'm female and of the feminist persuasion, I have a great deal of sympathy for Antoinette's plight, coupled with a great deal of dislike for her cold, unfeeling, heartless, gutless swine of a husband. Antoinette is all that is free and passionate and wild, and Rochester represents, the dual standards of Victorianism. Fortunately for me, I've never much enjoyed Jane Eyre, so didn't hold Rochester in very high regard anyway, even before reading this book. Afterwards, I held him in nothing but utter contempt.
This book isn't a long read, being only 160 pages, but in the same way that a sonnet manages to distill great emotion into sixteen lines, this book does the same in those 160 pages.
I tend to judge a book by how much it affects my feelings and whether the story remains with me after I've read the final page. I first read Wide Sargasso Sea about twenty years ago, and this story has remained with me to this day. This book is one of my top ten reads of all time but I warn anyone who regards Mr Rochester in a heroic light, to read this at their peril.
The book is still in print but there are plenty of cheaper copies to be found in charity shops or Amazon, or even for free at the local library.
The wedding scene in Charlotte Bronte?s Jane Eyre where Mr Rochester?s mad first wife appears to declare that any subsequent marriage between Mr Rochester and anyone else would be illegal is perhaps the most famous and probably one of the keys scenes of the book. The scene is much parodied and discussed but had you ever wondered about the ma first Mrs Rochester.? We are given clues in the text of Charlotte Bronte but only the story is biased as it is completely Mt Rochester?s We turn to another book Wild Sargasso Sea by a Caribbean born author Jean Rhys to tell Bertha Rochester?s story from here childhood in Jamaica to her death in the fire at Thornfield Hall Before I started reading this slim volume I was a little bit unsure about it. Although it has been highly praised I was unsure about Rhys?s treatment of Charlotte Bronte?s existing characters. I feel there is an issue with prequels and sequels to classic books written by other authors. I have read some pretty dire ones including the sequel to Gone with the Wind. In my opinion classic characters should be left well alone and not tampered with at all. However I was pleasantly surprised with Wide Sargasso Sea. The book does taker most of the major characters concerned with the mad wife such as Mr Rochester, Richard Mason (her brother) and the servant Grace Poole and uses some of the situations that have been referred to in Jane Eyre. However it never refers to Jane Eyre herself and thus does not refer to any of the events written about in detail in the original Bronte classic The book published in the 1960s itself is a slim volume and has only 156 pages. My copy is an old Penguin copy bought from a charity shop. I know Amazon stocks a student?s edition of the book for £6.39. Despite the thinness of the book I found it a very challenging and very dense book full of long paragraphs and vivid description of the geography, customs and traditions of Jamaica and the Windward Islands. The
book is divided into three sections. The first one is set in Jamaica and is narrated by Antoinette Cossway (Mason) which is Bertha Rochester?s real name and tells of the events of her childhood including a fire in her house which kills her invalid brother and subsequently her mother going mad. The second section is more confusing as it alternates between Edward Rochester and Antoinette Cossway. This section is set n the Windward Island of Dominica and recounts the events after their marriage including the break down of it and Antoinette?s descent into madness. The third part is again told solely by Antoinette and is set in the attic r0oom of Thronfield Hall The characters although mostly familiar from Jane Eyre are portrayed vividly in a new light. Antoinette is a complex character as she is sensitive and is affected easily by her mother?s plight ands the gossip about her family. She truly is a tragic character. It is almost painful to watch her transform from a beautiful young woman to a ghost like wreck of a creature. Jean Rhys has truly written a complicated believable character which in many respects is much better than the one dimensional Mad wife of Charlotte Bronte. Mr Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea is a tricky character to assess. He aging is complex and human as he has a tender loving side to him but is too gullible and listens to too many of the rumours that the locals tell him. His listening to these rumours brings about the downfall of both characters. The last notable character I want to mention is Christophine. She is the Martinique born nurse of Antoinette who is loyal to her mistress until her departure from the West Indies. This character brings about most of the atmosphere of the Caribbean as she is a wise woman but also an Obeah, one who performs voodoo. The scene with the dead chicken and its blood gushing into a bowl that Antoinette thinks she sees was quite disturbing for me One of the things that really struck
me abut the book was the level of description used with regards to Jamaica and Dominica. The author uses her knowledge of the islands to describe the heady scents and the bright colours of the flowers, the vividness of the deep blue skies and the claustrophobic heat of the Caribbean summer where the best thing to do is bathe in a cool water hole. This was one of the best features of the book. I feel one of the most important underlying issues in the book is the role of colonial powers in the West Indies. Antoinette and her family are Creole meaning those who have pure European blood. Her family were plantation and slave owners but by the 1830s when the book is set the Emancipation Act has been passed to free the slaves. The tensions between blacks, coloured people and whites especially those such as the Cossway family who have lost most of their money was particularly interesting and made it a far richer book This book was a joy to read. It is classed as a prequel to Jane Eyre but it stands up in its own right as an enthralling story of love, betrayal, race relations, madness and tragedy. Due to this I feel if you have not read Jane Eyre ( and shame on you if you have not as it is a wonderful book) this is a perfect introduction to some of Bronte?s character?s. It is a very dense book which I sometimes found difficult to read due to the long paragraphs but persevere as it is a wonderful atmospheric book full of the sights, sounds and smells of the Caribbean which really tugs your heart strings and plays with your emotions Happy reading.
I would imagine that how you read this book will depend a great deal on whether or not you are familiar with Jane Eyre - and most people will be. The two books inform one another, as Wide Sargasso Sea is written back into the older text. Once you have read it, you will never see Jane in the same light. The brilliance of this text is that it draws forwards features of Jane Eyre that are otherwise easily overlooked - this is a story just visible thorugh the cracks in the older text, and it takes Rochester's statements about his first marriage and portrays something of what that must mean. (Ok, for anyone not familiar with Jane Eyre, its a story about a girl who goes to be a Governess in a big house,she falls in love with the dark brooding bloke who lives there. He turns out to have a mad wife locked up in his attic. Wide Sargasso Sea retells Jane Eyre from the perspective of the mad wife.) Sorry to anyone who didn't want to know that! This is a very clever book, but it does also stand on its own as a story of a woman falling into madness and confusion. It is quite disorientating to read, but well worth the effort. An absolute must for students of English literature. This sort of revisionary work, where modern writers write in to older texts, is increasingly popular - there are numerous revisions of Robinson Crusoe out there, and of course Jane Smiley's Revision of King Lear, Ten Thousand acres. This is a fasncinating, if small genre, and is well worth encountering.
Wide Sargasso Sea was written as a prequel to Jane Eyre and tells the story of the mad wife in the attic, who is Rochester's first wife. Set in Martinique, it recounts Antoinette's story of growing up in a place that both attracts and repels her, it leads us through her life on the mysterious journey from her beautiful island to the dark, bleak house in the north of England, that was Rochester's home.