Newest Review: ... mother. As Antoinette grows to maturity she develops a sense of separateness, surrounded as she is by seething unrest and resentment fr... more
Not recommended for fans of Mr Rochester
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
Member Name: ladybracknell
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
Advantages: Great read
Disadvantages: Has an unhappy ending
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.
Summary: The other side of Mr Rochester's story