I hate this novel.
This was my thought after I barely finished forty pages. Yet, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is one of my favorite classics, so I refused to give up. It’s a good thing I didn’t. The second time I read it, I fell in love.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys explores the life of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, or rather her real name, Antoinette Cosway. (For those who do not know, Mr. Rochester is the man Jane Eyre marries in the novel Jane Eyre.) Rhys manages to do this in a poetic, seductive, and even concise way, as the novel is only 192 pages. The novel is divided into three books. Book one is narrated by Antoinette. Book two is narrated by her “mysterious” beau who is not named (but who we can presume as Mr. Rochester) and Antoinette. And lastly, Book three is narrated by Grace Poole, Antoinette’s guardian, and Antoinette.
This novel is something that would make a great Lifetime movie. We learn of Antoinette’s mentally unstable mother, absentee stepfather, conniving step-brother, dead brother, and questionable half-brother. We are then thrown into Rochester’s mind and learn of his marriage to her while he was literally sick in bed with fever. Once they honeymoon at Granbois, a house in Dominica, everything begins to shatter to pieces. At the end of the novel we understand why Antoinette did what she did. Even more so, the novel easily covers more than just how Antoinette was dubbed “madwoman” by Rochester.
The novel starts after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which ended slavery in the British Empire. Rhys explores the tension between blacks, whites, creoles, and even typical gender roles of that time. Although Jean Rhys was educated in England, she was born and raised in Dominica for the first sixteen years of her life. Her knowledge of the Caribbean’s history, language, customs, and geography is prevalent throughout the novel.
However, easily one of the most fascinating aspects of Wide Sargasso Sea is the style in which Rhys writes. It’s poetic and generates emotion with few words. Take her description of Antoinette’s childhood garden:
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the bible- the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not be touched.
Her writing also manages to capture the island language without peculiar spelling. In this scene, Antoinette’s maid, Christophine, has given Mr. Rochester his morning coffee:
“Not horse piss like the English madams drink,” she said. “I know them. Drink drink their yellow horse piss, talk, talk their lying talk.” Her dress trailed and rustled as she walked to the door. There she turned. “I send the girl to clear up the mess you make with the frangipani, it bring cockroach in the house. Take care not to slip on the flowers, young master.” She slid through the door.
This novel is an excellent blend of exciting island life, demanding prose, and thought provoking questions. By the end of the novel I began thinking. Did Antoinette bring everything upon herself? Was Mr. Rochester stiff in his ways and ideas? Are they both to blame? Was it justifiable for him to lock her up in an attic? Should I have ever rooted for Jane and Rochester’s love?
Wide Sargasso Sea was published 119 years after Jane Eyre, but provides a seamless intertwinement of the two novels. I would not recommend this novel if you haven’t read Jane Eyre because it can become confusing. However, it is perfect for lovers of Jane Eyre, classics, or those in pursuit of something fresh and unique.
And as my Norton Paperback edition claims, Rhys “brilliantly and imaginatively constructs the girlhood and marriage of Antoinette Bertha Cosway, the mysterious madwoman in Jane Eyre. It is a romantic and tragic novel of spellbinding intensity.”