Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
7 August, 2012
A lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps, like much else in this place.
I’ve been meaning to re-read some of my favourite books but have gone down the book blogger’s rabbit hole where, frankly, I have so many unread books I don’t have time for the books I’ve already read. One of the lovely things about book group is sometimes you get the chance to re-read. And this month, it’s Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys chosen by Polly for our book group (do also check out Kim’s review).
It’s almost ten years since I read Wide Sargasso Sea. I remember the lushness of Jamaica and Antoinette’s crumbling life. But not much more. Rochester is a nameless, faceless man. That’s the thing about classics. You often find that on first reading, much of the story escapes you. It was the same with Jane Eyre which I read at school. I read a lot of classics back then but I suspect most of them were too complex for me to understand fully. So when I re-read Jane Eyre as an adult, I was shocked at the intensity of Jane’s feelings, the beauty of Charlotte Brontë’s prose, the immediacy of her situation. And like many others, I couldn’t shake the nagging, troublesome vision of the woman in the attic, Rochester’s first wife Bertha Mason. And when I learnt that Jean Rhys had written a prequel, I had to find out more.
Wide Sargasso Sea is the tale of Antoinette Cosway and how she became Bertha Mason. Born a creole in Jamaica in the early 19th century to a British slave owner for a father and a mother from Martinique driven by poverty and loss to madness, Antoinette is unable to shake off her familial legacy in a newly emancipated Jamaica. She is constantly questioning her identity and searching for her place in this world because, Rochester notes,
creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.
When her step-father arranges a mutually beneficial marriage (money for him, repectability for her), she is at first wary but soon falls in love with her new husband. But Rochester, young, naïve, superficial, initally dazzled by Antoinette and the strange magic Jamaica casts upon him, slowly grows suspicious of this wild, enchanting thing he has married. And when they return to one of her family homes for their honeymoon, the people and land from her past whisper ugly truths into his ears and he starts to believe he has been tricked. For a man like Rochester, who is all pride and who guards his love jealously, he can only torment his wife. As Antoinette desperately seeks to save their love, she turns to Christophine, her mother’s maid and the only person she feels is like family, begging her to make Rochester love her. But this only sparks the flames and drives Rochester to make a drastic decision.
Re-reading Wide Sargasso Sea, I am struck anew by the pathos and crushing unfairness of Antoinette’s plight. What I had remembered from my first reading (and from what I had read about others’ reactions to the book) was Antoinette’s knowingness and the way she manipulated Rochester. And yet, it’s her innocence and naïveté which left an impression this time. It is only Rochester’s bitter and twisted mind that cannot see past the rumours about Antoinette.
Like some have said, this isn’t the picture of Rochester you get from Jane Eyre. But then Rochester is a pretty horrible man at the start of the novel. So it’s interesting to see why he is that way. Rhys doesn’t name Rochester and he remains a nameless and faceless man; a jailer. I can’t say it’s Antoinette fault really, it seems Rochester has always been that way and his meeting with Antoinette somehow solidifies his persona.
I couldn’t help but compare this with Romesh Gunesekera’s recent novel, The Prisoner of Paradise, which was so light and different in tone even though it did cover some dark history. Rhys’ novel is more primal. The wild greenery, the colours, the sound adds to the gothic chill when you contrast it to the silence laden with secrets and sorrow in Antoinette’s family.
But however much colour and vibrancy Rhys injects into the story with her beautiful and stinging prose, Wide Sargasso Sea is a dark tale with an ever present sense of foreboding and claustrophobia. But this may be because we know of Antoinette’s inevitable fate which will naturally colour our reading.
Even though Jamaica is where Antoinette belongs, she is still ‘other’, separated by the colour of her skin and ancestry. But this is a different ‘other’ to what Rochester feels. Rochester is an alien in a bewitching land he does not understand and yet is seduced by it.
Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger.
And this is while they are on their honeymoon.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first is Antoinette’s tale from her childhood until she meets Rochester. The second is told by Rochester interspersed with Antoinette’s explanations. And the third is told by Grace Poole and Antoinette when she is incarcerated in Thornfield. The structure of the novel in this way works brilliantly. If it had been one long continuous narrative, it would have become too heavy, too disturbing and I would have felt reluctant to continue, knowing what was going to happen.
The thing that I kept asking myself throughout was why was Rochester so angry, so hurtful? Why did he treat Antoinette in the way he did? Was it because he believed he had been tricked and made a fool of? If he didn’t love Antoinette, why didn’t he let her go? No one would know in England. But he didn’t want to release her. And he mentally abused her by changing her name to Bertha and erasing her identity, something that was so vital to her. It’s chilling.
In his introduction to her novel, Francis Wyndham aptly called Rhys one of ‘the purest writers of her time.’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a stripped down novel of raw emotion; superb, masterful, vivid and rich. It doesn’t answer all your questions but it does leave you thinking about the unhappy couple long after you’ve turned the last page.