Jean on Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

You don’t need to have read Jane Eyre to love Wide Sargasso Sea, but if you have, you will never think of it in the same way again.

Wide Sargasso Sea writes back to Jane Eyre as a prequel. It traces the life of Rochester’s wife, Antoinette, from before she became the mad woman in the attic and up to the time of the fire at Thornfield Hall that left Rochester blinded and physically debilitated, able at last to marry Jane.

Jean Rhys was born in Dominica of a Welsh father and a Creole mother. She was, like many children of colonialists, minded and nurtured by black servants. She went to England at 16 to finish her education. Later, displaced and alienated, after living the life of a demi-mondaine, she began to write. Her books are full of her sense of otherness, usually from the autobiographical point of view of women who are grudgingly dependent on unreliable men.

Subject to depression and alcoholism, Rhys stopped writing for almost 20 years after the publication of her fifth book Good Morning, Midnight, in 1939. In 1958, following a BBC dramatisation of the novel, she was rediscovered (most people had thought she was dead). Some stories she had written in the interim were published, and she claimed she was working on the manuscript that would become Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading her letters, it is clear that she had revisited an old idea and that she procrastinated, and probably prevaricated, for some years about the progress of the book. But eventually she was happy enough with a draft to send it to her assiduous editor, Francis Wyndham.

The result, first published in 1966, was a brilliant novel that is possibly one of the earliest post-modernist works in English, although Rhys is always described as a modernist. It is certainly post-colonialist and post-feminist. Rhys was ‘shocked’ at her first reading of Jane Eyre: she knew all about mad Creole heiresses, and the way they were exploited by everyone. She determined to give Rochester’s wife an identity and a voice.

But, in doing so, she did much more. This novella-length book is incredibly complex and wide-ranging. It opens up an exotic world and plumbs the depths of the subconscious. It also reveals unpalatable truths behind the respectable facade of the English gentry – subtly reminding us, for example, that Rochester’s fortune, like that of many another English gentleman, was built on his marriage to an heiress and ultimately on the slave trade.

Part One is narrated by Antoinette. It describes her childhood on the derelict Coulibri estate in Jamaica with her widowed mother Annette struggling to survive with two children, one of whom is an invalid, among hostile servants and other locals.

Slavery has recently been abolished. Some of the emancipated have chosen to stay with their ex-owners, but others have nowhere to go and their discontent and anger have grown.

Christophine is one who has stayed. She is a Dominican woman, bought and given to Annette as a wedding present and she, also an outsider, interprets the world for Antoinette and is a powerful and motivating presence in the novel: hers is the first voice we hear apart from Antoinette’s. She is not the patronised and sentimentalised black Mammy of Gone With the Wind – she is a fully realised character, opinionated, rumoured to practise Obeah, and a shrewd judge of people and events.

After Annette marries Mr Mason, a rich and recently arrived Englishman, things get worse. The locals have barely tolerated them while they were poor – ‘They hated us. They called us white cockroaches’  – and now that they are rich the hostility becomes overt and threatening. Mason, representing the incomers avid to exploit the unsettled times, refuses to acknowledge what Annette knows:

‘They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous,’ said Mr Mason. ‘I know that.’

‘They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand.’

Annette’s fears are justified. Coulibri is attacked and the house is burnt down. Antoinette’s brother, Pierre, dies; the family moves away and Annette sinks into a despairing madness. Antoinette is sent to school and after a couple of years, beautiful and now the heiress to the restored estate and a fortune, she is deemed ripe for the marriage market. Enter ‘Rochester’ ­(he is never named in the novel), an impoverished young English gentleman seeking a rich wife.

At first, things go well. But what might have been a joyous love match is distorted by Rochester’s inability to cope with the place and its barrage of sensual impressions – indeed with sensuality itself – and by one of Christophine’s love potions gone awry. He chooses to believe malicious gossip and to preserve his sense of propriety. The marriage reverts to one of convenience and Antoinette is desolated.

Rochester is given his say in Part Two, which he narrates with various characters, most notably Antoinette’s ‘coloured’ half-brother Daniel Cosway, giving their biased versions of the events Antoinette has already described in Part One. Here we see how the place assaulted his senses:

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.

We see, too, how nearly he went over the brink into love and passion, how he believes he has saved himself from disaster and how he has at least some self-knowledge, some appreciation of what he has, in fact, lost:

I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

In Part Three, set in England, Antoinette (renamed Bertha by her husband) returns as the narrator:

… I open the door and walk into their world. It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it.

Considered mad, she is confined to the attic room at Thornfield Hall, under the cold care of Grace Poole. From this point the story follows the events of Jane Eyre after Jane’s arrival, but from Antoinette’s point of view, complicating and illuminating all that is said and unsaid in Brontë’s novel.

Wide Sargasso Sea is elegantly minimalist in style, with sparing but tellingly evocative descriptive passages. As readers we come away with such a strong sense of detail, place and character that we might have been reading a much larger book. It abounds with metaphor and symbolism, both on the page and subtextually: the burning parrot, its wings clipped, plummeting to its death in the sack of Coulibri; the various forms of enslavement; the intertwining images of heat, fire, madness and sexuality; the changing of Antoinette’s name and the omission of Rochester’s; the contrasting use of heat and cold to suggest personalities and place; the description of the 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 to be touched … Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered … a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.

All of this adds up to a richly multi-layered narrative that gives voice and identity to not only the madwoman in the attic, but to many who have been marginalised in literature – the poor, the enslaved, the colonised, the illegitimate and the disenfranchised.

Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea Penguin 2015 PB 192pp $19.95

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 28 July 2016


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