Book Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously prompted me to get round to reading Jane Eyre. Having done so I knew I had to read Wide Sargasso Sea, a book which had been on my #ReadWomen list since the middle of 2014.

A remarkably short story of only 120 pages, Wide Sargasso Sea can be read in a single sitting. Told in three parts, this is Jean Rhys’s response to her reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in 1939. After writing in longhand, getting her husband to type up the manuscript, burning it (how apt) and tearing it up the finished story was eventually published in October 1966 when its author was 76 – a long gestation period for such a short creation.

But what a creation. Rhys draws on her childhood memories of Dominica, the Caribbean island where she lived until the age of sixteen and which she revisited for the first time in 1936. Indeed, to some extent Wide Sargasso Sea is a paean to the island itself: its landscape, flora, people and language.

Part One forms Antoinette Bertha Cosway’s story. Following the death of her dissolute, promiscuous father (there are hints of madness here too – “he die raving and cursing”) the Cosway estate at Coulibri is a paradise reverting back to wilderness; a Garden of Eden after The Fall. Antoinette’s mother – Annette – is a lonely woman (“marooned”) whom Mr Mason marries for her looks alone, for the family have been left impoverished. Indeed, it is Mason’s fortune that will eventually buy a husband for Antoinette.

Presaging Antoinette’s fate at Thornfield Hall, an arson attack on the house at Coulibri perpetrated by an angry mob forces the family to flee, brings about the death of her ailing brother Pierre and is the catalyst for her mother’s mental decline and eventual death. Antoinette receives a head injury and takes weeks to recover at her Aunt Cora’s house. When she eventually comes round it is to discover that she is as good as abandoned: her brother is dead, her mother put away and her stepfather “was often away for months.” Even her aunt returns to England and so the convent Antoinette is sent to becomes her refuge. The suspicion that Mr Mason is arranging her marriage is the root of a nightmare. Dressed in a white (bridal?) gown she is in an unfamiliar place: Thornfield Hall? (“in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees.”) When the nightmare wakes her she tells the nun who comes to comfort her that, “I dreamed I was in hell.”

Part Two is (an unnamed) Edward Rochester’s story. His father has arranged for him to marry Antoinette, thereby securing a fantastic dowry of £30,000. But the marriage seems doomed from the beginning: “I was married a month after I arrived in Jamaica and for nearly three weeks of that time I was in bed with fever.” Antoinette has second thoughts and wants to call it off. And there are hints of the madness that is to come all around him. In Massacre The Young Bull tells him, “This a very wild place – not civilized. Why you come here?” and in an imagined letter home to his father Rochester thinks, “I have sold my soul or you have sold it…”

So it would appear that the devil is at work in the honeymoon setting of Granbois and in Christophine’s practice of Obeah or Voodoo. Esau/Daniel’s revelation of Antoinette’s family history of mental illness (her mother) and defectiveness (her brother) only confirm what Rochester already suspected. He calls her by her middle name, Bertha. After all, Antoinette sounds too much like Annette – a woman who threatened to kill her husband. Antoinette develops the same frown as her mother “deep as if it had been cut with a knife.” It is as if they have become the same person: Ann(toin)ette.

Edward’s tryst with Amélie within earshot of Antoinette finally sends her over the edge.  Granbois has been defiled and all places of safety and sanctuary have been lost: Coulibri, the convent and now Granbois. The cock crows, signifying betrayal, and imagery of malevolence is everywhere in the exotic flora of the unnamed island. The house at Granbois is close to the encroaching forest – echoing the fairytale cabin in a clearing or castle entangled in thorns – which is so dense that Rochester loses his way both physically and morally. Ominously “the dark forest always wins.”

There is a suggestion of sexual violence. Christophine says she has seen marks on Antoinette’s body on the morning after she uses the Obeah potion on Rochester. He has chosen to forget what has happened: “I remember putting out the candles on the table near the bed and that is all I remember. All I will remember of the night.” Edward Rochester has become a creature of the night (wasn’t the vampire in Twilight called Edward?): “I was longing for night and darkness and the time when the moonflowers open.” Unlike the vampire, Rochester is deprived of his youth. His destiny is to return to England a wealthy man but one with a huge secret: a mad wife locked up in the attic who can never be introduced into society.

Only in Part Three did I feel a little let down. This is where Wide Sargasso Sea intersects with Jane Eyre and it is perhaps because of the enormity of this requirement that it stumbles. It starts promisingly with Grace Poole explaining how she came to be Antoinette’s carer/keeper/gaoler. But it depends too much on exposition for my liking, with Grace reminding Antoinette of the events of the night of Richard Mason’s arrival. Here was an opportunity to explore ‘madness’. Instead, Rhys gives Antoinette a recurrent ‘dream’ about her death: “That was the third time I had my dream…” Of course the dream is a portent of her demise.

There is now a trend for writing sequels and prequels to classic novels (Death Comes to Pemberley, The House of Silk, etc.) Perhaps there is scope for another here? After all, we know that in between bringing Antoinette to Thornfield Hall and engaging Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester spends much of his time abroad, leading a dissolute life ending up with him becoming the guardian of his mistress’s child, Adèle Varens. Or perhaps we should have Adèle’s story?

Authors… you’re welcome!

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