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!

How I Read Now

Some of my 2014 reads

At the side of this blog you will see a Widget which shows you what I’m currently reading on Goodreads. I was surprised to realise that I joined Goodreads in October 2010. I certainly didn’t start using it properly until 2012 and in 2013 I took on the Goodreads Challenge (a bit like a New Year’s Resolution to set yourself a reading challenge and see how long it takes to achieve it). In 2013 I thought I might be able to tackle 35 books – roughly 3 a month – and was surprised that I managed 38. For that reason, to some extent Goodreads can be seen as a bragging site: “look how many I’ve read” or “check out the size of my library”. Or a giant Book Club or Reading Group. None of which appeal.

So, why do I bother? Because, dear readers, I have an appalling memory. I finish a book which I love and a week later I can just about recall the main characters’ names. In a couple of weeks’ time I can pretty much guarantee I’ll remember only their first names and a couple of months after that they’ll be gone too. My husband has read four of my books recently and I can scarcely remember the plot details. Worrying. So, maybe if I make comments as I go, and post a review when I finish this will help jog my memory.

For me, it’s not the quantity of books that counts, it’s the variety. Before I got into social media I had been reading roughly the same sort of books all year round. Hence I’ve read almost all of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole novels, quite a few of Lindsey Davies’ Falco books, etc. and I could quite probably have gone on in that vein, Scandi-Noir thriller after Scandi-Noir thriller. Then came Goodreads. And recommendations via social media as well as in newspapers and magazines.

I decided to use my Kindle as a recommendation storage device. I created a folder snappily titled ‘Samples to try’ and whenever I read a review that sounded promising or was offered a recommendation I downloaded a sample of the book to the folder. Not all were a success. I see from my ‘I give up!’ folder that I abandoned at least 5 books last year including Careless People by Sarah Churchwell (I really wasn’t interested enough in F. Scott Fitzgerald and his cronies) and Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy (just plain oo-arr dull).

Lists can be annoying. The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, etc. frequently publish “100 Books to Read in A Lifetime” lists which cam make you feel downright inadequate but they can also point you in the direction of books you might otherwise never have considered. And the joy of owning a Kindle is that you can download samples of these books, ready to peruse when the time is right. Similarly, if I hadn’t come across hashtags on Twitter like #ReadWomen2014 I would probably never have read Passing by Nella Larsen, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood or Westwood by Stella Gibbons. The last was one of my favourite reads of 2014, staying with me long after many of the others.

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller (reviewed here) made me realise there’s an element of reading we don’t often write about and that’s the choice of book. Why do we choose a particular book at a particular time? This is something I’m trying to make more of an effort to record on Goodreads. (So far this year there have been interesting little segways in my reading from House of Mirth to A Room of One’s Own to Testament of Youth. One has almost suggested another or there has been a link that I wasn’t previously aware of).

Certainly after finishing a book I find it very difficult to choose the next, unless there is something I have been desperate to start. Quite often I will read a few pages of 5-6 books before I settle on one. If I have been reading something set in the future I often feel the need to return to historical fiction and vice versa. I had had The Strangler Vine on my TBR list ever since the 2013 Baileys Long List was announced and I started it twice before eventually getting into its theme. And it wasn’t that the writing was tricky, just that I needed to warm to the storyline. Sometimes you have to wait for a book to appeal to you and for you to be ready to read it.

One thing I’m trying to steer clear of this year is the Literary Bandwagon. You know how it is: a new book by a famous author is published and it seems as if everyone has to be the first to read and review it. I’m also avoiding contemporary fiction for the time being because I’m having a bash at writing and find I don’t want to be influenced by anything contemporary. So, it looks like I’ll be sticking to my version of the List of Betterment or science fiction for the foreseeable future. Not such a bad thing.

Book Review: The Year of Reading Dangerously (How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life)

Andy Miller's 'List of Betterment'

My fiftieth book of the year – just after I turned 50 – it was a sign… it had to be The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life.

Former bookseller and current author & editor Andy Miller made a ‘List of Betterment’: ten books which he felt he ought to have read (or had already claimed to have read). He got through the original ten in three months and decided to add to it – to continue ‘bettering’ himself – until he had fifty on the list. Some were obvious classics: Jane Eyre, War and Peace, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Others were less obvious (some may say obscure): Post Office, Krautrocksampler, The Aerodrome.

I already found it interesting how one comes to read a particular book at a particular time. Social media is partly to blame for every reader with a Twitter account trying to be the first to post a review of The Goldfinch (or so it seems to me), and therefore we feel we really *must* read The Goldfinch.[1]

What particularly struck me was that many of the books Andy read were those he (and his wife) already had on their shelves and it struck me that we had books like that too: invisible books, unread books, unread by us at least. I went to the shelves in search of Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation) and couldn’t find it but I did find a 1942 copy of War and Peace (bought by my husband as a theatrical prop, unread by either of us). This book had moved house with us at least three times, packed and unpacked, removed from and replaced on bookshelves. Unread. Frustrated, I went off to try again. There Beowulf was, in the gap left by War and Peace. They had stood next to each other on the shelf. Now do you see what I mean by ‘invisible books’?  Another sign… and I was starting to assemble a ‘Pile of Betterment’[2].

I can honestly say this book has made me re-evaluate how, why and what I read. I already had an e-Folder of Betterment[3] on my Kindle, sparked by those lists which appear in the paper from time to time: 100 Books You Must Read In A Lifetime; the 50 Best Books of All Time; etc. (The Guardian, I’m looking at you with narrowed eyes).  The thing is it’s really easy to create an e-Folder of Betterment because you can download samples of all the books you intend to read and then just start reading… Or not. Hence why I have two copies of Jane Eyre on my Kindle.[4]

This is not just a book about books. The autobiographical content struck a chord with me and, above all, it is a really funny read. I can’t begin to describe the chapter in which Andy compares Dan Brown with Herman Melville; you’ll just have to read it for yourself. I snorted and giggled throughout the whole book. The footnotes alone make for an extremely entertaining read and, above all, it will make you think about how and what you read. Oh, and don’t forget to cover the Reading Group Notes with your book group.

[1] We really *mustn’t*. Those are four (reading) weeks of my life that I will never get back.

[2] ©Andy Miller

[3] ©Denise Jackson

[4] No, somehow, I have NOT read Jane Eyre. I have, however, seen the TV version (Toby Stephens makes an excellent Mr Rochester) and the 2011 film starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Fassbender as Rochester = swoontastic!