Book Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
by Polly Hember
As part of On the Beat’s Jane Eyre Series celebrating Bristol Old Vic’s recent theatrical adaptation, this article urges you to look back into the murky past and beyond the enigmatic protagonists into the thin cracks, the shrouded references and into the crevices of postcolonial and feminist politics that underpin Charlotte Bronte’s classic.
Many will have read Jane Eyre in English lessons, or seen Michael Fassbender court Mia Wasikowska in the cinema, and recall a love story that is happily resolved by the dénouement. However, Bertha Mason is not part of this happy ending. The archetypal madwoman in the attic, caged and concealed by her husband Rochester, tears Jane’s wedding veil, manically burns Thornfield to the ground, maiming Rochester in the process and then commits bloody suicide in Bronte’s classic. Yet her motives are never exposed and she is treated with abusive displeasure from Rochester, and an alarming lack of sympathy from Jane, who describes her as a rabid ‘clothed hyena’, and pities Rochester for having to bear the burden of a mad wife.
Jean Rhys’s creative modernist masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea wryly reminds us that ‘there is always another side, always’. Rhys cleverly picks up the loose threads from Bronte and weaves a dense tapestry depicting the tragedy that was Bertha Mason, and so many other oppressed and silenced women who are forced into a cold marriage with someone who deprives them of their voice, their liberty and their very name. Wide Sargasso Sea is the tale of Antoinette Cosway, an orphaned white Creole heiress who finds herself marooned in Jamaica, who is married to an unnamed English gentleman. He takes her from sweltering Jamaica to cold England, declares her lost to lunacy, and renames her ‘Bertha’. Rhys subtly tells a tragic tale that delicately draws on Bronte’s legacy whilst querying it. Feminist and postcolonial theoretical drives underpin her writing that confronts themes of race, gender, displacement, assimilation and subjugation.
The political drive is executed with a brilliant modernist panache; Jamaica is wild, dangerous and magical. Jane’s story starts with the cool and uncaring Gateshead, icy cold water in Lowood, and then a frostbitten escape from Thornfield. Antoinette faces the oppressive sun, which blares down on her with a sweltering intensity. Bronte picks away at an icy narrative, while Rhys sweats out a hallucinatory contortion of a sunny island paradise.
The narrative dissolves into lunacy and disintegrates into muddled and confused fragments; the Rochester character takes over the narrative in the second section, highlighting Antoinette’s inherent lack of voice that is slowly stripped away from her throughout her sad story. The third section is returned to her, but by this point she is trapped in her attic, and the prose is a whirling stream of disintegration, conveying the emotional and mental consequences of displacement and the patriarchy. Whereas Jane’s plight improves throughout, she finds social mobility and finds love and happiness, Antoinette’s dissolves brutally into pain, fire and madness.
The novel ends in flickering candlelight as she roams the corridors of her prison, and at this point the two novels can be seen to collide with one another. Her narrative is handed over to innocent and oblivious Jane, who hears the manic laughing and eerie footsteps in gothic Thornfield. This is a deeply political novel perfect for anyone studying Jane Eyre, but also a captivating and beautiful read that can be read outside of Bronte’s prism. It asks us to consider the gaps and omissions, to reconsider the stories that we have grown up with, and urges us to remember ‘there is always another side, always’.