* 1001 Books Book
Rhys, J., Raiskin, J. L., & Brontë, C. (1999). Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton. 9780393960129
I reviewed Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre after reading it in 2008. Spotting Wide Sargasso Sea on the infamous 1001 Books list, I skimmed the info in my book and mentally added it to my TBR list. Recently, I watched the Masterpiece Theatre version and thought of Rhys’ prequel. After some debate with my coworkers about what sort of monster the first Mrs. Rochester should be, I picked up the Norton Critical Edition of Wide Sargasso Sea.
Rhys takes up the cause of the madwoman in the attic – (Bertha) Antoinette Cosway Mason. Part I is told by the young Antoinette, a beautiful white Creole heiress in Jamaica (circa 1834). She’s troubled from the start – burdened with a derainged widowed mother, no father in early years, and the issue of a line of slaveholders. In free Jamaica, Antoinette is neither Jamaican nor British. It doesn’t help that other kids call her a “white cockroach.” Things don’t improve much for Antoinette until her mother remarries Mr. Mason. While not fond of her stepfather, Mr. Mason offers order in a crazy world.
Part II is told by the unnamed husband (Mr. Rochester) of Antoinette. He wonders what he has done, marrying a stranger. Apparently, he came down with a fever after arriving in Jamaica. Nonetheless, the husband has gained much in this union. He and Antoinette arrive at their honeymoon house. Eventually, the ice breaks (so to speak) between the two and things go well. Then, the husband receives a letter which changes everything.
Part III is voiced by Bertha as she’s now called. She talks from the attic of Thornfield Hall.
Rhys is no Charlotte Brontë. Part of me wants to cry “blasphemy!” Then again, these are two fictional works. I did find Antoinette sympathetic but I felt manipulated. I can feel sorry for a girl in an unstable house. In fact, I felt bad for Bertha in Jane Eyre.
I didn’t care for the reworking of the time setting, either. Here, Rhys tried to make the events coincide with the Jamaican abolition. I think she could’ve had some sort of Jamaican antebellum cries within her work. She didn’t need to have it set later.
Nor was I fond of the “male oppression” themes. Yes, things were that bad for women then. However, where was Antoinette’s mother when she needed her? She was taken care of by her stepfather. I felt like I was being hit over the head with this. Of course, this is likened to Britain’s treatment of Jamaica.
Perhaps another turnoff was that the book was rife with footnotes and explanations of what I was to read and then explanations of what I had just read. In this case, the notes hindered rather than helped.
I say Two Out of Five Pearls
Places: Jamaica, Dominica, Martinique, England
Word Bank: (definitions thanks to book cited above)
- calabash: a large dried gourd of the local calabash tree; they were used as bowls.
- Creole: in this context, those of English or European descent born in the Caribbean.
- frangipani tree: also called plumieria, a small tree native to the West indies with flowers that smell very sweet, especially at night.
- Maroon: in Jamaica, this term referred to the runaway slaves and their descendants who escaped to the mountains and lived free in small communities.
- Patois: A French word also used in English to refer to any dialect that develops out of contact between the language of a colonizing people (i.e., English) and that of a colonized people (i.e., Native Americans).
- salt fish: salted, dried cod imported from Canada as standard food for slaves and wages for apprentices. The colloquial connotations of the term “salt fish” include low-class stutus and low quality of character, as well as a poor diet.
- sargassum: a free-floating mass of seaweed. It is found in the Sargasso Sea, an oval-shaped area of the North Atlantic Sea, bordered by the Gulf Stream and encompassing the Bermuda Islands.
For more on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, check out these links:
- The Empire Strikes Back: Jane Eyre
- Time Magazine’s list of All-Time 100 Novels
- From Antoniette to Bertha: the process of ‘colonising’ within the marriage in Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea