Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 150 pages; 2000.
If you have ever read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, you will know that Jane falls in love with Edward Rochester, an ugly man with a mysterious past, whose wife has gone mad and is locked away. What you don’t know is how he came to marry his wife, Bertha Mason, and what made her so unwell.
That’s where Jean Rhys steps up to the mark. Rhys effectively writes the prequel to Jane Eyre by telling the story of Bertha’s early years in Jamaica. She renames her Antoinette Cosway and explains how she came to marry an Englishman, who later takes her back to his homeland, where she was driven towards madness.
Of course, you don’t need to have read Jane Eyre to appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea, but it does vaguely help to at least know a little of the storyline.
A novel in three parts
Wide Sargasso Sea is widely regarded as Jean Rhys’ masterpiece. She was 76 when it was first published in 1966 and had fallen into obscurity. I know of her largely through her early novels written in the 1920s and 30s, and can highly recommend Quartet and Voyage in the Dark — both of which are heart-breaking, full of melancholy and decades ahead of their time. I was expecting more of the same here, but found the book very different in tone and style.
It is divided into three parts. The first is essentially about Antoinette’s troubled childhood growing up in Jamaica in the early 19th century as a poor white Creole surrounded by richer natives, who looked down their noses at her family and called her a “white cockroach”. Violence, prejudice and madness abounds. The first-person narrative is oblique and often confusing, and there are so many characters it is hard to get a handle on who is who.
The second part is far more entertaining and has a definite page-turning quality. Antoinette is now a young lady who is about to be betrothed to an unnamed gentleman from England — and it is he who mainly tells their story. The pair spend their honeymoon holed up in a remote house surrounded by lush jungle, with just themselves and their servants for company.
Perched up on wooden stilts the house seemed to shrink from the forest behind it and crane eagerly out to the distant sea. It was more awkward than ugly, a little sad as if it knew it could not last. A group of negroes were standing at the foot of the veranda steps. Antoinette ran across the lawn and as I followed her I collided with a boy coming in the opposite direction. He rolled his eyes, looking alarmed and went on towards the horses without a word of apology. ‘Double up now double up. Look sharp.’ There were four of them. A woman, a girl and a tall, dignified man were together. Antoinette was standing with her arms round another woman. ‘That was Bertrand who nearly knocked you down. That is Rose and Hilda. This is Baptiste.’ The servants grinned shyly as she named them. ‘And here is Christophine who was my da, my nurse long ago.’
Initially their relationship is cold and distant but then it thaws into something rather rabid and sexual. But when rumours about Antoinette begin to circulate via letter, her husband loses all interest — and takes up with one of the servants instead.
The third and final part returns to a more oblique style of story-telling, and Antoinette takes up the narrative, this time from a locked room in a house in England, where she resides.
It’s pretty easy to see why this book is regarded as a literary masterpiece and why it appears on so many school and university text lists. It is full of metaphors and symbolism and hidden meaning, and there’s a layer of subtext going on that needs to be excavated to fully appreciate.
It’s also ripe with social mores, political intrigue and sexual oppression. Its Caribbean setting is also important, not simply because of the tropical landscape which harbours dark secrets, but because of the island’s troubled racial history. The Emancipation Act might have ended slavery, but Antoinette, a Creole heiress, feels caught between two races — the white Europeans and the black Jamaicans — and doesn’t like being judged by either group.
There’s plenty of oppression here, both racial and sexual, and while the story deals with dark subject matter, it is short enough not to weigh the reader down.
The characters — the cruel, cold-hearted, lust-driven husband; the independent, vivacious but troubled Antoinette; the loyal but opinionated Christophine, amongst others — are wonderfully realised and terrific company. And Rhys has such a way with language, particularly when it comes to describing the beguiling landscape, that Wide Sargasso Sea is a joy to read.