1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jamaica, Jean Rhys, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys


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 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 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 abound. 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 storytelling, and Antoinette takes up the narrative, this time from a locked room in a house in England, where she resides.

Literary masterpiece

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, 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.

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys, first published in 1966, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it suggests that the novel’s structure “allows Rhys to make explicit connections between the story of Jane Eyre and the violent colonial history underpinning it”.

Andrea Levy, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Headline Review, historical fiction, Jamaica, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 530 pages; 2004.

Small Island is one of those books that has been sitting in my reading queue for two or three years. I was prompted to dig it out when Simon wrote a rather glowing review of it. The deal was cemented when several more of you chipped in on this post and said it would make a good read for a long-haul flight. I promptly packed it in my hand luggage and began to read it on that horrendously long plane ride to Australia.

The story is a complete delight from start to finish. It’s set in London in 1948 but jumps back in time to the Second World War (and earlier) when Jamaican men joined the British forces to fight for the Mother country. There are four main characters — Brits Queenie and Bernard Bligh, and Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert Joseph — whose individual stories are told in separate sections. The 1948 narrative links them together.

The story begins with Hortense, a highly strung young Jamaican woman, arriving in London to be reunited with her husband, Gilbert. Former air serviceman Gilbert had immigrated months earlier in order to pave the way for their new life together in a new land. But when Hortense finds him living in a tiny ill-equipped room in a lodging house her high expectations are rudely lowered.

But little does Hortense know that the lodging house is presided over by a very fair and open-minded landlady, Queenie Bligh, who ignores her fellow neighbours who don’t approve of her accepting black tenants. Although Queenie doesn’t have much choice — her husband never returned from the War and she has no other means of supporting herself — she’s determined to treat the Jamaicans that live under her roof as equals.

For Hortense and Gilbert it could have been much worse.

Small Island (the title, I assume, could equally apply to both Britain and Jamaica) shows how circumstances and history thrust these two women together, and how the partners they marry come to change their lives too. It adds up to a wonderful historical family-type drama that perfectly captures what it must have been like to live in post-war London when the cultural make-up of the city was undergoing rapid change.

What I appreciated most was Levy’s ability to show the alarming racism that occurred in England at the time. Despite the fact that Jamaica was part of the British Empire few Brits knew where Jamaica was located (several characters believe it’s in “Africa somewhere”) and fewer still wanted to see black faces on the street when Caribbean immigrants started landing on British shores. (There are parallels here with Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, which gives voice to the Caribbean immigrant experience in the 1950s.)

They speak the same language, and yet can never be understood on the streets of London. Or, as Gilbert points out in one stand-out scene towards the end of the novel, they had fought a common enemy but were not treated as equals.

There’s a lot here, too, about the Second World War and the role that Jamaican men played in it, an intriguing slice of history that’s not widely known.

Levy is, of course, a master storyteller but she never preaches or comes across as if she is pushing a message; there’s a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of the content. She has an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue. Her characters are believable — the uppity Hortense, the progressive Queenie, the striving-to-always-do-better Gilbert, and the stubborn-but-weak Bernard — and so very human.

Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2005. It has also been adapted into a two-part television drama which screened on BBC1 last month.