“Wide Sargasso Sea” is probably Jean Rhys’ most famous novel as it is widely taught in literature courses. It’s seen as an important novel for being a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” by imagining the life of Bertha Antoinetta Mason (the famous mad woman in the attic/first Mrs Rochester at Thornfield Hall). It’s also hailed as an important work of postcolonial literature for its portrayal of Antoinette’s conflicted sense of national/racial identity as her husband is repulsed and rejects her Creole heritage leading to her descent into madness. I read this novel considering these aspects many years ago, but it’s been such a pleasure revisiting it alongside Rhys’ earlier novels as they share or provide a different perspective on many of its ideas, themes and characters. For instance, Antoinette’s claim that “I often stay in bed all day” echoes closely Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” who often does the same. In addition, Antoinette’s Caribbean upbringing is so clearly twined with Rhys’ own childhood in the island of Dominica. This makes “Wide Sargasso Sea” a fascinating encapsulation of much of the material Rhys was working out in her writing throughout her entire life. It’s tremendously moving to think how Rhys came to identify with Brontë’s slighted “mad woman” when her second husband gave her a copy of “Jane Eyre” to read. In the decades between the publication of her previous novel “Good Morning, Midnight” in 1939 and the eventual publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea” in 1966, Rhys laboured to formulate this story by writing many drafts and perfecting the language. The result is a stunning slender novel that stands as the crowning achievement of Rhys’ literary career.
The first third of the novel is about Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood. It’s filled with vibrant invocations of the sensations and social makeup of this racially-divided community. She and her mother live reclusively in the run-down house after the death of her father. But one day her mother marries again and, though they live in relative harmony, the racial tension increases as resentment against the family grows. One tense night their house is set upon and burnt to the ground leading to the tragic death of Antoinette’s disabled brother. This event foreshadows what is to come many years later when Antoinette lives as a virtual prisoner in Thornfield Hall and resolves to burn it down. These destructions of home are physical expressions of the untenable existence of their inhabitants. In Jamaica, the house was burnt because some of the island’s black community were showing this Creole family (whose forefathers owned slaves) that they don’t belong. It leads Antoinette to feel “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.” This anxiety can be felt throughout all of Jean Rhys’ writing, but in this novel it gives a kind of logic to her eventual destruction of Thornfield Hall because it’s somewhere she clearly feels like she doesn’t belong. It’s her way of shattering what she views to be an illusion.
After the destruction of her family’s Jamaican home her mother suffers from mental instability and she is sequestered in a sanatorium. Antoinette’s future is ambivalent, but in the second part we learn an unnamed English gentleman has come to marry her as the marriage comes with a large dowry. Here Rhys narrates from a man’s perspective which is highly uncommon in her fiction. We get his cold-minded blunt thoughts about this marriage of convenience: “I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.” Because he cannot understand her or life on the island, he grows increasingly estranged and mistrustful. A man named Daniel begins sending him letters making accusations about madness in Antoinette’s family and Antoinette’s old nurse Christophine expresses her mistrust of him and plies him with her Obeah potions making him violently ill. In a weakened delusional state he comes to feel that “it seemed everything around me was hostile. The telescope drew away and said don't touch me. The trees were threatening.” This curiously echoes the wild fantasies and paranoia of Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” when she becomes seriously ill towards the end of that novel. It also leads him to abandon Island life and return to England, especially after his father and brother’s death lead him to inheriting the family fortune and stately home.
The short third part of this novel shifts to Grace who is charged with caring for Antoinette (renamed Bertha by her husband) while she’s hidden away in Thornfield Hall. For Antoinette, the England she experiences does not match the England in her mind. Throughout the novel the reality of England is questioned. Antoinette states early on that an island friend who now lives in England writes her that “London is a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.” Christophine questions whether England even exists because she’s never seen it. And when Antoinette sneaks out of her attic prison in the evenings she feels “This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.” The reality of the country can never match its mythological status in the minds of these people from the Caribbean. In his frenzied state of mind Antoinette’s husband comes to find “suddenly, bewilderingly, I was certain that everything I had imagined to be truth was false. False. Only the magic and the dream are true – all the rest's a lie.” Such a revelation also seems to come to Antoinette who seeks to destroy the lie of the life around her with fire.
While “Wide Sargasso Sea” has a beautiful artfulness to it, I slightly missed the raw feeling of Rhys’ earlier novels which in some ways seem like more a pure expression of her state of being. She set herself the noble task of telling Antoinette’s story to show the potential full complexity of a character that is often thought of dismissingly as simply the “mad woman in the attic.” But, whatever nuance she gave to her back story, Antoinette had to suffer the same fate as Brontë’s character. This inhibits the story in a way, but it also allowed Rhys the freedom to fully explore the complicated aspects of identity she’d been writing about for years by going back to the Caribbean in her fiction. It feels like a disservice to Rhys that this novel is often only read in isolation because I think I understand it so much better seeing it in relation to her other writing. I think of it more like a crystallization of her life’s work. Being part of this Jean Rhys Reading Week has shown me what beautiful variations Rhys created in her short powerful novels to expound upon her preoccupations and unique perspective about life. I hope that this week has done a little to encourage people to see in Jean Rhys’ other books that there is so much more to her writing than only “Wide Sargasso Sea”.