Just as interesting as the book itself is the introduction, best read once you’ve finished. Jean Rhys was quite the character and the lead-up to publishing Wide Sargasso Sea makes you wonder how it ever managed to make it onto the bookstore shelves in the first place. Lucky for us it did, as it’s now considered to be her best novel.
A one-time chorus girl with violent mood swings, a criminal record and a multitude of lovers, Rhys became a recluse in later years, drinking and writing in bed. She went to her grave disappointed with having achieved literary success and recognition too late in life to actually enjoy it.
For fans of Jane Eyre, this short book creates a story for Rochester’s lunatic wife in the attic, expanding on the novel and providing some authenticity lacking in Brönte’s account. Having grown up in Dominica with a white Creole mother, Rhys found Brönte’s description of the creole to be unbalanced and biased towards English perceptions and misconceptions.
In Wild Sargasso Sea we get to see events and life from Antoinette’s viewpoint as well as from Rochester’s. Rhys endows the madwoman with a character and a childhood: a milieu so far removed from Rochester’s that it’s little wonder he is so disdainful and repulsed by the local residents on the small Caribbean island and the overwhelming and intoxicating lushness of the colours, scents and landscape.
Antoinette, later renamed Bertha by Rochester, is a victim, so to speak, of the 1833 Emancipation Act in the British West Indies. Freed from slavery, the locals become hostile towards the remaining white population, and Antoinette’s family home is set alight. Antoinette’s brother dies as a result along with the family parrot. Subsequently, her mother succumbs to insanity and Antoinette is sent to a convent, essentially abandoned by her remaining family.
As was common during this period, Englishmen such as Rochester, with no money of their own, sought out wealthy women in the West Indies as brides. For Antoinette and Rochester this was disastrous. Rochester, set in his stuffy Victorian mindset, could never truly love Antoinette given her vastly different upbringing and family circumstance. She is a young woman seeking a security she has never owned, and she could never find this with Rochester. Whispers and secrets abound on the island too, poisoning Rochester’s mind and rendering mutual love and trust unobtainable.
Interestingly, Rhys’ account posits Rochester as more villain than hero in this book, and the question naturally arises as to how poor Jane must have fared in his marital company. But then we shouldn’t be too hard on Rochester. As with any story, there is truth on both sides and somewhere in between lies the absolute truth.
At number 94 on the Modern Library’s Top 100 list Wide Sargasso Sea certainly merits reading and does not by any means spoil Brönte’s classic tale.