When I finally, recently, read and loved Jane Eyre, a lovely thoughtful person purchased Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for me, which is something of a prequel to the better-known novel. Written in the 1960s by the Domenica-born novelist Jean Rhys, it re-imagines the “madwoman in the attic” as a protagonist in her own right. Tracing her life from childhood in British-ruled Jamaica to eventual descent into suicidal/homicidal insanity while locked away in Thornfield Hall, the book takes on, among other themes, colonization, slavery and emancipation.
I love the idea of this book–the book itself, not so much. Organized into three sections–the first from the POV of Antoinette Cosway, a child from a wealthy white slave-owning family just after the end of slavery facing tumultuous and tragic circumstances, the second, set on an oppressively beautiful Caribbean Island, alternating between the POVs of Antoinette as a young adult and the British man with whom she has essentially been sold into marriage, and the third, in Thornfield Hall, where Antoinette-now-Bertha meets her fate. The prose is loose. stream-of-consciousnesses and, to me, rarely beautiful or clear. Even while I was in the heads of these characters, I did not feel I was getting to know them. Some of that was the unreliability of the narrators–but you know how I love an unreliable narrator–I think it was more so a lack of interest in developing the characters on the writer’s part. I felt surprised by their suppositions and their decisions on a constant basis because I don’t think they were scaffolded or earned through evidence or development. When the unnamed Englishman decides that his new, hot wife is going to go mad based on what is obviously, to me, information from a guy who has nothing but ulterior motives, I didn’t understand what was going on. The plot tumbled quickly downhill but to me, the entropy of these people’s lives seemed to be imposed from outside the book, not within it.
I also spent a good deal of time while reading this novel trying to get the facts to line up. It was an exhausting prospect, because they don’t line up. Of course every work of fiction exists on its own terms and there is nothing that says that Jean Rhys had to construct her narrative in parallel with Jane Eyre. Maybe she herself didn’t even bill it that way. But even if a reader hadn’t known, going into this novel, that Antoinette was the same person as Bertha in Jane Eyre, he/she would have figured it out in the last section when all of a sudden a very recognizable Thornfield Hall, complete with the drunk bodyguard Grace Poole, rises up around Antoinette, when certain plot developments do align with those in Jane Eyre. But then, that reader would probably think, as I did: but in Jane Eyre, Richard Mason was Bertha’s brother! (And, for that matter, actually named Bertha.) In Wide Sargasso Sea, their relationship is far more tenuous. In Jane Eyre, for better or worse, the implication is that Bertha is “half-caste.” In Wide Sargasso Sea, it is a huge part of the book that she is white as it places her in opposition to the black people she grew up with, who might otherwise be her allies. In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester was a complicated, engaging character! In Wide Sargasso Sea, he’s just a big asshole.
What I would have loved to see is the journey from Domenica to England. What was that sail like? At what point did Antoinette realize that everything was about to get so much worse for her? What was it like when she felt cold air for the first time? What if the reader had finally heard someone refer to Mr. Rochester by name? What if the reveal had been slow–this totally disconnected narrative allowed to gradually, naturally begin to connect with the timeless novel so many of us love?
Of course, there are some serious post-colonial, feminist arguments to be made about Jane Eyre. But did this book do them justice? I would argue that all the liberties Ms. Rhys took with the story, that she only seemed to tag on the part that would be recognizable to Jane Eyre readers as an afterthought, means the answer is no. I went into this book expecting to get some insight into Bertha’s time in the attic, but that time came and went without bringing the reader any closer to her. After reading Wide Sargasso Sea, I barely feel closer to her than I did after the big reveal in Jane Eyre.
The one aspect of this book that I’ll remember, and love, are the discussions about and views of England as a place that may nor may not even exist. To the characters that populate the majority of the novel, England is so far away from them, geographically and culturally, that it might as well be a social construction rather than a real place. And when Antoinette actually arrives there and is incarcerated in the attic, she is no more a part of England than she ever was.