Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Penguin Books, 1968)
Until Jean Rhys there was only Jane and a wordless lunatic in the attic. Then, just over fifty years ago, that changed forever when the long overdue voice of Mr Rochester's first wife was heard at last in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, one of the Windward Islands, and spent her childhood there. Her father was a Welsh doctor, her mother a Creole, or white West Indian. She came to England aged sixteen, worked as a chorus girl in England, married a poet and spent a decade travelling around Europe.
Between 1927 and 1939, Jean Rhys published five books about life in Europe, many of which picked up the characterisation and themes she would return to later in Wide Sargasso Sea. After the war, she moved to the West Country, lived quietly with her second husband and her books fell out of print.
Jean Rhys worked intermittently on a story that haunted her: that of the Creole wife of Mr Rochester who readers of Jane Eyre encounter as the prisoner concealed in the attic of Thornfield guarded by Grace Poole, remembered only by her stepbrother Richard Mason who arrives at the church to prevent the bigamous union of Rochester and Jane.
Antoinette Mason was born Antoinette Cosway. Her father dies, her family falls into poverty on their neglected plantation in the Caribbean and she runs wild around the island. When her mother remarries rich Mr Mason it seems like a dream come true.
Antoinette will be able to enter society, find a husband and live a more secure life than she has known before. However, an attack by local residents on their home burns their house to the ground and kills her disabled brother Pierre. After that, Antoinette's mother's mental health gives way and she attacks her husband in a foreshadowing of Antoinette's later insanity and violent behaviour.
After a basic education in the local convent, Antoinette is told to submit to an arranged marriage to a total stranger, a younger son who is also ordered to comply. Both are trapped within it, but it is Rochester's coldness and cruelty that defines their relationship. As he turns against his wife out of jealousy, paranoia that her heritage may not be entirely white and fear for her emotional state, she loses her sense of identity and moves from intense stress to mental illness.
The voicing of Antoinette and her mother was incredibly moving. The burning of her childhood home at Coulibri, her mother's emotional collapse and her stepfather's rejection of them both leaves Antoinette incredibly vulnerable.
Gossip about her purity before marriage destroys any love that Rochester may initially feel for her and his brutality towards her denies her essential humanity even to the point of insisting that she take a different first name of his choosing. The reader sees that all this is forced upon Antoinette by outside forces: her husband, the local community, and her own servant. It is able to take root so tragically because of her existing vulnerability.
Instead of portraying Antoinette as the dehumanised person we saw in Jane Eyre, in Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys tells Antoinette's story in the first person for much of the novel. Antoinette is vibrant, complex and likeable. When Rochester tells the story in the first person during the second third of Wide Sargasso Sea her voice is eclipsed, and we see directly his inexcusable cruelty towards his wife. Any suggestion that her mental illness reflects fault on her part is comprehensively defeated, and the reader's sympathy towards Antoinette survives her incarceration, her psychological struggles and her final act of courage in setting herself free.
Occasionally a book comes along that changes the course of literature for the better, even when that happens far too late. With her own experiences of England versus the Caribbean, Jean Rhys identified profoundly with Antoinette and was able to re-voice her so that she was heard at last. It's an incredibly moving story and far from harking back to another time, it is fact is very forward thinking in its underlying approach to mental illness.
Its plea for compassion is timeless. In some ways it is incredible to think that a comparatively little known author whose books had fallen out of print was able to challenge the establishment voice that was Charlotte Bronte's place in the canon of English literature. In other ways, this balancing of the scales was long overdue and raises the question: why not sooner?
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys played a central role in the long overdue re-appraisal of classic English literature's approach to race and Empire, a process that is still unfolding today. I loved this story for its humanity and its compassion towards one of our most misunderstood fictional characters.
Thank you so much for reading my review of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. The comments section is open for you to share your thoughts. I'll be back on Friday.
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If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper here.