on October 19, 2004
As a prequel to the classic, Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea lives up to the expectation of Bronte's novel. Carefully crafted around the most minute details Bronte used, Jean Rhys constructs a novel that is poetic and figurative in its language to describe the life of the woman in the attic. Rhys changes Bertha Mason's name to Antoinette Cosway as the first step in painting the Caribbean landscape which is carried through most of the novel, until the final part where Bronte's work threads through. Giving a voice to this mysterious character that Bronte chose not to detail sheds enormous light on Rochester's future perspective on relationships. Although short and succint, Rhys novel will surely give Jane Eyre readers a new light through which to analyze the time - honored novel.
I reccomend reading Jane Eyre first, even though this is considered the prequel. Understanding Jane Eyre will allow Rhy's work to have more depth, especially at the end.
on March 12, 2000
Firstly, if you haven't read Jane Eyre I would go as far as to say don't bother. The Wide Sargosso Sea is the story of the character Rochesters' mental wife Bertha who is rather the mysterious non-being in Jane Eyre.
In this novel Bertha is made real. But the book is written mainly through her eyes. A woman who has a difficult life and goes through life mentally at a distance from everyone she comes into contact with, it results in the whole tone of the novel being quite distant and in a way cold. In contrast the setting and description is very rich, hot and exotic to the extreme.
You must remember though, Bertha is going mad and at times looking through Bertha's eyes, you'll get the same feeling.
A book you will either love or hate, not an easy read, aimed more towards a literary minded person. I loved it!
on June 1, 2011
The book is split into three parts. The first one is the childhood of future Mad Wife in the Attic from her perspective, the second is from the perspective of a newly-wed Edward Rochester and, in a short and confusing part, by Bertha, and the third one is by Bertha at Thornfield. Why is part two confusing? Because it's all told by Rochester, and then it jumps and you don't immediately realise that the perspective has shifted, and once you're used to it, it switches back to Rochester.
The first time I read this book, I hated it, and was left with a feeling of being annoyed that the author had completely failed to understand Rochester. I even said (aloud!) "Well, I disagree" after I closed it. On a second read, I still can't agree with Jean Rhys, but I enjoyed the book more. Having read a bunch of books about writing now, I can appreciate the book in a sort of aesthetical way. It's well-written, the characters have very distinct voices and the use of senses drags you in and gives such a rich colour and flavour that you partially forget that you're reading a book. Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1894 and was half-Welsh and half-Creole, so she knows what she's talking about with regards to the Caribbean, and you can tell. It can only have been written by someone who knows what it's like there. Now, if only the characters weren't supposed to be Charlotte Brontë's ...
That's the biggest problem. She's referred to as Antoinette, not Bertha; even though she's "Bertha Antoinetta Mason" in Charlotte Brontë's original. In the UK, your first name, your given name, is the one that goes first. Hence why "Bertha Antoinetta Mason" logically should be "Bertha Mason", not "Antoinetta Mason". In the book, she's Antoinetta but calls herself Antoinette, because that's what her mother was called. Bertha is a name she doesn't like and that Rochester insists on calling her because umm, IT'S HER NAME?
Richard Mason is only her stepbrother. Her mother was married to a guy called Cosway, who apparently went crazy and died. The mother then remarried Mr. Mason, father of Richard, and she started losing her mind after her son (the "complete dumb idiot" Rochester refers to in the original) died. I think part two even mentions old Mr. Mason having died before the marriage or at least close to it - there is some way that he seems to be removed from the whole set-up. And who did the original say arranged the wedding? Mr. Mason and Richard with old Mr. Rochester and Rowland. The Masons were as in on it as the Rochesters, eager to be rid of her before the Rochesters would realise the mistake they had made.
Then there's a point where young Antoinette is at school, and she is going to embroider "1839" on something. I thought "Jane Eyre" was set around 1838? I'm also left with the impression that she's taken out of school at the age of 17 in order to get married off. Rochester is around 21 or 22 at the time, and Bertha is a good five years his senior (her age being something the Masons had lied to him about before the wedding). Rhys claims Antoinette's mother died the year before the marriage - the original says Rochester first thought the woman was dead but he came to find out that she wasn't, "she was only mad, and shut up in a lunatic asylum."
Also, Brontë is clear to point out that he wasn't allowed to be alone with her before the marriage and they hardly spoke two words to each other. That way, Edward never had a chance to get to know her beforehand, because if he had, he would never have married her. They had nothing in common and he found her a woman with infantile intellect and he couldn't keep a conversation with her even if he tried.
If you're going to write a spin-off of something, at least have the decency to stick to the facts as they've been laid out in the original. Make up things that aren't in the original as much as you want, but the bits that are in the original, please get them right. From what I've gathered, Jean Rhys had a fixation on Mrs. Rochester so trying to apologise for her behaviour by giving her a backstory that doesn't quite add up to Brontë's original is understandable. If the characters hadn't been from "Jane Eyre", the book would've been excellent. As for now, I think it's okay. It's a good book, but she's got the events and main characters wrong.
It's my firm belief that Bertha Mason wasn't half as interesting a person as Jean Rhys makes her out to be. Yes, Bertha is a victim of sorts - being married off to someone who doesn't know the true you just so that your family can breathe a sigh of relief and hope it'll be too late to do anything about it by the time the groom notices something's wrong - but she's not a victim in the way that Rhys wants her to be. Bertha was mentally ill, not just some spirited girl who didn't like the husband she'd been married off to. I don't think she was ever really fully aware of what happened, and while that is sad in itself, I think Rhys just tried a bit too hard to make her sympathetic when she quite clearly never meant to be anything other than a woman whose mental illness was bad to begin with but quickly got worse.
So, one of my friends from book club told me not too long ago that I expect the author to tell me the story...and I thought, well yeah no kidding that is their job. But now I get what she was really saying... That sometimes the reader needs to figure out what is being said beyond the dialog between the characters. And I realize that I don't do that as much as I could when I'm reading. One of the great things about being in a book club is that you can tap into the genius of your fellow readers and have things illuminated for you that you may have overlooked. It's also helpful if you are lucky enough to have really smart friends, like I am.
This is one of those books that is saying a whole lot more than the words being exchanged between the characters. I honestly would have missed a lot of it with out our group discussion. I also found that I liked the book more after our discussion.
This book is interesting because it gives the character "Bertha" from Jane Eyre, a voice, a life and a history. I don't think I would have appreciated the story as much if I hadn't already read Jane Eyre. Reading this right after Jane Eyre might have been even better than letting time pass before reading "Bertha's" story.
The book is written from alternating perspectives. From Antoinette's point of view we learn about her childhood and the culture and political climate where she grew up. We later learn about Mr. Rochester, he is a second son who will never inherit his family's vast wealth. He decides to achieve his power and wealth through marriage to a woman in possession of her family's fortune. Ironically his father and brother both die before he returns to England and he inherits everything.
This story is rich with symbolism, irony and symmetry. And I think that it's really about Imperialism, power and domination. And while it's not my preferred flavor of fiction, it's "shadowy and ambiguous" (to quote one of my smart friends again) and doesn't offer a lot of detail, it tells a story that stirs the reader emotionally.
When I read Jane Eyre I saw "Bertha" as the barrier to Rochester's happiness, she was almost a caricature, I didn't really consider her as a person, she was the scary, crazy, pyromaniac in the attic. After reading 'Wide Sargasso Sea' I can see Antoinette as a person, sympathize with her struggles and agonize over how badly things turned out for her.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester is the caricature, the example of Imperialism. He is the proud, self-righteous white man who will take whatever he wants and thinks so much of himself that he believes he deserves to do so. While at the same time he sees something that is new and different from all he has known and criticizes and dislikes it because it is different.
The story is poignant because it could have turned out so differently. We already know from reading Jane Eyre that "Bertha" ends up locked in the attic as Rochester's prisoner. But there is a point in their relationship when it seems that they do truly love one another and could have gone on to have a happy life and marriage. But Rochester feels that he has been cheated and tricked and uses his anger to punish Antoinette for her past and her family's history.
In Jan Rhys's hands "Bertha" has become the sympathetic character with a sad and unfortunate upbringing who falls under the power of a greedy, angry and unsympathetic husband who takes her away from the only place she has ever loved and eventually from the world.
I would have appreciated a note on the history of the West Indies and the Emancipation Act. It would have offered insight into the context of the political situation during Antoine's childhood.
I found the story much more complex than I initially realized. I recommend reading it with a friend or two...pick smart ones.
on January 22, 2014
In 1938 great excitement was caused in the world of natural history by the discovery of the coelacanth, a species of fish which was previously known from fossil remains but was believed to have become extinct millions of years ago.
Jean Rhys can be seen as the literary equivalent of the coelacanth. She enjoyed moderate success as a writer during the 1920s and 1930s, when her works were compared to those of Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, two other female writers who, like her, made their homes in England but were not actually born there. (Mansfield was a New Zealander, Bowen Irish and Rhys was from the Caribbean island of Dominica). After her fourth book “Good Morning, Midnight” was published in 1939, however, she became a recluse, ceased publishing her work and lived in obscurity. She was widely assumed to have died and one magazine article even referred to her as “the late Jean Rhys”. Then, in 1966, great excitement was caused in the literary world by her emergence from obscurity and the publication of her novel “Wide Sargasso Sea”.
Most of the great nineteenth century novelists rather inconsiderately failed to provide us with sequels to their works, so creating an obvious gap in the market for those readers who want to know, for example, “What happened to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy after their marriage?” In recent years, however, this gap has been filled by modern writers anxious to pen sequels to the classics; the question posed in my previous sentence has, I understand, been answered several times. Jean Rhys was doing the same sort of thing in the sixties, except that “Wide Sargasso Sea” is not a sequel to “Jane Eyre” but a prequel.
Rhys imagines the question “What happened to Mr Rochester’s first wife Bertha before, and immediately after, their marriage?” She does so by making a few changes to the plot of “Jane Eyre”. Charlotte Bronte never precisely dated her novel, but the main action seems to be taking place during the 1800s and 1810s; Rhys moves it forward in time and her novel takes place in the late 1830s, a few years after the 1833 emancipation of the slaves in the British-ruled West Indies. She renames her heroine Antoinette Cosway and makes her the daughter of an English Creole father from Jamaica and a French Creole mother from Martinique. The word “Creole” later came to mean a person of mixed race, but its original meaning (from the Spanish “criollo”) was a white person born in the Americas of pure European descent, and it is in this sense that both Bronte and Rhys use the word. (Rhys herself was a Creole in this sense).
In “Jane Eyre” Bertha Mason was described as a wealthy heiress, but here the Cosway family, despite being plantation owners, are not well off, and their financial difficulties are made worse by the abolition of slavery. Antoinette’s wealth (and her use of the surname “Mason”) derives from her mother’s second marriage to a Mr Mason after the death of her father; Richard Mason in this version is therefore Antoinette’s stepbrother rather than a blood relation. The name “Bertha” is one given to Antoinette by her husband, for unknown reasons. The novel tells Antoinette’s story from her youth to her unhappy marriage to an English gentleman who is never actually named but who is clearly modelled upon Edward Rochester in “Jane Eyre”. Although Antoinette (as in “Jane Eyre”) is originally from Jamaica, an island Rhys had never actually visited, most of the story takes place in her native Dominica.
Rhys clearly did not consider herself bound to follow Bronte’s plot slavishly, but offers us a new twist on the familiar story, a twist in which Antoinette/Bertha is the heroine rather than a foul-tempered and unchaste fury and Rochester is an unsympathetic character, more a villain than Bronte’s flawed hero. Of course, this twist can only be achieved by some substantial rewriting. In this version it is implied that Rochester has Antoinette declared mad because that is the most convenient way to dispose of a wife who has become a burden to him; in the original novel it would have been in his interests for Bertha to have been declared sane, because he could then have divorced her for adultery.
Rhys was obviously aiming at something more ambitious than a mere prequel to a literary classic. “Wide Sargasso Sea” is often described as a “postcolonial” novel and as an exploration of oppression on the grounds of race, class and sex. That is, however, an interpretation which I find problematic. The problem is that this is a “postcolonial” novel told from the viewpoint of a member of a ruling caste. Antoinette may be disadvantaged by reason of her sex, but no more so than any other woman in early Victorian Britain or the British colonies. By reason of race and class, the white Creoles of the Caribbean formed a privileged elite. There may have been certain cultural differences between the established Creole families and more recent British arrivals, and tensions arising from economic rivalry, but this does not qualify the Creoles as victims of imperialism. Indeed, in this book their main complaint seems to be that those interfering politicians in London had firstly abolished slavery and secondly failed to pay enough compensation to the former slave owners. (It should be noted that no compensation was actually offered to the slaves themselves).
I felt that “Wide Sargasso Sea” does not really work as a self-contained novel rather than as a riposte to “Jane Eyre”. Too much is either left unstated or left to the reader’s knowledge of Bronte’s book. Rhys uses multiple-narrator technique, and although Antoinette is the protagonist more of the story is told (oddly) from Rochester’s viewpoint than from hers. (Another, very brief, section is narrated by Grace Poole). Some important developments, such as the descent of Antoinette’s mother into madness are treated in insufficient detail and, even more crucially, it is never really made clear exactly why the marriage of Antoinette and Rochester, initially seemingly a loving one, should so quickly have ended in bitterness and mutual animosity. The novel’s best feature is Rhys’s ability to conjure up the sultry, tropical atmosphere of her homeland, but I could not really recommend this book to those who are not already familiar with “Jane Eyre”. Even those who are may think that it does not add much to their appreciation of Bronte’s classic.
on December 11, 2001
"They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks."
The sense of alienation that Antoinette Cosway experiences as a child never lets up in this harrowing tale of the first Mrs Rochester.
Whilst Jane Eyre of the original novel manages to leave her painful past behind, Antoinette is unable to fight against the oppression of her surroundings. Her husband, bewildered by her passions, cannot understand her and seeks instead to contain her during her inexorable descent into madness.
In my opinion this book is as worthy of acclaim as the great novel that inspired it. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is in no sense a pastiche of "Jane Eyre". Rhys evokes, in her beautiful, laconic style, the haunting beauty of the Caribbean, the uneasy relations of the islanders after the abolition of slavery,the love Antoinette and her husband initially have for each other, which makes the inevitable end so much more painful.
It is said that it took Jean Rhys nine years to write this slim volume, but the result is an enduring masterpiece of the English language.
This is an enlightening version of the 'mad woman' locked up in Mr. Rochester's mansion in England. If Jane Eyre was a real person, one might have been tempted to warn her that, save for a few twists in circumstances, she could have been the wife driven crazy.
Despite having a strong mentor in her nanny, Antoinette Cosway doesn't know how to save herself. Society isn't set up to give women of her generation much power or independence. She didn't have much of a father or mother figure, and only Christophene seems willing to truly try to protect her. A childhood filled with violence and fear has created a woman afraid of shadows who lacks self-confidence. She looks towards others to help her feel 'safe', but nearly everyone in her life betrays her in some way.
In Rhy's eloquent style of writing, we are smoothly transported into the atmosphere of Jamaica after the 1830's. Though Antoinette is clearly a victim, I found Christophene's character refreshing and empowered. She's a former slave who is feared because of her knowledge of 'Obeah'. She isn't afraid to stand up to Antoinette's white husband, and comes close to helping the young woman re-gain her freedom. In my opinion, had the story ended with Mr. Rochester allowing his creole wife to remain in Jamaica under Christophene's care, Antoinette's broken heart would have mended and the signs of madness vanished. But because his troubled bride is treated as a 'possession', he takes her away from all that she loves, refuses to return any of her family fortune, and shreds her last piece of identity by calling her Bertha instead of her given name. Is this reader sorry that Thornfield Hall was burned to the ground? Not after digesting the first Mrs. Rochester's version of the story, so masterfully written by Jean Rhys.
Chrissy K. McVay
author of - Souls of the North Wind
on April 17, 2000
Jean Rhys has put together a wonderful story of British Colonialism in Jamaica and Dominica set during the period from 1839-1845. In fact, this native of Dominica used this focus on Antoinette Cosway to explain how Bertha in Jane Eyre had become mad and kept locked in the attic. This follows many other novels focusing on the effects of British Imperialism. It depicts a time just after the emancipation of the slaves in Jamaica. A mother (Annette), Son (Pierre), and daughter (Antoinette), living on a plantation estate that is allowed to grow wild and unkept. There were no people to work the land since slavery was abolished. The black natives hated the remaining white colonists and often referred to them as "white cockroaches." The mother had remarried and one night their home is burned down by angry masses of ex-slaves. Pierre is killed in the fire. As they were escaping, Annette tries to run back for her parrot. They would have all possibly been killed by the mob if not for the parrot flying out of the window while on fire. The superstitious natives fled at the sight. Her mother grows insane and is locked up. Antoinette is raised in a convent and later married to a Mr. Rochester. He married her for her money and through some twists and turns they end up in England. He locks her upstairs to forget about her and hires Jane Eyre as nanny to his child. Later he tries to marry her and that is when Bertha's presence is disclosed. She is now quite insane and burns the house down, killing herself in the process. There is a symmetry here in that at the beginning of Wide Sargasso Sea, the Cosway's home is burned down by angry people trying to reclain their identity as humans. Later, Antoinette who later became Bertha when Rochester changed her name to a more English sounding one, burns down his home in trying to recapture her identity as a human being. Why did the mother and daughter become insane? This was not genetic but rather the result of two women being pushed or oppressed in some manner throughout their lives. Annette lived at a time of slavery and was thus remembered as an ex-slave owner. The natives despised her for this and harassed her as when they poisoned one of her horses. Also, the loss of her estate and son helped push her over. Antoinette was also despised for being the daughter of a slave owner. She grew up white with a native culture though and felt divided within her identity. When taken from her island home and deprived of her identity by being locked away all alone for years without even a mirror to see herself, this formed her into an "insane" person. Much symbolism is used within this story to depict division of self. Mirrors and watery reflections are used to show how one gains a self-concept. That is, we derive our sense of self from comparing ourselves with others and our perceptions of how we look to ourself. There is passion of course in the beginning of the marriage between Rochester and Antoinette. He later sleeps with Amelie (servant) and believes himself poisoned by his wife for unknown reasons. Being from England, Rochester is not comfortable in the island atmosphere and takes his wife back to England with him. She is distraught over losing her green, beautiful, lush, tropical eden.
Jean Rhys's enduring 1966 novel has been one of the more unique opuses of my reading experience - for, though it's been some two or three years since I've read it, I've been stumped - unable to form any very distinct or profound impression. Even at this point, I can only say that WIDE SARGASSO SEA is an ingenious work of poignant contradictions.
I actually first heard of this book a few years ago, when I rented a movie by the same name. I watched that movie and, despite a few minute clues, did not until the very end recognize it as being prequel to one of my all-time most beloved novels: Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE. This story chronicles the untold tale in Bronte's novel - the history and mystery behind Mr. Rochester's secret in the attic unveiled, the madwoman in the attic endowed with a soul. "Bertha" Antoinette Cosway-Mason is a Creole heiress living in Jamaica and Dominica in the 1830's whose isolated and tragic upbringing is augmented by the cultural chaos of that place and that time. Shunned by both the English and white population and the recently freed slaves, then further burdened by her manipulative relatives and insane mother, Antoinette's childhood and early adulthood was as intensely oppressive as was the beauty of her surroundings. The first chapters of this novel are told in her voice - and what a marvelous voice it is - such richness, such poetry - "Great splashes of sunlight as we ran up the wooden steps of the refectory. Hot coffee and rolls and melting butter. But after the meal, now and at the hour of our death, and at midday and at six in the evening, now and at the hour of our death. Let perpetual light shine on them." The tempo simply flows right through you; it is beautiful.
Rhys's lyrical prose is beyond doubt a manner of genius; and I do believe this book is worthy of a classic. It really could have been brilliant, but it is riddled with flaws. First of all, the language is so exquisitely overflowing that it's almost a distraction. Yet within the context of the first section of the story - Antoinette's voice, encompassing her life before her marriage - I suppose may be overlooked and given up to the whims of the narrator.
The second section, however, is from Mr. Rochester's point of view - from his first acquaintance with his bride and to their home in the West Indies, nearly through the balance of their time together on the islands. Rochester, who at the time is a very young English gentleman: a second son raised within the stringent confines of British landed gentry - arrives in a place totally alien to anything he has ever known, completely wide-eyed and ignorant of everything, from the temperamental weather patterns to the quirks of the denizens of that place. Yet Rhys gives him a lush, worldly and poetic voice, not at all unlike that of Antoinette's. In fact, when the narration switches briefly back to her, it's only distinguishable by studying closely the sway of the narration and pronoun use. Antoinette, incidentally, never refers to Rochester by name at any time during the entire book. Truly, though the author had essentially free reign with the character of "Bertha," as that entity was only faintly drawn out in JANE EYRE, she was considerably restricted when it came to Rochester. In drawing him out, Rhys has failed on two counts: the first in that his language sounds too embedded within the lyrical rhythms of the alien landscape he supposedly fears and does not understand, to ever ring true for a young man of his circumstances; the second in that, notwithstanding the anger and bitterness felt toward his father and elder brother, Mr. Rochester's actions in this story do not in any way ring true to the man as Bronte wrote him. He's barely recognizable.
The third, and final, portion of the story reverts back to Antoinette's point of view - this time from the garret room of Thornfield Hall. Though the writing here remains quite pretty, the narration completely loses its coherence. This loss may be construed as understandable - as the narrator would by now be quite mad - but it just doesn't strike true. The language is inconsistent - smooth and flowing in places, choppy in others. The tragic consequences of a bitter young man's revenge and a damaged young woman's confusion gets entirely lost here in the author's imposingly scattered prose.
I am sure that, judged in its own right, this novel can quite easily be classified as a work of art. But loving JANE EYRE as I do, I am sorely unqualified to make the distinction. Yet I cannot deny that I was mesmerized by the overwhelmingly lush impact of the writing in WIDE SARGASSO SEA. Sick with a lingering fever and lamenting his fate, the young bridegroom makes the trudging maiden journey with his new bride to their honeymoon house in an island place called Massacre ~ "Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger."
Ah, yes indeed ~
on April 22, 2005
caught between two worlds, Black Jamaican and English, belonging to neither one. Antoinette Cosway was used and abused by people closest to her: Her mother, stepfather, best friend Tia, and, of course, her husband. She was forced in a loveless marriage to Rochester, who made no bones about his contempt for her, Creole culture, and Jamaica and who was only there to help his beleagured family. At first, the marriage seemed loving until an anomynous man came to him with letters disparaging Antoinette and her family and his(Rochester's) unease with living in Jamaica. Things started to go downhill after that, with Antoinette's insanity and eventual lockdown in the attic of the Rochester estate in England.
This book tells where Jane Eyre left off. It's Antoinette's story about how she got to be the madwoman in the attic and the things that shaped her life prior to her coming to England with her estranged husband.
The book is so deep in the matrix of race, gender, class, culture clash, personality, belief systems(Creole, Black, and English), and public and private pain of those involved.