Page 3. " a Martinique girl "

Creative Commons AttributionMartinique - Credit: André Mouraux
 Martinique was a French Catholic territory, and Jamaica a British Protestant one. The British and French were at war between 1803 and 1814, and these tensions were echoed in the relationships between their colonies.

Google Map

Martinique, the neighbouring island to Rhys's Dominica, remains part of France today.

Page 3. " Still waiting for the compensation the English promised when the Emancipation Act was passed. "

The Emancipation Act was passed in 1833, although the apprenticeship system, which forced former slaves to work without pay, meant that slaves were not properly freed until 1838. As it is 1839 when Antoinette goes to the convent (the only date given in the novel), this section is set very soon after the Act was passed. Rhys actually changes the dates of Jane Eyre (set in the early years of the nineteenth-century) in order to set her novel at this crucial time.

The British offered £19 per freed slave, much less than the market price of £35. The slave owners lost all their free labour at the same time the price of sugar collapsed, driving many of them into poverty. To read the Act, click here.

Page 3. " Nelson's Rest "

The French were a constant threat to British rule in the West Indian colonies. They threatened to invade Jamaica in the late eighteenth century, and again in 1806.  Naming his estate after Admiral Nelson shows Mr Lutrell's patriotism. Following his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson was the greatest British war hero of the time.

Page 4. " frangipani "
Pink frangipani
Public DomainPink frangipani - Credit: Jayen466

A sweetly fragrant tree native to the tropical and subtropical Americas.

Flowers vary from white and yellow to pink.

Page 4. " Now we are marooned "

The word is Jamaican in origin, originally referring to the descendents of the slaves of the Spanish who fled to the mountains during the English invasion of Jamaica

Page 4. " devil prince of this world "

Now is the judgement of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out

John 12:31

The prince is Lucifer, who was cast out of heaven.

Page 4. " Our garden was as large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible "

The garden, of course, is Eden, and the fact that it has gone wild is indicative of a post-lapsarian existence (later on the page there is a 'snaky looking' orchid). This wildness is not necessarily a moral negative: the garden has gone wild because the Cosways no longer have a slave workforce to tend to their land. 

As Rhys's biographer, Carole Angier, notes: ‘colours are brighter, smells stronger; trees and flowers and insects grow bigger’. This superfecundity and sensuality of the Caribbean will account for much of the disorientation that Rochester feels within the book. See Jean Rhys, by Carole Angier.

Thomas Cole's 1828 painting of the Garden of Eden imagines it as a tropical paradise akin to a Caribbean landscape.

Page 5. " I couldn't always understand her patois songs "

Technically, patois refers to any non-standard language, but is used particularly for Caribbean dialects. Patois is an amalgamation of all the linguistic influences on the various Caribbean islands: Christophine's patois, as she is from Martinique, will be more French influenced than Jamaican patois.

Jamaican patois:       French patois:

Page 6. " She was much blacker "

Christophine is from Martinique, a French colony. Due to their different overseas territories, trade routes and allies, the French imported their slaves from a different part of Africa to the English, hence Christophine's darker skin.

Page 8. " We boiled green bananas in an old iron pot and ate them with our fingers out of a calabash "

Left to right: plantains, red bananas, bananitos, Cavendish bananas.
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeLeft to right: plantains, red bananas, bananitos, Cavendish bananas. - Credit: TimothyPilgrim.
Given that the bananas are green and are boiled before eating, they are probably plantains. Boiled plantain is a staple dish in the Caribbean. Its plain flavour and starchiness mean that it is used in a similar way to the potato in the UK.


As there is no formal botanical distinction between plantains and bananas, the names are used variously in different places (as in the video: what he is cooking is, despite what he says, called a plantain in the UK).

The calabash is a fruit that grows on the calabash tree, native to the West Indies. It has a hard shell that, once the fruit is scooped out, is commonly used as household crockery.

Page 8. " We ate salt fish - no money for fresh fish "

White creoles would be expected to eat more expensive fresh fish, whilst the lower classes would eat preserved salt fish. The eating of salt fish was so widespread that ackee and salt fish is now the national dish of Jamaica.

Page 9. " muslin dress "

Muslin was an incredibly fashionable fabric in late eighteenth-century Europe, particularly France. Jane Austen's characters often wear muslin gowns; Catherine Morland's first conversation with Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey is about sprigged muslin.

Caribbean Creole fashion was heavily influenced by French fashion, although it lagged somewhat behind. Muslin is a particularly breathable fabric, and relatively well suited to the heat of the Caribbean.

The picture shows fashionable muslin ball gowns from 1838, roughly contemporaneous to the time this section of the novel is set, though they are rather more ornate than the gown Antoinette is likely to have worn.

Page 10. " They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people's feet. "

As the new settlers enforced the law they, in effect, were the law. The tread machine was a treadmill used for punishment. It was popular among law enforcers throughout the British empire in the nineteenth-century. Prisoners would also often be chained together for hard labour.


Page 10. " shamrock "

Purple leaved shamrock
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePurple leaved shamrock - Credit: Derek Ramsey
Shamrock, the three leafed clover, is the symbol of Ireland. This suggests that, like Rhys's own family, and like many 'English' families in the Caribbean, Antoinette's family are of Irish descent.

Page 12. " light as cotton on the something breeze, or is it air? I forget. "

Probably Stephen Forster's 'I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair / Borne as a vapour on the soft summer air.' Written in 1854, it didn't exist at the time Wide Sargasso Sea is set, but this is only one of many temporal inconsistencies in the text.


I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair - a cover version by John McCormack


Page 12. " It's evidently useful to keep a Martinique obeah woman on the premises "

Obeah is a mixture of folk magic imported from Central & West Africa and Christian religious beliefs taught to slaves by Europeans. Obeah men and women were believed to be able to heal the sick and make love potions, as well as use their powers for more evil ends. They held a lot of power within the black community.

Obeah magic was carried out either through curses or through herbs and poisons – the threat of poison hangs over much of Wide Sargasso Sea.  Obeah practitioners were often leaders of the black community, another reason why the white population feared and persecuted them. For a nineteenth-century Western study of Obeah, read May Robinson and M. J. Walhouse's 1893 essay 'Obeah Worship in East and West Indies'.

Page 13. " the pictures of the Holy Family and the prayer for a happy death. "

Obeah and Catholic beliefs were not mutually exclusive among the black populations of the West Indies.  They merged into one another freely. Many black people of the Caribbean, including those from former British colonies, are Catholic: whilst British missionaries preached in standard English, the French Catholics adopted the local patois and met with a much more enthusiastic reception.

Page 13. " I was certain that hidden in the room (behind the old black press?) there was a dead man's dried hand, white chicken feathers, a cock with its throat cut, dying slowly, slowly. "

The sacrifice of a cock was common in obeah rituals, but the idea of a dead man's dried hand is probably inspired by rumour and fear.

Page 14. " Richard, Mr Mason's son by his first marriage, was at school in Barbados. "

Richard Mason appears in Jane Eyre as Bertha Rochester's brother.

Barbados, non-volcanic and further east than all its neighbours, was the only Caribbean Island to have stayed under British rule for its entire colonial history. In the eighteenth century wealthy white creoles would have sent their children to England for their education, but by 1844 there were 149 private schools with 2,745  pupils attending them in Barbados, according to the Barbados Ministry of Education.

Google Map
Page 16. " My stepfather talked about a plan to import labourers - coolies he called them - from the East Indies "

In 1836 the British commenced a policy of importing labourers from India to do the work of the former slaves, many of whom, as the book makes clear, no longer worked on the plantations. These labourers undercut the wages of the former slaves and were perceived to work harder. The black population was not happy about the consequent loss of potential jobs, which is why it was unwise for Mr Mason to talk about the scheme in the hearing of his servants.

Between 1836 and 1917, approximately half a million Indians were brought into the British West Indies.  Today, Indo-Caribbeans form the largest ethnic group in Trinidad & Tobago, and the second largest in Jamaica. Nobel and Booker Prize winner V.S. Naipaul is a Trinidadian of Indian descent.

Coolie means an unskilled Asian labourer, and is now considered a racial slur. For an informed, if rather un-PC, account, see Edgar L. Erickson's 'The Introduction of East Indian Coolies into the British West Indies' (1934).


Page 16. " Unhappy children do hurt flies "

King Lear IV, I, 36: 'As flies to wanton boys, we are to gods, They kill us for their sport.'

Page 17. " yellow roses "

The yellow roses are demonstrative, along with the English food, the muslin dresses and the typically English painting, of the Masons' attempt, common among English people in the Caribbean, to continue living as they had in England, despite the differences in climate and landscape.

Page 19. " I foresee gifts of tamarinds in syrup tomorrow "
Tamarind tree with pods.
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeTamarind tree with pods. - Credit: Bruno Navez

The tamarind, or Indian date, bears rod-shaped fruit in hard pods. When the fleshy pulp of the fruit turns brown and the pod can easily be prised open, it is ready to eat.

To make tamarinds in syrup, click here

Page 20. " This place is going to burn like tinder and there is nothing we can do to stop it "

Typically, the great house of a Caribbean plantation would have been built largely of wood.

See Jill Fergus's article for Forbes Traveller magazine and the Jamaican National Trust Great House pages.

According to Rhys's autobiography, her family's Gebeva estate house was burned down by former slaves soon after emancipation, but some doubt has been cast on the authenticity of this claim: see Peter Hulm 'The Locked Heart: The Creole Family Romances of Wide Sargasso Sea' in Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory.

Page 21. " After Mr Mason clipped his wings he grew very bad tempered "

Birds, their freedoms and restrictions, were a common metaphor through which writers explored the position of women in the nineteenth-century novel.

Coco is reminiscent of the parrot from Kate Chopin's  The Awakening (1899). In a novel about burgeoning female sexuality, the parrot meaningfully steals the opening scene:

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:

'Allez vous en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That's all right!

As Lorri Dorrin says, bird imagery dominates this novel. So too in Jane Eyre. Jane is constantly compared to British birds, such as the linnet and the skylark, as David Anderson notes.

Page 22. " I heard someone say something about bad luck and remembered that it was very unlucky to kill a parrot, or even see a parrot die. "

In the beliefs that surround obeah, witches, vampires and ghosts were often believed to be able to transform themselves into birds, including parrots. Parrot beaks were used in obeah rituals.

Janette Martin writes in 'Jablesses, Sourcriants, Loups-garous: Obeah as an alternative epistemology in the writing of Jean Rhys and Jamaica Kincaid':

The parrot appears time and again in Obeah as a figure that is potentially powerful either as an instrument in conjuring or as a part of transformation in the human animal exchange

Carole Angier writes that 'the parrot is associated in many myths, and perhaps in obeah, with the soul'.

Page 24. " It's time for your arrowroot "

GNU Free Documentation LicenseArrowroot - Credit: Wibowo Djatmiko
 Maranta arundinacea, or arrowroot, is native to the West Indies.

In the Victorian era, the boiled root (or a paste made from the powdered root and water) was often served as an easily digestible food for children and the sick. This practice was widespread, not only in the West Indies but also in Britain, as it was wrongly believed to be very nutritional. Mrs Greenlow eats it for its nutritional properties in Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? and the invalid Richard Swiveller receives a hamper of arrowroot and other 'delicate restoratives' in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. In fact, it is almost entirely carbohydrate, and has very little nutritional value at all.  For more information, and for Napoleon's claim that the British enthusiasm for arrowroot was merely a way of propping up their colonial empire, click here.

Although I don't recommend it (not only is it ineffective, it also apparently tastes like bland gruel), the recipe can be found here.