If you felt that Bertha, Rochester's mad wife in the attic, received a raw deal in Jane Eyre, then Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is the book for you.
This is a book that tells hidden stories. Set amid the fragrant and exotic landscape of 1830s Jamaica, it follows the early life of Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway, the woman who will become Rochester's insane wife. Watched from the shadows by the victims of the oppressive colonialist society, Antoinette meets and marries the young Englishman who is seduced by her voluptuous innocence and exotic beauty. But disturbing rumours start to circulate, casting aspersions on Antoinette's history and her virtue, and soon the very qualities that inspired Rochester's fascination begin to draw on his hate. Caught in the trap of his suspicions and her own sense of herself, Antoinette veers towards the madness that will darken her later years.
Heady, potent and hypnotic, Rhys's narrative exploits the extraordinary power of the reader's knowledge of Antoinette's fate. A bright, vibrant counterpart to Bronte's blasted heath, this is a novel that grabs readers by the scruff of the neck and forces them to listen to the other side of the story.
Wide Sargasso Sea takes its place in the genre of novels that offer up young Victorian heroines to the asylum. Whether within the confines of a sombre, soulless building, or secretly hidden inside the home like Antoinette (later Bertha), this image of the watched, reported, removed, incarcerated female is a compelling aspect of the era. In both Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), the plight of the incarcerated woman is written to invoke fear in us but not necessarily an understanding of the character. In The Woman in White, money is the motive for the incarceration of Laura Fairlie, whereas in Jane Eyre (1847) fear and prejudice of mental illness lead to the imprisonment of Antoinette/Bertha in the attic of Thornfield Hall. These are women as victims of a patriarchal society.
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written by a Creole author and published in the early post-colonial era, was long overdue. How many of us had wondered of Jane Eyre, who was that woman in the attic, what had she done to deserve her incarceration, and why did no one try to help her? Written in a different age, here at last was a book that offered some kind of explanation, even for the fire Bertha starts at Thornfield Hall.
1966 was a year of awakening in approaches to mental illness, for example in the controversial but groundbreaking work of R.D. Laing. Whether or not Jean Rhys was aware of this work, her novel certainly fit the new ideas of the Sixties. Yet there is also a timeless story of romance in Rhys’ book, not just in the pairing of unsuitable couples but in the setting, simmering with rebellious slaves on an island of lush beauty. Heat, sweat, passion.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a courageous book. It could have easily been dismissed as a feeble feminist attempt to fill a gap in Jane Eyre. Instead it has become a classic in its own right. Whether Rhys was a great writer is perhaps debatable, but she did have stories to tell. And her handling of the often failing lives of her female characters is always sensitive, intimate and well-researched. For this at least she deserves to be read and acknowledged.
‘There is always another side,’ says Antoinette to her husband. In Jane Eyre, Bertha Rochester is an inhuman lunatic. Not only a madwoman, but a foreign one; the cause of Bertha’s madness might be partially narrated by Rochester, but it is neither investigated nor understood. Betha’s main roles in Jane Eyre were as alter ego to Jane, a ghoulish warning of the dangers of animal passions, and as a rather clunky Gothic plot device, wheeled out to elongate the story and force Jane to leave Thornfield. Bertha is there to bring the story to a close with her final destructive act, and occasionally to bite things, tear them up or set fire to them. As such, she needed neither personality nor psychological investigation. By her author and readers she was consigned to the attic, and there she remained. This is the other side.
How was an alienated reader like Jean Rhys – Creole, sexually promiscuous, and unsympathetic to Janes’s doctrine of rigid self-control (in other words, like Bertha, Jane’s complete opposite) – to respond to Jane Eyre? By answering back. Bertha may be silent, but Jean Rhys had a voice. Here, unlike in Jane Eyre or indeed Rhys’s other novels, the causes of Antoinette’s psychological turmoil are traced back to childhood, investigated, and questioned. She is almost entirely governed by emotion. She is irrational, introspective, odd, repeatedly rejected, terribly fragile, and immensely sympathetic – the central point of identification for the reader, even as she remains strangely opaque and impenetrable, as Rochester is to find her.
For there are other sides, even to the other side. For much of the book – the disproportionately large second section – it is Rochester, not Antoinette, who speaks. He is never named as such, and his lack of name is as mysterious and disorientating as is Antoinette’s profusion of names. It is he who is responsible for Antoinette’s final descent; he tells us as much, even if he does not realise what he is telling. But he reveals himself as victim too: a man able to experience the emotion and loss of control incurred by Antoinette and by the strange country he finds himself in, but who fears it so much that he must shut it down, control it, imprison it. A man with normal emotional needs crippled by a Victorian upbringing that will not allow him to accept these emotions, and who retaliates by crippling those who make him feel them. A man who has managed to, as a Victorian man should, separate sexual desire from love to the extent that his sexual desire for his wife possibly destroys his love for her. A man who, by the end of his narrative, seems madder than his supposedly mad wife. The villain of the piece, perhaps, but also just a man – ‘not the best’, but ‘not the worst’ either.
Both speak in a riot of imagery: mountains, pools, rocks, colour, scents, flora in constant bloom. The Caribbean landscape looms large in Wide Sargasso Sea. Too large for Rochester: ‘Everything is too much [...] too much blue, too much purple, too much green’ (not so coincidentally, Antoinette’s favourite colours). The reader may well sympathise with him. The effusion of colour, scents and flora alien to the Western reader are vivid to the point of confusion. The text speaks of strange practices and local events that are not fully explained – obeah, the complex history of race relations in the Caribbean, ancient earthquakes, obscure biblical references – and which seem designed to disorientate the reader. The narrative, itself built around a gap in the narrative of Jane Eyre, is full of gaps: jumps in time, place and narrator, again with no explanation. It is almost more like a 'hallucinatory prose poem', as Joyce Carol Oates has suggested, than a novel. The language is dense, elliptical, and heavy with symbolism. Almost every occurrence is an echo of another incident within either the book itself or Jane Eyre. It is often through these symbols, allusions and echoes, rather than the narrative, that meaning emerges.
‘Such terrible things happen,’ says Antoinette to Sister Marie Augustine, ‘Why?’ As with all great literature, Wide Sargasso Sea opens up many questions, but resists closing them down with answers. Is Antoinette’s madness predestined? She herself suggests as much: ‘I would make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try and save me, I would refuse. This must happen’. It is suggested in her name, so similar to her mother’s, driven mad by her son’s death, and by her physical resemblance and the physical mannerisms that so painfully echo Annette’s. In a sense it is: Jane Eyre is written, and its fame so great that we already know Antoinette’s fate – to become Bertha. If we know Jane Eyre, we cannot read Wide Sargasso Sea without knowledge of that fate, however much we may wish it away.
But yet, as they wait to leave the now-hated honeymoon house, Rochester recants: ‘if she [...] weeps, I’ll take her in my arms’. But Antoinette has been warned by Christophine that crying won’t work, and Rochester doesn’t tell her what he wants. The reader knows them intimately as they do not know each other: both expect much from the other without adequately expressing themselves, and they constantly miscommunicate. Rochester’s love might save Antoinette; if he doesn’t love her he certainly has the potential to, but he is thwarted by his own fears and by these miscommunications. Opportunities for connection appear tantalisingly and are thwarted: Antoinette’s fate is not inevitable, a fact which makes it all the more tragic.
Is Antoinette actually mad at all, and if so, when does she become mad? Is she mad when she returns from Christophine’s after Rochester has slept with Amélie? She looks and acts like Jane Eyre’s Bertha: ‘her hair hung uncombed and dull into her eyes which were inflamed and staring, her face was very flushed and looked swollen’. But is this permanent madness or temporary grief? And besides, we are seeing her through Rochester’s eyes, and he has never been able to see her properly. What is madness anyway? In the case of Antoinette, is it not what your husband and doctors say you are, rather than anything intrinsically felt within the self?
What are we to make of her end? Rhys said she imagined it as ‘triumphant’. Like a zombie of black Caribbean folklore, she seems to see the promise of a return to her homeland in her death. But it is, nevertheless, death and, in the context of Jane Eyre, it does not even provide revenge, only serving to reunite her husband with her rival. And if it is a triumph, it is only because her life has been so miserable – once you have died your first death, the sooner the second comes the more merciful. Consolation perhaps, not victory. Of course, Antoinette does not actually die in Wide Sargasso Sea. As Carole Angier says, ‘the end of Antoinette’s story [...] is in Jane Eyre’. She dreams her jump from Thornfield’s towers, and knows what she has to do. So too does the reader, if they know Jane Eyre. Antoinette dreams a glorious jump; Bertha smashes to the ground.
But Rhys’s victory is clearer. If Wide Sargasso Sea relies on Jane Eyre for its meaning, it has also changed its source text. It is almost impossible for a reader of Wide Sargasso Sea ever to look at Jane Eyre in the same way. Bertha poses a problem in ways we did not notice before: it is no coincidence that Wide Sargasso Sea closely predates 1970s feminism’s interest in reassessing Bertha’s character. The madwoman breaks out of the attic and into our consciousness.
'Rhys took one of the works of genius of the 19th century and turned it inside out to create one of the works of genius of the 20th century' - Michele Roberts, The Times
'Wide Sargasso Sea is not just a great novel, it is many brilliant books in one' - The Independent