Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole girl growing up in post-slavery Jamaica.
While based on Rhys’s own life, this is no fond memoir. It’s a bubbling mass of blame, black magic, deceit and betrayal.
At the novel’s end Antoinette is in England, incarcerated and insane in the attic rooms at Thornfield Hall. This is the true destination for Wide Sargasso Sea, because the book is an imagined backstory to Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century novel Jane Eyre.
As such, Rhys gives voice and humanity to the ‘madwoman in the attic’. She brings Bertha – Mrs Rochester – out of hiding and into the daylight.
Like Good Morning Midnight, Rhys’s 1939 novel of travel, longing and madness, Wide Sargasso Sea is ‘somewhat’ autobiographical.
Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, also the daughter of a white Creole woman. It’s likely this which informs Antoinette’s sense of disenfranchisement.
In Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell describes a vanishing world after the end of slavery. The Cosways are similarly adrift, as history and identity crumble around them. Europeans won’t accept them, and Jamaicans can’t trust them:
“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.”
Later Antoinette reveals her mother “still rode about every morning, not caring that the black people stood about in groups to jeer at her, especially after her riding clothes grew shabby (they notice clothes, they know about money)”.
Form and themes
Rhys’s writing in Wide Sargasso Sea feels ahead of its time. It compares with much later feminist reclamations such as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Bloody Chamber.
Equally timeless is Rhys’s fluttering narrative, a wild stream of consciousness that suggests the text itself is on the edge of madness.
Still, if Wide Sargasso Sea aims to even the score for Mrs Rochester it has few victories to speak of.
Slavery is over – yet former slaves and owners are stuck in a free world chained to historical fact, bigotry, racism and cruelty.
Similarly, Antoinette and her husband bind to each other, first in marriage and then in delusion and cruelty. Themes which appear in Jane Eyre – madness, the unfairness of social existence – are inflated here by racial fetishisation and fears of black magic.
Rhys’s ‘Mr Rochester’ thinks he’s been tricked into an unequal marriage (but says this even as he pockets his wife’s property). He fixates on her madness, and imagines zombies.
In Jane Eyre, a husband’s sense of duty means he must keep his wife in the attic for her own good. In Wide Sargasso Sea, neither can see they’re barely living. Both are mad – and so they come to imprison each other.
Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
Quoted edition published by Penguin Classics, 2000
What to read or watch next
- Good Morning Midnight, by Jean Rhys (madness)
- Gone with the Wind (post colonialism, race)
- The Member of the Wedding (race, belonging, growing up)
- Books about not fitting in (belonging)
Picture credit: Pok Rie