Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 novel from Dominica born author Jean Rhys which was a written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. I knew nothing of this novel or its author until I joined up for A Year of Feminist Classics reading challenge which had this alongside Jane Eyre.
Antoinette Cosway lives with her mother and brother on their estate Coulibri in the mountains of Jamaica. Her father made his fortune on the back of slavery, now he has died, the emancipation act abolishing slavery has been passed, and so Antoinette’s family have lost everything. All they can do is watch as their mansion and estate slowly crumbles. Some hope comes when Antoinette’s mother re-marries to Mr Mason a rich gentlemen but his wealth only heightens the tension that exists between the former slave owners and the now free black residents of the island. While life continues mainly amicably, violence is always there lingering in the shadows and can break out at a moments notice. Antoinette finally sees a means of possible escape in the form of a marriage to a visiting British gentleman. Their whirlwind love affair is to turn sour on their honeymoon though, as the couple must contend with the tension, whisperings, laughter, and dark secrets that surround them where ever they go on the island.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a short novel but it is packed full of intrigue, death, violence, beauty, desire, hate, and revenge. To say the tale is short and sweet would be a monstrous lie, this tale is very dark and complicated. Hence why I didn’t skip through it in one night as I first imagined I could. Rhys’s initial intention with this novel was to rescue the mad-woman out of the attic and give her a face, a voice, and a life. I loved this concept as I found myself rather frustrated with how little we are told in Jane Eyre. And the concept really worked because not only do you find out about Antoinette (Bertha) but also more about Mr Rochester (although he is never named). The narration switches between the two of them so you are given the chance to weigh the situation from both sides. I’m not sure if you were meant to fall on one side or the other, I didn’t find I did, in fact I could understand and sympathise with both.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a complex and dark look into what led Antoinette to become just the mad-woman in the attic of Jane Eyre. The writing style is quite unique and little hard to get into but definitely worth giving it time. I may have to look into other work by Jean Rhys after enjoying this.