The Classics Club: Wide Sargasso Sea

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.

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15 thoughts on “The Classics Club: Wide Sargasso Sea

  1. I have always wanted to read this.. maybe one day. Thanks for the review. I haven’t been here for 2 weeks and you have posted 11 posts! Well done.

    1. Well it is a short novel if you do pick up someday, at your reading speed you’ll blink and miss it 😛

      Wow have I really hehe?! I know I have had a lot lot of things to talk about recently…I’m actually already scheduled up for the next week and a half too!!

  2. I remember reading this for a women’s writing module at university and not liking it very much. But after watching the film recently – which is quite moving- I’ve been tempted to re-reread the book. I guess I just don’t want the image of Rochester I have loved for years to be stained lol. I do remember the book to be quite a slow and difficult read, though.

    1. I do agree that reading this book isn’t easy, it is quite slow and the style can take a while to get into as well. For me it was worth the effort but can totally see how real lovers of Jane Eyre could find it hard to see Rochester in another light.

      I didn’t know there was a film adaptation though will have to look out for that, thank you!

  3. I read Wide Sargasso Sea right after Jane Eyre, and it really does change one’s perspective of Rochester and Bertha. I wonder how it will affect a rereading of Jane Eyre… hm, I think I found a summer to-do. (stumbled across this while browsing book blogs :D)

    1. Hello Rawnie, thank you for stopping by and commeting. Always lovely to see a new face 🙂

      I am also interested in doing a re-read of Jane Eyre as on the wholeI enjoyed it but did have some issues with it too. Plus as you said would be interesting to see if my thoughts on characters might change due to now having read Wide Sargasso Sea.

  4. I love how some books can cover multiple challenges like that. 🙂

    I’m curious, if you had to pick an illness, what would you imagine Antoinette has?

    1. That is a tough question, but one I was trying to decide all the way through reading this book. Antoinette’s mother is said to go mad with grief and swept away so you don’t get to see the symptons, while Antoinette’s father is also rumoured to have been mad before he died but we never meet him. Antoinette from the start struck me as emotionally needy, and her mood can switch very quickly, and will also be one extreme to the other which (with my limited knowledge) reminded me of Bipolar. She seemed to be either high on happiness or manic with depression, and the normal periods in-between slowly get less and less.

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