As I mentioned in my recent review of Jane Eyre, I have the pleasure of teaching an AS Level English Literature course (with a grand total of two students). For the prose study section, we are studying Jane Eyre paired with Wide Sargasso Sea, a combination selected by the teacher with whom I share the course. I had read Jane Eyre a long time ago and was happy to revisit it. I had never heard of Jean Rhys or Wide Sargasso Sea, but the description along the lines of, “Postcolonial take on Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester from Bertha Mason’s point of view” meant I was looking forward to it.
Spoiler alert not for this novel but definitely for Jane Eyre.
Let’s unpack that description, starting with the character of Bertha Mason (or, really, Bertha Rochester). She is the bogeyman of Jane Eyre even before we become aware of her identity. In that grand Gothic tradition that Charlotte Brontë emulates, Bertha is the mystery at the centre of the house that will bring Rochester’s careful facade of normalcy crashing down around him. She, not Grace Poole, is the owner of that haunting, diabolical laugh. That she is mad Brontë establishes beyond much doubt—the notorious attempt to burn down the house is but one example. But the backstory to that madness is more pithy than it is palatable—she is mad because she has to be mad, to make the plot work. Could there be more to it though?
I suspect that I would not have been as disposed towards Wide Sargasso Sea if I hadn’t recently re-read Jane Eyre. In part it’s because this book is probably easier to understand within the context of its connection to Jane Eyre. However, it’s mostly because my recent re-read highlighted the flaws of Rochester’s personality—how his passion and vanity makes him selfish and somewhat controlling. Rhys saw these qualities as well, replicating them in the unnamed man who marries Antoinette Cosway and calls her Bertha. Then she adds additional cultural baggage to make the relationship and the romance all her own.
This is where the postcolonial part of that description enters the picture. As in Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason hails from the Caribbean Islands. In Wide Sargasso Sea, she is not Richard Mason’s brother but instead the daughter of his wife by a previous marriage. And Bertha’s real name is “Antoinette.” Her late father was a slave-owner, and at the time of the book, Britain had only recently freed all slaves. As a result, the local Black community views Antoinette and her mother with suspicion and disgust, compounded by the family’s obvious fall from grace. Her mother exists in a state of withdrawn depression. These factors conspire to cause Antoinette to grow up in isolation, first with her mother, then at a convent school. Antoinette is a woman grown before she re-enters society and is almost immediately thrust into marriage by her stepfather.
Antoinette belongs nowhere, a situation summed up by the label that the island’s Black community gives her and her family—white N-word. The colour of her skin, not to mention her heritage, means she is forever an outsider. Yet to the English who visit (and marry) her, she is just as much a foreigner. She has no concept of England as they do, very little concept of anything, really, aside from her limited vista and, perhaps, God.
It’s this naivety, I think, that eventually pushes her husband’s feelings for her from apathy to outright loathing. Rhys provides a much more intense and sustained exposure to his feelings of betrayal and dissatisifaction with his marriage-for-means scheme than Brontë ever gives us with Rochester. In the sections of the novel told from his perspective, he wastes no time reminding us that Richard Mason deceived him, that he’s a nice guy who doesn’t deserve to be burdened by a woman who is apparently on some kind of countdown to madness. What really seems to trigger him, however, is Antoinette’s refusal to confront or even interact much with the real world.
This reluctance to change on her part means that he views her as a child and treats her as such. He negates her as much as possible. In the middle of the novel, after she discovers that a relative has been sending him letters warning him of her impending insanity, he refuses to discuss the matter rationally with her because he claims she is too emotional, too volatile for such deliberation. His anger at the situation in which he finds himself blinds him to any reconciliation with Antoinette; she is not a person but a symbol of his discontent.
During my recent re-reading of Jane Eyre, I paid a lot of attention to how Rochester treated Jane and the extent to which he attempted to impose his own worldview upon hers. This is a man who locked his mad wife in the attic and then agreed to marry someone else! Whereas Brontë focuses on Bertha’s state when she is at Thornfield, and how her actions (and very existence) affect Jane, Rhys is more concerned with Antoinette’s transformation and descent into madness. Though Bertha is an intriguing character, she is essentially a plot device. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette is a living, breathing, changing human being.
As a companion to Jane Eyre, this is a thought-provoking work that highlights several important themes for careful consideration. Literature isn’t a vacuum; books can be conversations. On its own (i.e., if you have not read Jane Eyre—and why not?) Wide Sargasso Sea still works quite well. That being said, Rhys’ style can make this book feel a little inaccessible at times—in this respect, it reminded me of The Woman on the Edge of Time. This is a strong novel, but had it not hitched its star to a literary classic, I’m not sure if it would have had enough of an impact to stand on its own. Surely this is a moot point, though. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call Wide Sargasso Sea an essential follow-up to your Jane Eyre experience, I suspect it is a far superior option to any possible sequels floating around out there à la Pride and Prejudice.