Born into an oppressive colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. After their marriage, disturbing rumours begin to circulate, poisoning her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is driven towards madness.
This is a fully annotated edition of Jean Rhys’s late literary masterpiece, which was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and is set in the lush, beguiling landscape of Jamaica in the 1830s.
Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books of all time. It’s probably my most re-read book as I’ve read it every couple of years since I was about 11 years of age. It makes me cry every single time, even though I’ve read it about 4 times. But not once have I stopped to consider that there was a whole other story I was missing – the story of Bertha Mason.
But Jean Rhys did stop to think of Bertha’s story, and decided to tell her own re-imagined version. Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antionette Cosway, who becomes the mad-woman in the attic. She is a Creole woman living in Jamaica shortly after the abolition of slavery. The point of view of Mr Rochester is bookended by the views of Antionette herself, growing up and later in the attic of Thornfield Hall.
You can pretend for a long time, but one day it all falls away and you are alone.
Personally, I found Part One of the story quite dense and hard to get to grips with. I felt like I had been plunged into the story and unsure of my surroundings and the characters in particular, but the writing was my favourite part. The descriptions of the Jamaican countryside were lush, seductive and rich. I felt absorbed in the landscape, picturing the beautiful countryside. The discussions are contradictory to those in Jane Eyre, with much darker undertones and jarring topics of Antionette’s descent into madness.
I much preferred Part Two of the story, finding myself on more comfortable ground with the point of view of Mr Rochester himself. The beautiful writings and descriptions continue, but I found myself managing to keep up with the day-to-day life of him and Antionette much easier. This section of the story is centered around their honeymoon, and I will sadly be seeing Mr Rochester in a much less favourable light next time I re-read this story. He finds out certain things about his wife’s family history that portrays her in a new light, and begins to exploit her and project his own feelings and thoughts onto her. Here begins her slow descent into hysteria, which is a maddening, confusing and brutal experience.
Part three, the last part of the story, shows Antionette now in the attic at Thornfield, and flicks between different days. Reading this feels like reading in a daze – Antionette is unsure of her surroundings, what day it is, or why she is there. She doesn’t believe she is in England and hangs on to anything she owns that feels familiar to her. I really felt the links to Jane Eyre here and it nicely rounded off the story for me.
We are alone in the most beautiful place in the world…
If you’re looking for a fresh perspective on the classic novel, I would definitely recommend reading Wide Sargasso Sea. It is the kind of book that will change your perspective on writing, on your favourite novels and favourite characters. I will be interested to see how it changes my view of the characters in Jane Eyre next time I read it!
4 out of 5 stars
May your shelves forever overflow with books! ☽