Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

World Books, 1967, 186 p, including 9 p Introduction by Francis Wyndham.

This is the fruit of the author’s fixation with “the mad woman in the attic,” the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel is told in three Parts, the first and third from the viewpoint of the unfortunate Antoinette (or Bertha as her husband calls her,) the second, and much the longest, from his and hers.

The first two Parts are set in the West Indies, where Antoinette, the offspring of a Creole family, was brought up. In Part One she describes her early life. Part Two is the story of her (unnamed in the text) husband’s sojourn in the West Indies, where he and Antoinette married quickly after the illness which followed his arrival, and honeymooned in Dominica. There he receives a letter from a man who claims to be Antoinette’s half-brother, telling him he has been duped into the match as Antoinette is unstable and has a past. This is backed up by the attitude of those in Jamaica who knew her. The marriage is thereby doomed, its failure and her husband’s adultery contribute to Antoinette’s mental decline. Part Three sees our heroine locked up in an attic in England (though she is not entirely sure she is in that country) attended only by a nurse called Grace Poole. Hers and Antoinette’s names along with those of her stepfather and stepbrother are the only overt clues to the connection between this story and Jane Eyre. There are of course other correspondences, however; Antoinette/Bertha’s fascination with fire, her taking advantage of Poole’s falling asleep to roam the wider house, her attack on a man who comes to visit her, but this book is complete in and of itself and could be read with no knowledge of the previous book without any detraction from it.

Wide Sargasso Sea is both a commentary on Jane Eyre and on the ramifications of slavery and its abolition. Its illustration of the inequality of power between men and women also reflects the ending of Brontë’s novel where Jane brings herself to marry Rochester only after he has been blinded, when she has the advantage. There is, however, a kind of opacity to Rhys’s writing which makes it something of a chore to read.

Note to the sensitive; there are many uses of the n-word, but that is true to the times depicted.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; diststrous (disastrous.) Otherwise – a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) a comma missing at the end of a piece of direct speech, cocoanut (nowadays spelled coconut,) “the row of small trees outside my window were covered” (the row …. was covered,) 14 completed thoughts, italicised and in parentheses, mostly of one sentence but some with two, giving us the husband’s thoughts while someone else is speaking to him but only 12 of them had full stops at the end, hynotized (hypnotised,) frangipanni (frangipani; as used earlier.)

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