THE PLOT: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a retelling of Jane Eyre from the point of view of Mr Rochester’s first wife – the mad woman in the attic. Set in Jamaica in the 1830’s, it starts with the disturbing childhood of Antoinette (Bertha) Cosway. White descendants of slave owners, Antoinette’s family is initially impoverished after emancipation until her mother remarries. Her stepfather sets Antoinette up with a decent fortune to attract a young Englishman and the majority of the novel focusses on the deterioration of her marriage during their honeymoon.
RATING: The concept for this novel immediately grabbed me but I’m only giving it three and a half stars. There are many wonderful things about this short book and I loved learning about the author. Born to a white Creole mother and Welsh father in 1890, the novel draws on Jean Rhys’s upbringing in Dominica. However, I found myself working hard to get through some sections instead of enjoying the narrative.
GOOD BITS: First published in 1966, Wide Sargasso Sea feels extraordinarily contemporary yet has the trippy, experimental style of its age. The haunting writing style, with sparse, abrupt quizzical sentences, echoes the gothic Jane Eyre and beautifully demonstrates the characters’ descents into madness. The tensions between the white creoles (descendants of slave owners born in the Caribbean) and the black community of former slaves is handled deftly. It really made me think about the immediate effects of emancipation through the relationships between characters of different races.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I wanted more plot. The novel feels a bit style over substance. It’s more about the atmosphere and setting, the relationships between (and interior minds of) the characters as they mentally break down, than events. This was interesting and poetic but meant I struggled to stay engaged. I respect what Jean Rhys has accomplished but I’d be interested to read a modern, plot driven take on this concept, which takes place during the events of Jane Eyre and builds on the tradition started by Jean Rhys. Perhaps I’ll write it one day…
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book from an academic point of view, and feel like it would be good to study in school alongside Jane Eyre. It takes a massive period in history which is often overlooked and dissects the common narrative that “the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished then everyone was happy”. It’s also a feminist take on a woman’s place in marriage, which is so important for the decade and context it was written in. Not a fun read for anyone looking for a good yarn to take to the beach, but good for anyone interested in allusion and intertextuality in literature.