Review | Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

One of the things I’m already enjoying about consciously working through a set reading list, especially for reviewing purposes like the Classics Club challenge, is the heightened awareness of the impact that each book has on my reading of the next. This is especially true of books that have explicit parallels with each other, as I discovered when, having previously read and reviewed Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, I then turned my attention to another novel with even closer links to Jane Eyre.

That said, I found this one much, much harder to read.

Reading Wide Sargasso Sea

First sentence: They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.

What’s the point of a retelling? To re-examine and explore, to flesh out elements of the source book that the author left unexplored or unexplained. In Rebecca, du Maurier drops the introverted heroine into a new setting to see how she copes, but the ‘Vampyre’ figure of the Other Woman remains just as vampish, intangible, and confined to the descriptions of others as she is in Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea, though, it’s the Other Woman who is fleshed out.

The first-person narrative relates the life of Antoinette Cosway, the Jamaican Creole heiress known in Jane Eyre only as (spoiler alert) Mr. Rochester’s insane first wife, locked in the attic to protect her and others from her bouts of violent rage. From the racial tensions of post-slavery Jamaica in her childhood, through the traumatic decline of her mother’s mental health, to the cataclysmic changes wrought on her life when she’s married off to a rich visiting Englishman (never named, but evidently Rochester), the reader gains a much more nuanced and disturbing picture of what, and who, brought about her loss of sanity.

None of this is comfortable reading. Even leaving aside the identity of the characters, Jean Rhys’ writing is heavy with the sense of the oppressive Jamaican climate, of the inhabitants’ resentment seething continually just below the surface, of a country that makes no allowances.

Discomfort is, of course, the point. This isn’t a novel that’s afraid to make its readers supremely uncomfortable with how much they have accepted without question, both in the literary canon and in real life. How many of us, in adoring Jane Eyre, have never thought to question the source of the Rochester fortune? Did we ever wonder about Rochester’s designation of Bertha as insane, or ask how he justified treating her as he does? And, taking a step back from the novel itself (which by setting itself in ’18—’ consciously removes itself from its historical context), did it ever occur to us how soon after the Slavery Abolition Act Jane Eyre was published, and what effect abolition would have had on racial dynamics in places like Jamaica?

Jean Rhys forces a confrontation with every one of these questions in the course of Wide Sargasso Sea, and the result is deeply unsettling. As a reader for whom Brontë’s Rochester has been an undeniable guilty pleasure, a certain amount of soul-searching results from witnessing his unchanging inability to muster any degree of appreciation or respect for the country and people around him. As the novel progresses and he resorts to increasingly appalling means of dealing with his own discomfort, I started to wonder if anything I thought I knew about Brontë’s Rochester was right.

It’s easy to try to reassure oneself that this is only one author’s reading, that this isn’t Brontë canon. Anything that feels like an uncomfortable truth can be dismissed by remembering that it’s all fiction anyway. But I started to wonder, in reading afterwards about the deep postcolonial observations made by the Dominica-born Rhys, whether it wasn’t just ignorance and selective blindness that smoothed over my reading of Jane Eyre in the first place. To be sure, Rhys is extrapolating from her interpretation of the novel. But we learn so much in the course of the original about Rochester’s moodiness, his promiscuity and his intolerance of things that irritate him, that much of his behaviour in Wide Sargasso Sea feels disturbingly plausible.

Another way to get round the discomfort is by remembering that this all happened before he met Jane. He does learn from her something of the meaning of patience and tolerance, and the idea of a loving relationship being an equal partnership; he’s undoubtedly a changed man by the end of the novel. But I wonder if Jane would have been able to accept his past misdemeanours so easily had she heard this version.

The third and last section of the novel returns to the world of Jane Eyre, to the last moments of Antoinette’s life, in the attic at Thornfield. Visited only briefly by Jane, it’s an unfamiliar new part of a setting with which the reader previously thought themselves familiar – a symbol of the novel as a whole. These last few pages at last align themselves with the course of events as related in Jane Eyre, but paradoxically, in light of the revelation of how they were brought about, I felt as though I was experiencing them with fully open eyes for the first time.

The burning of Thornfield and the death of Antoinette/Bertha isn’t narrated in real time in the novel; Jane isn’t there to witness it, and hears only third-party accounts. Thus Rhys’ retelling is the first time that we as readers witness it too, and this feels appropriate; having now travelled with the previously-unknown Antoinette from the beginning, it’s only right that we stay with her to the end.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to say I ‘liked’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Novels that do this much to disrupt what readers think they know aren’t meant to be liked. But in doing so, it serves as a necessary reminder of the things we can learn by looking for what is left unsaid. I feel obliged to re-read Jane Eyre, as I did after Rebecca, but I don’t think I’ll do it with my usual anticipation now. Now I’m concerned about what I might find.

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