Wide Sargasso Sea is a tale of tragic beauty, one that is multi-layered in its exploration of race, displacement and gender. The novel both humanises and de-humanises central characters while linking them inexplicably to their pasts. Set in the magical scenery of Jamaica, Rhys confronts and scrutinises Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre.
Both a prequel and a postcolonial/ feminist reading of Bronte’s novel, Rhys writes about Antionette, a creole heiress, and her time in Jamaica after the abolition of slavery. She narrates from her lonely childhood to her equally unfortunate adolescence, her mother’s descent into madness and her arranged marriage to who we assume to be Mr Rochester. The story is told by both Antionette and her husband and follows his abrupt transitioning from deep lust to bitter hatred, due to suspicion of her mental illness. Antionette, later named Bertha, is coldly removed from her home and sent to Thornfield, where she becomes increasingly mad.
“She seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I’d like to write her a life”Jean Rhys
The undertones of colonial power in Jane Eyre motivated Rhys to write the novel, attempting to humanise Antionette in her journey to becoming Bertha. The ‘Madwoman in the Attic’ morphs from a haunting figure to a mistreated woman. Further, Rochester becomes a cowardly and ruthless man who struggles with racist contempt. This undermines the very crux of Brontë’s novel: romance. Does it then effect the reading of Jane Eyre? Surely if Rochester is such an abominable man, what does that make her? Indeed, Danielle McLaughlin claimed that “The novel didn’t just take inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, it illuminated and confronted it, challenged the narrative”.
This confrontation is perhaps what makes Wide Sargasso Sea so spectacular: it speaks of the cruelty of colonialism and explores intersections of marginality in a complex historical period.
This book is a must read for any Jane Eyre lover, and in fact, any book lover.