This summer I read Jane Eyre for the first time and greatly enjoyed it. So it made sense to read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (who is not a French man like I presumed for some reason). Wide Sargasso Sea is an unofficial prequel to the famous novel and has since become fairly famous in its own right.
Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of the other Mrs. Rochester. Not Jane but Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s first wife. In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is a shadowy figure. She’s almost more of a prop than a person. Although she creates some action in the novel she primarily seems to exist as a barrier to be overcome by Jane and Rochester. Rhys explores the beginnings of Bertha’s (known in this novel as Antoinette Cosway) life and her marriage to a young Mr. Rochester. The first part of the novel is told from Antoinette’s perspective, preceding her marriage. The second part is told from the point of view of her new husband, who is never named. Other characters from Jane Eyre make brief appearances, such as Richard Mason and Grace Poole.
Rhys creates a fully fleshed woman out of the madwoman of Jane Eyre. Our author clearly has sympathy for this first wife, briefly loved and then discarded. We see her as a young girl, growing up in a secluded and dangerous atmosphere, watching her mother possibly go mad. We see her as a beautiful young woman, someone to catch Mr. Rochester’s eye. We witness the quick disintegration of a marriage without love or trust.
Rhys’ novel was published in 1966 and its style differs vastly from that of Jane Eyre. There is no neat conclusion such as so often found in Victorian novels. There are few answers. We witness a vast change in both of our main characters but no single person is to blame. Rhys also brings to the fore the racial tensions that are barely mentioned in Jane Eyre. Antoinette is the child of a white father and a Caribbean mother and unaccepted by either race. How much does this have to do with Rochester’s ultimate denial of her?
The Caribbean location is beautifully described. Rhys seems to use the surroundings of Antoinette’s home as a means to further describe her character and her beauty. By the time Antoinette is forced to leave the Caribbean and live in England (which any reader of Jane Eyre will know is coming) it feels like a far crueller punishment than Rochester can know. In part two, as we witness the place through his eyes, Rhys lets it chill us, imbuing every description with a sense of danger and showing us Rochester’s growing discomfort with his surroundings.
I thought the words of one character perfectly summarized the purpose of Wide Sargasso Sea. Speaking to Rochester, a servant girl tells him, “‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I am sorry for you. But I find it in my heart to be sorry for her too.'” This, I believe, is what Rhys attempted, and accomplished with her novel. Where Jane Eyre left a problem to be surmounted, Rhys created a woman.