One of the BBC’s ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’
A gorgeous clothbound edition of Jean Rhys’s great masterpiece of desire and madness in the Caribbean, published for the novel’s fiftieth anniversary.
Born into the oppressive, colonialist society of 1930s Jamaica, white Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent beauty and sensuality. After their marriage, however, disturbing rumours begin to circulate which poison her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is inexorably driven towards madness, and her husband into the arms of another novel’s heroine. This classic study of betrayal, a seminal work of postcolonial literature, is Jean Rhys’s brief, beautiful masterpiece.
I read this for #NovNov22 classics week (see below).
Jean Rhys took one character – Bertha, Mrs Rochester the ‘mad woman’ kept in the tower under Grace Poole’s charge – from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and wrote the novella Wide Sargasso Sea giving her a possible backstory.
In Rhys’ novella Bertha is Antoinette and part one of the story begins when she is a young girl in the West Indies.
Antoinette is the daughter of a slave owner Alexander Cosway whose estate is in Jamaica. He dies right before the Emancipation Act was passed but he had practically brought the estate to ruin because of his drinking habits. Antoinette’s mother, Annette, was a beautiful woman and second wife to Alexander Cosway. She neglected her daughter at a young age which led to Antoinette’s emotional instability. This abandonment seems to be due to her son’s frailty and Annette’s desire to have as much time with him as possible. Being a widow, she also had feelings of fear, abandonment and harassment similar to her daughter. To add to Annette’s insecurity, Mr. Mason, her second husband left her. When her son dies Annette becomes deeply depressed and is ultimately taken into the care of a couple who badly mistreat and abuse her.
There are a number of points made in this novella that show how Antoinette became isolated at a young age and very wary of her own heritage. Her friend Tia calls her names. As do many of the black community who are disparaging of her French heritage since Jamaica was a British colony. Her father had died when she was young. Christophine, a servant, is an important character because she genuinely cared for Antoinette and her mother. Mr Mason, her mother’s second husband, leaves after Calibri their home is burnt down. Her brother dies in the fire and her mother, distraught, is taken away.
She goes to live with an Aunt who seems to take good care of her but then leaves her alone whilst she goes away. Antoinette goes to stay at a local convent where she is being educated. It is little wonder that she felt abandoned, isolated and turned inside herself.
When she is older she is introduced to an English man and after some hesitation marries him.
We then meet a second narrator, a man who is not named but is clearly Mr Rochester. He has come to the West Indies to make his own way since he has an older brother who would inherit. Perhaps he has no particular interests, skills or abilities that would allow him to make his own fortune. We are not told. He determines to marry well. He is introduced and finds such a bride, an heiress, in Antoinette.
We hear how the marriage goes, how the West Indies become an anathema to him. The islands are to him like an oppressive character, he feels he is under some kind of spell. His brief relationship with Amelie, who he thinks looks very like Antoinette, shows how he is becoming a bit unstable himself.
Antoinette has a deep love of the islands especially her home and is very attached to Christophine. The narrator is very wary of Christophine as she practices obeah, a Caribbean black magic. She is only attempting to help Antoinette with her husband to protect their love and Antoinette’s saneness. However, he is growing more concerned with his marriage, with Antoinette’s attachment to her home and then he receives messages from a man, who is Antoinette’s half brother. At first he tries to ignore but ultimately is drawn to find out what it means.
He determines to return to England which he does taking Antionette, who he now calls Bertha, with him.
Once back in England we hear how Antoinette is kept in the attic under Grace Pools care, how she is able to get out wreaking havoc and finally takes her revenge.
I feel like I’ve already written as much about Wide Sargasso Sea as Jean Rhys wrote in her novella!
It is a beautifully and sparingly written piece in which Jean Rhys successfully brings to life the Antoinette/Bertha she so much wanted the reader to know more about, understand and have us realise that we should not necessarily accept all we read as being the (only) truth.
Charlotte Brontë wrote a book which is, as the title indicates, about Jane Eyre and her experiences, her life. It is interesting that Brontë gave Mr Rochester the story of Bertha and the West Indies (also the story of Rochester’s ward). Jane’s story addresses the way in which she was treated in her youth which, perhaps, has a parallel dimension to Antoinette’s story. It is certainly a story that touches on whilst not necessarily addressing a number of important issues of the time. This is the story that Charlotte Brontë had in her to write.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is in my opinion a wonderful book but it is a book written of its authors time, knowledge, experience and understanding. Which makes Wide Sargasso Sea an important piece to consider some of the wider implications.
What we get from Rhys is the opportunity to explore not only the story of Bertha in a world that Rhys would know and understand far better than Brontë or most readers but, should we want to, the opportunity to learn more about that relationship and history between the countries.
Rhys wrote Antionette not as a slave but a free woman, insofar as women at that time were free, and an heiress who was considered by the indigenous community as part of the European colonialism who had benefited from the slave trade and been slave owners. Antoinette could not be a slave nor an indigenous person as that would have been a very unlikely scenario. Still Rhys wanted to show what life in the West Indies was like, the effect colonialism and the slave trade had and that it is still impacting and relevant in 1948 and today.
I also think that it is interesting how Rhys handled the mental health issues. Bertha, the ‘mad woman’ woman in the attic whose mental health was taken as hereditary in Jane Eyre; Antoinette who had mental health issues, as did Annette her mother, but the causes whilst still unknown have been given more context. Annette suffering from depression, Antoinette isolated from a young age and both suffering from anxiety. Today we would hope to diagnose and treat each of them appropriately. At the time of Brontë’s book such a diagnosis was not possible so the way Bertha was cared for would be accepted, perhaps even considered as considerate of Rochester. The treatment of those suffering from mental health issues was really just beginning to be a matter that was being discussed and addressed mainly through the use of asylums.
By the time Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea there was more understanding. Still the treatment of Antoinette/Bertha compared to Annette both very badly treated by todays standards but Annette was clearly physically abused and raped by her ‘carers’ I think may have been Rhys’ way of showing this disparity and saying this is the way it was and, perhaps, Antoinette had she remained in the West Indies might not have received any better care. Rather it is the question of whether her mental health would have deteriorated in the same way or, indeed, at all especially if she had remained under Christophine’s care.
Throughout, women’s statements of reality are said by men to be the products of raving madness as the Cosway, Mason and Rochester men work together to exploit, abuse, destroy and dispose of Annette and Antoinette.From ‘An introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Bidisha (British Library article)
Rhys opens up a whole lot of questions as much as giving the character and backstory of Bertha/Antionette. She did so in a beautifully written and important novella that conveys so much. A book which, in my opinion, really should be read as widely as possible.
Here are some starting points to begin exploring the issues raised.
19th Century mental health (U.K.)
Psychiatry 1840s (USA)
‘An introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Bidisha (British Library article)
Articles and comments on Wide Sargasso Sea
BBC Women’s Hour (from approximately 32 minutes)
1 – 7 November: Short Classics (Rebecca)
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Published: Penguin Books Ltd (6 October 2016)
ISBN 9780241281901 | English |Hardback | 192 pages
‘She took one of the works of genius of the nineteenth century and turned it inside-out to create one of the works of genius of the twentieth century‘ Michele Roberts, The Times
Jean Rhys, original name Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, (born August 24, 1890, Roseau, Dominica, Windward Islands, West Indies—died May 14, 1979, Exeter, Devon, England, aged 88). West Indian novelist who earned acclaim for her early works set in the bohemian world of Europe in the 1920s and ’30s but who stopped writing for nearly three decades, until she wrote a successful novel set in the West Indies.
The daughter of a Welsh doctor and a Creole mother, Rhys lived and was educated in Dominica until she went to London at the age of 16 and worked as an actress before moving to Paris. There she was encouraged to write by the English novelist Ford Madox Ford. Her first book, a collection of short stories, The Left Bank (1927), was followed by such novels as Postures (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939).
Quartet | Good Morning, Midnight | After Leaving Mr Mackenzie | Voyage in the Dark | Till September Petronella | The Collected Short Stories
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