Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea by Dominica-born Jean Rhys is a Caribbean classic, and not just because it was published in the 1960s – i.e. a long time ago – but because it is beautifully written and explores essential Caribbean themes: identity and belongingness; race and the impact of colonialism and, explicitly, in this case, slavery (rather, post-slavery); and specifically the uneven relationship between England and her former colonies. It also rightly claims its space in the genre occupied by books dealing with gender, with women battling their socially confining and in some ways maddening and potentially fatal circumstances. I mean, the latter quite literally as the book’s end – no secret but spoilery – intersects with a key moment in the classic by iconic British female author Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre. LAST CHANCE re that particular spoiler…okay, Wide Sargasso Sea is an empire writes back tale in that the main female protagonist is the shadowy mad wife who burns down the house in Jane Eyre and this the story of how she came to be there.
It recasts Jane’s paramour as at worst, the villain, and, at most moderate, a cad; and the inconvenient wife as not so much mad – okay, yes, she’s mad by novel’s end – but broken.
It is an absorbing read due to the richness of the prose and the intricacy of the well-framed story; and, for me, a black Caribbean reader, it does the seeming impossible of stirring sympathy for characters who pre-1834/Emancipation were slave holders (or in the case of Antoinette, the main female protagonist, of the white slave holder class). When we meet her, she is a little girl left to the care of a neglectful mom in a hostile environment (Rhys does such a good job of stirring empathy for that girl cum young woman that you’re actually hoping she makes it out alive when the ‘mob’ i.e. former slaves and servants who scorn them and want them gone) burns them out of their home. That fire is the second major disruption to the girl, Antoinette’s life. The first is her elevation in circumstances when her mom remarries (a Brit). The years after the fire, coming of age in an austere convent school, separated from the mother who has gone mad after the death of her younger child in the fire and who is being abused by her carers, from her step dad with whom she had no real bond to begin with, from her fair-weather aunt, and from her mother surrogate (Christophine, the African-Caribbean French Creole woman who raised her) complete her shaping in to a young Creole woman who is ill-suited to a match to an Englishman. But that’s just who her step brother – with whom she’s had no real relationship but who is in charge of her and her money after his father’s death, because patriarchal society – marries her to. It would be easy to call Rochester (unnamed in the book but we know who he is) a stick-up-his-butt Englishman but perhaps he is a product of his time, no better no worse, though marriage to him and his unwillingness or inability to accept the contradictions, white skin-Caribbean sensibility, within his wife are her undoing. It is a marriage of convenience – for money, her money – so perhaps love was never possible; but in the beginning, when they leave her homeland of Jamaica to honeymoon in Dominica, her other home, he certainly seems to be in lust with her. But that’s quickly undone by whispers, the loudest coming from another Creole (on the black side) sibling of Antoinette; it is implied that he is one of her birth father’s many outside children to whom he paid little regard. And though this grievance-bearing brother is the purported snake/villain of the piece, stirring the already simmering doubt in the new husband’s mind, one could easily see how a shift in point of view – much like Rhys achieved with this work – could make him an equally sympathetic character…and perhaps that’s one of the key takeaways from this book (which stands on its own but achieves fuller meaning as a counterpoint to Jane Eyre); think you know the story, shift the view a little bit.
Certainly, a woman who could do with her own novel is Christophine, a Martiniquean woman, never accepted by the other Black people in Jamaica – in part because of her loyalty to the family, in part because of suspicion surrounding her alleged practice of obeah. What’s clear, mysterious as she is, is that she is a formidable woman albeit with limited reach (England is not a real place to her, and Rochester is filled with dislike of her, not the fear others evince). Antoinette goes to her for help but dismisses her advice to leave the man and take half her money – maybe it wasn’t truly possible given the times. Instead the new wife wants a way to tie her husband to her, which Christophine agrees to help her with (reluctantly). It’s not clear how much potency the author intends to give to obeah – described as dark magic by some, believed by others to be a lingering remnant of African spirituality among people from whom so much of home was taken; either way, it is the kind of thing spoken of in whispers.
When he suspects that something was done to him, Rochester turns fully from his wife – going so far as to lay with one of the servants, a young Creole (again, black Creole) woman who showed open contempt for Antoinette, basically a room away in her own house.
One of the things that troubled and frustrated me as I read of Rochester’s increasing contempt for his wife, leading to him eventually locking her in the Thornfield Hall attic far away from her home continent (i.e. in England where Jane comes in to contact with her), is what is her sin exactly? She was a child when slavery ended and her father already dead when the novel begins. But his sins trail her like a horrible stench – and I’m not talking about the rightful disdain those formerly enslaved by her family might feel toward people like her or even the resentment of unacknowledged half-siblings, but the condescending superiority of her British husband toward her (analogous to England’s relationship with her still-then colonies perhaps). His off-putting attitude was there even before he knew of any hint that she might have siblings of colour (there is some hint of incest with one of these siblings but this is mostly hinted at in her mind when its unravelling in the cold, dark attic so who can say). I’m just saying it’s a shame she hasn’t earned.
And as for the alleged madness that ran in her family (her mother being driven mad by circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean that she had to), I only really started to see signs of it when Rochester started treating her, his betrothed, like crap – need I remind that she had to listen to coos and grunts of ecstasy from her servant, Amelie, and her husband, just a room away. He even stopped calling her by her name – unnaming her and, as Christophine predicted, breaking her. She turned to drink (that’s how I read it) and true madness only set in once she was isolated (cut off from all human contact save that of her watcher, cut off from the Caribbean and home) for God knows how long. And then, yes, she burns the house. Can you blame her?
There is so much to unpack in this book about how colonialism and slavery rots the society, about ownership of property and of self, about gender dynamics which (wife as property aside) are still alarmingly relevant, about racial dynamics still largely unresolved in the Caribbean, and so much more. For a book written more than 50 years ago, Wide Sargasso Sea still feels thematically very modern but then so in some ways does Jane Eyre, the book that inspired it more than 100 years after its publishing. And that’s the mark of a true classic isn’t it, its enduring relevance and appeal.
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