“Have all beautiful things sad destinies?”
Born in the Caribbean, Antoinette Cosway has been protected and secluded her entire life from the villagers in Spanish Town who despise her family. When the family home is burned down and her mother refuses to see her anymore, Antoinette is married to Mr. Rochester, a visiting Englishman, for a price. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a heartbreaking backstory in discovering who “Bertha” was before she simply became known as the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
*Review may contain spoilers*
It’s been years since I’ve read Jane Eyre, but I remember the basic plot and how I felt Mr. Rochester was pure scum. And though Mrs. Rochester did interest me I never found myself thinking, “I’d really like a prequel telling me how she ended up in the attic.”
I learned of Wide Sargasso Sea a few years ago, but it never caught my interest until of late when I read an article about Jean Rhys and her personal story. Interested, I decided on WSS because it was critically acclaimed and looked to be a quick read.
From what Charlotte Brontë explained in Jane Eyre Mrs. Rochester was from Spanish Town, Jamaica, and Mr. Rochester was pushed into marrying her for money without having a single conversation with her. Claiming he wasn’t warned about the violent insanity in her family, and due to her deteriorating health, he brought her to England where she was imprisoned in the attic room for ten years. Despite feeling trapped and lied to, Jane Eyre tries showing Mr. Rochester still cares for his wife, even going as far as trying to save her when she sets Thornfield Hall on fire.
Wide Sargasso Sea takes this a step further.
Told in three parts and told from Bertha (original name being Antoinette Cosway in WSS) and Mr. Rochester’s point of views, focusing on the factors that drive Antoinette’s decent into ‘madness’, and the lengths Mr. Rochester takes to justify his actions toward Antoinette.
I have to give Jean Rhys credit for wanting to give Antoinette the story she deserved, showing her to be human and not just a ‘madwoman in an attic.’
But, I found myself struggling, trying to connect and care for these characters when there wasn’t much reason to.
The entire story is a little under 200 pages and the writing style is a simple, stream of conscious for both Antoinette and Mr. Rochester. The Jamaican atmosphere is well written, allowing for the sticky heat, the cool nights, and pre-colonial tone boost the story into the magical, dream Mr. Rochester claims it to be.
However, characters come and go as they please, making such little impact I had to go back multiple times to remember who was who, such as Sandi and Tia. They seemed to blend together, especially those who worked at the house, once Antoinette married Rochester and a new group of characters were introduced. The only ones I felt were fleshed out were Christophine and Grace Poole, the latter having been created by Brontë. Even Antoinette and Rochester felt little more than one-dimensional, as Rhys needed to propel them into becoming the characters we know from Jane Eyre, causing the story to fall flat since she couldn’t do much else with them without veering away from the original source.
I’ve tried coming up with a word or phrase to describe how I feel other than let down, but nothing comes to mind.
If anything I appreciated how Antoinette felt England was a dream, while Rochester thought the same of Jamaica. It was interesting to see how the two ideas propelled their differences throughout the book. I also liked how Rhys didn’t make Rochester a tortured soul sworn to duty, as in Jane Eyre, but the torturer himself.
I don’t know if I would recommend this be the first Jean Rhys book for others to read, but I have a feeling I’ll visit her writing again someday in the future.