Wide Sargasso Sea Gave Me the Wide Sargasso Sads

Warning: This post on Wide Sargasso Sea contains spoilers for this novel and also spoilers for Jane Eyre. This is the second post in a row with Jane Eyre spoilers, so if you have spent the time between 1847 and now not reading Jane Eyre, I suggest you correct yourself before you wreck yourself.

Part of my reading goal for the year is to not be as completely ashamed of my bookshelves. You see, I buy books much, much faster than I read them, since books are non-perishable goods (kind of) and since sometimes publishes change things like how Vintage has changed my beloved McCarthy and Faulkner covers recently. (I also shop used a lot, so you sometimes don’t know when you’ll be able to find a decent used copy in the edition you want again.) As I closed in on the end of Jane Eyre, I was torn between continuing with the Brontës by jumping into Wuthering Heights, or taking a slight detour.

I took the detour, which came in the form of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966In a way, it is  like continuing with the Brontë sisters because Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre, told primarily from the perspective of the latter’s “madwoman in the attic”: Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Antoinetta Mason/Antoinette Cosway (which Rhys’s narrator calls herself). Though the book employs a few different perspectives (including Mr. Rochester’s), but Antoinette’s is the primary voice. The novel primarily takes place in the Caribbean, in Jamaica, and in Dominica, where Rhys grew up.

Postcolonialism is one of the topics in the field of English I always found I found endlessly fascinating. In a nice bit of circularity, I was asked to read both Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Foe by J.M. Coetzee in both my first (Basics of the Novel) and last (British Lit Colonialism and Slavery 1680-1830) college English classes. Foe is a postcolonial retelling of Robinson Crusoe and features other elements from Defoe’s works. Coetzee pulls apart Defoe’s novel by making his own the story not of Crusoe but of a female castaway, Susan Barton, trying to get her story published by a writer named Daniel Foe, who co-opts her narrative into a fictitious adventure story.

Susan travels with another character from Robinson Crusoe: Friday. In Defoe’s novel, Friday is the obedient manservant of ambiguous non-white racial makeup who, despite years of Crusoe’s instruction, never manages to pass “Racist Pidgin English 101.” In Foe, Friday has had his tongue cut out (Crusoe alleges this was done by slavers) and Susan tries to get him to tell his story through other methods, but fails to understand Friday’s forms of communication. To simplify: Coetzee’s narrative brings those marginalized in Defoe’s original to the forefront, but much of the novel revolves around their inability to communicate their own stories with one another. Their stories are co-opted by a white male author, who turns their narratives into a fictitious account that displeases Susan. And nobody can discern Friday’s own narrative or personal feelings, even though he spent the most time on the island.

Wide Sargasso Sea is almost like a cousin to Foe in how it provides more context for the events and characters in a “classic” literary work. Rhys gives voice, depth, and humanity to the madwoman in the attic of Thornfield Hall, whom the reader of Jane Eyre sees as barely human. I was already pretty sour on Mr. Rochester going into this novel: he has a tendency to shade the truth from Jane, so I didn’t completely buy the story of his unfortunate marriage. According to Rochester, his father refused to divide his estate between him and his older brother, and therefore sought a rich heiress for his younger son to marry. This was Bertha Antoinetta Mason, a white Creole woman from Jamaica with a fortune of £30,000.

Rochester claims that Bertha’s family shielded him from the degree of their mental problems: her mother was insane, her brother was developmentally disabled (not Rochester’s term), and he was not allowed to talk to Bertha. After their marriage, he realized Bertha was totally unstable (violent, lusty, etc.), but couldn’t bear for her to be chained to the floor in an asylum. The best solution was clearly to lock her in a room of his house with a personal caregiver (Grace Poole). During Jane Eyre, Bertha escapes her room to set Rochester’s chamber afire while he sleeps, stab and bite her visiting brother, and ruin some of Jane’s wedding clothes. After Jane learns this story and sees Bertha in the flesh, she flees Thornfield. While she is away, Bertha succeeds in burning down all of Thornfield. Rochester tries to rescue her from the flames, but she commits suicide by jumping from the roof. Rochester is disfigured by his injuries, Jane still loves him, they get married, the crazy lady is dead, happily ever after, “Reader, I married him!”, etc.

But apparently Jean Rhys saw another side of the story that Charlotte Brontë doesn’t allow Bertha to tell.

First of all: I can’t recommend the Norton Critical Edition of Wide Sargasso Sea enough (all citations in his post come from that edition). Any Renegade Word readers know I have a slight hoarding problem when it comes to Nortons (this blog’s photo are all of mine together). I’ve had more than one person tell me they didn’t like this novel, and I wonder if part of that could be due to insufficient annotations in some editions. Rhys herself was born in the Caribbean, and many references in the book refer to things I was totally unfamiliar with. They really enrich the text. For example, on the very first page, there are five footnotes in the first four paragraphs that reveal things about Caribbean dialects, the tense relations between English and French colonies, historical contexts for the name of Antoinette’s house, as well as the historical events going on in the area when the novel takes place.

Jane Eyre was written in 1847, but it takes place in an earlier era: the editor of Wide Sargasso Sea says the events in Brontë’s novel are narrated from 1818, referring to events before 1808 (31, note 7). Most novels in the 19th century actually take place 30 or more years earlier than their publication date—my English Major brain is failing as to why, but if I’m remembering correctly, it’s to take that whole “bearing no resemblance to any person living or dead” thing to “even if this novel did bear that resemblance chances are most people still alive don’t remember/care anymore.” Of course, some of the novels where I remember going over this point were placed purposefully in the Napoleonic era to veil any commentary on contemporary political climates.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys changes the timeline so that her novel aligns with the Emancipation Act of 1833, which outlawed slavery in Britain and its colonies. Antoinette and her family are Creole—white people who are of European descent, but not members of European society. The transition out of slavery allowed men like Rochester’s father to come in from abroad and buy land for cheap . Here’s a footnote that explains it well:

The emancipation legislation imposed upon newly freed slaves a so-called apprenticeship period. Their former masters were required to provide apprentice laborers with food, clothing, housing, and medical care or to give land on which apprentices could cultivate their own produce during their “free time.” Apprentice laborers were not free to chose their “employers” or to negotiate their wages. The apprenticeship was, in fact, a new form of slavery under the jurisdiction of special magistrates paid by the government, and the punishments for alleged infractions were severe, at times more so than under slavery…. English entrepreneurs…came to the West Indies to take advantage of the depressed sugar market and to buy the estates and plantations being sold cheaply after emancipation. (15, note 7)

The reader sees episodes of Antoinette’s life and it is not an easy one. Her widowed mother, Annette, is ostracized by the other few Creoles because she is from a French colony (Martinique). Her brother, Pierre, is developmentally delayed. Creoles in the Caribbean were greatly outnumbered. After Emancipation, Rhys makes it clear that the Cosway family lives in danger of starvation or being killed by a mob. Annette marries Mr. Mason, one of the new Englishmen come to profit off the losses of the Creole class, in order to survive. Annette does go insane, but only after the family’s house is burned by a mob, resulting in Pierre’s death.

I’ve kind of shot my wad on exposition in this post. It’s a little hard to talk about the bulk of this text: it reads as dream-like in many ways and it’s so short and I’m convinced I missed a lot of important points. What I hope to have done is to begin to demonstrate how Rhys fleshes out properly the tragic history of “Bertha Mason” (called “Bertha” only by her husband, even though she hates it). Rhys also beautifully demonstrates the same kinds of tensions at work in the colonial, post-Emancipation West Indies: Antoinette’s family have been displaced from their position in the social hierarchy, and she and her mother find themselves caught between the societies of the colonized and of the colonizers, and at the mercy of white Englishmen who don’t understand the West Indian world they try to control.

The criticism presented in the Norton goes into greater depth on many aspects of this novel, such as its parallels with Jane Eyre, race, postcolonialism, etc. I will get to my bottom line: this novel made me miss college because it is teeming with complexity. And on a more personal note, it made me incredibly sad. My heart broke for Antoinette on almost every page. I even pitied Rochester when the narrative swerved into his perspective (a little bit; he was still kind of a jerk). I found the prose powerful and haunting. I felt deeply and I learned a lot from this novel. I left this book feeling more aware of the world than before, like Rhys had done a beautiful job of busting open the underpinnings of Jane Eyre so that any re-reading will be colored by Rhys’s work.

So I’m sorry this review doesn’t make very much sense. It took me forever to write and I had a million things to say, but I’m not really sure about any of them anymore. So…go read Wide Sargasso Sea and let’s talk about it.

Next time: the sadness continues with Wuthering Heights.

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