In your novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), you seem to be holding up a distorting mirror to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): if we look at this mirror for too long, illusion and reality will gradually lose their once sharp outlines; madness will be less a departure than a never-ending journey back home, like a failed attempt at moving within entrapment.
Set in Jamaica shortly after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire, the novel reimagines the life of Antoinette Cosway (later named Bertha Antoinette Mason), Charlotte Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic”. The novel is divided into three parts which represent turning-points in the protagonist’s life. We follow Antoinette from her youth in Jamaica to her arranged marriage to an English gentleman, and her final descent into madness.
In the first part, Antoinette describes her childhood in Coulibri, Jamaica. Together with her widowed mother, her disabled brother and the family’s Dominican servant, Christophine, our protagonist lives in a derelict estate that had known better days before. After the death of Antoinette’s father, a former slave owner, the family now lives in poverty, ostracised by the locals, and surrounded by increasing hostility. Growing resentment, hot weather, lush nature, and her mother’s grief and mental instability are elements that imbue our protagonist’s narrative with an increasing sense of entrapment, loneliness, and doom.
When Antoinette’s mother marries Mr. Mason, a wealthy Englishman newly arrived in Jamaica, the family is granted a brief respite. However, Mr. Mason’s failure to grasp the social tensions in the colony will soon bring about a tragedy that foreshadows a very dramatic scene in Jane Eyre. This event will lead Antoinette’s mother towards complete mental breakdown, and she will be incarcerated and labelled as a ‘mad woman’.
We then jump to some years later, when, much like the character of Jane Eyre, Antoinette is an orphan and a pariah. She has recently undergone an arranged marriage with an English man who desperately needs to get his hands on her inheritance. Her remaining relatives are happy enough to get rid of her – we don’t exactly know why, but our protagonist’s infatuation for her second cousin, a descendant of slaves, may or may not have prompted her family to marry her off to a perfectly respectable English man. In the second part, alternating between Antoinette’s and her husband’s points of view, we follow our protagonist to her old family house in Granbois, Dominica, where she is gradually seduced by her new husband during their honeymoon. As the relationship’s power dynamics slowly shifts from Antoinette to Rochester, the sense of entrapment and impending doom starts to loom once again over the narrative.
As Antoinette’s relatives begin to poison her husband with disturbing rumours, Rochester grows increasingly hostile against our protagonist. Distraught by her husband’s coldness, Antoinette becomes desperate, and slowly begins her descent into madness. Her husband renames her “Bertha”, forcing her into sharing with her mother not only her name, but her destiny. Trapped into an abusive marriage and caught in the label of ‘lunatic’, Antoinette is torn from her home and forced to relocate to England, where she ends up incarcerated.
The third part begins at this point, told from our protagonist’s perspective. Confined to the attic, inside a locked room in an English mansion, Antoinette is lonely, hidden from the world, and increasingly deranged. She doesn’t know where she is nor why she is kept there. Her mind wanders through memories and dreams, to the point where we find difficult to extricate one from the other. Antoinette, who had always been an outsider – as a “a white creole,” she was neither Jamaican nor European (“I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all”), has now lost her home, her money and her identity; she is as trapped in her marriage as she is in Rochester’s attic. “There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us – hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?”
While away in the Caribbean, Rochester had become increasingly frustrated with his inability to comprehend that exotic place and his sensuous, unsubmissive, unruly wife; he had become frustrated with her way of never quite fitting the labels he was used to applying to women. After all, if she fails to fit in, she must be mad. Rather than giving up his sense of superiority by renouncing labels which showed themselves to be insufficient, Rochester choses to cast off the woman who does not fit them properly. If he cannot understand her, she must be the one in the wrong, right? His ignorance about her is just another manifestation of his complete ignorance of everything surrounding him in this exotic place: “‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else.’”
Back in England, Rochester has thoroughly succeeded in transforming Antoinette into someone more manageable; someone he can own and lock away, like a piece of furniture kept in the attic; something he can forget, throw away, or later trade for a new possession. By now, he has succeeded in confining his wife into a label which perfectly fits his convenience. By renaming her Bertha, Rochester tries to reassert control over his wife and erase everything that makes him uncomfortable. Exerting his power to label and rename is this man’s particular kind of sorcery: “Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s Obeah too.” By renaming our protagonist, he can shut down and lock away everything he fears and cannot comprehend.
I particularly liked the way you shifted between Antoinette’s and Rochester’s points of view in the second part, depriving our protagonist of voice in the precise moment when she is trapped into marriage and later subdued into passion. Furthermore, the sections narrated in his voice are almost comical in the way they show his complete ignorance – and his insistent denial that he might possibly be the one in the wrong. Seeing Antoinette through Rochester’s eyes is illuminating of all the ways he will never be able to see her properly. We cannot help but feel that he is the mad character in the story, not her. If it is true that he had the power to rename Antoinette, it is also true that you vindicate her by omitting his name throughout your Wide Sargasso Sea.
If, in Jane Eyre, ‘Bertha’ was a grunting animal Rochester had the power to lock away, label and explain, in your novel she reclaims her agency and her real name: Antoinette shows us she has a story to tell; she shows us we were quite mistaken about her. That is why we are afraid of (and fascinated by) her story, because it is something else. You peel away the 19th century British assumptions on race, female sexuality and mental illness which are embodied in Rochester’s power to justify keeping Bertha locked away due to madness caused by mixed-heritage. Your Rochester is so comically oblivious of his own ignorance, that those assumptions are shown to be just as dumb as his narrative voice. Like Antoinette, you want to make us see what is behind the cardboard world of English gentry and Victorian sensibilities: “I open the door and walk into their world. It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it.”
Your novel is deeply intertwined with Jane Eyre, but not overtly so. Events are mirrored distortions of elements in Brontë’s book, but they could also be read independently, because you allow some space for ambiguity. Is Rochester’s blindness in Jane Eyre caused by Christophine’s curse in Wide Sargasso Sea? Or is it just a coincidence? Does Antoinette’s decision to set the house on fire have anything to do with what had happened in her childhood? In which sense could we call it a choice? Wasn’t she hallucinating? What is real, and what is illusory? What was remembered, and what was invented? Are those instances intertwined?
If we’ve read Jane Eyre, we know what will ensue: it will be less a fire than a shattering of illusions. The respectable facade of the English gentry will burn like a world made of cardboard paper. We cannot help but fear that Jane will be caught up in these illusions, eventually; that she will be subdued, and destroyed. In a sense, she is already as much trapped as Antoinette.
The writing style is the main strength of the book for me. Your novel is rich with symbolism, intertextuality, and metaphors. Your descriptions of landscape and atmosphere make everything intense to the point of oppression: the colours are blinding; the smells are overpowering; the heat weighs on us, suffocating; the landscape is both beautiful and haunting, foreshadowing the fate Antoinette is already trapped in. Doom and decay are looming all around, like unstoppable forces: the excessively sweet smell of rotting flowers, “mixed with the fresh living smell”; a dead horse whose eyes are black with buzzing flies; a burning parrot who cannot fly; orchids that flourish out of reach, so as not to be touched; a couple of ruined houses, gradually invaded by nature; a garden gone wild under the green light (“The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it”). Both the excess of sensory imagery and the use of stream of consciousness contribute to the narrative’s progressive hallucinatory tone, as if, like your characters, we were moving around in a haze, in-between dreams and reality. Furthermore, I like your voice: angry, tough, fierce, at times raw, other times rampant: you want us to feel burned, too.
You take from Jane Eyre as much as you give back to it. Once we’ve crossed your Wide Sargasso Sea, we can never look at Brontë’s book the same way. It is forever changed, as if it was the cardboard world Antoinette wanted to set on fire. You challenge the assumptions and prejudices Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic” was based on. You confront us in our readings of it. You set everything on fire, and then you jump.
“If I was bound for hell, let it be hell. No more false heavens. No more damned magic. You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing.” ― Jean Rhys,
“When I was out on the battlements it was cool and I could hardly hear them. I sat there quietly. I don’t know how long I sat. Then I turned round and saw the sky. It was red and all my life was in it.”― Jean Rhys,
“I can remember every second of that morning, if I shut my eyes I can see the deep blue colour of the sky and the mango leaves, the pink and red hibiscus, the yellow handkerchief she wore around her head, tied in the Martinique fashion with the sharp points in front, but now I see everything still, fixed for ever like the colours in a stained-glass window. Only the clouds move. It was wrapped in a leaf, what she had given me, and I felt it cool and smooth against my skin.” ― Jean Rhys,
“There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us – hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?” ― Jean Rhys,
“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.” ― Jean Rhys,
About the book
- W. W. Norton Company, 2016, 171 p. Goodreads
- Penguin Modern Classics, 2011, 152 p. Goodreads
- Penguin Clothbound Classics, 2016, 160 p. Goodreads
- First published 1966
- My rating: 5 stars
- There is a 1993 film adaptation of the book (IMDb), directed by John Duigan, as well as a 2006 British television adaptation (IMDb), directed by Brendan Maher.
- I reread this book in November for The Classics Club & my local Book club.