Her grand attempt to tell what she felt was the story of Jane Eyre's 'madwoman in the attic', Bertha Rochester, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is edited with an introduction and notes by Angela Smith in Penguin Classics. 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. Jean Rhys (1894-1979) was born in Dominica. Coming to England aged 16, she drifted into various jobs before moving to Paris, where she began writing and was 'discovered' by Ford Madox Ford. Her novels, often portraying women as underdogs out to exploit their sexualities, were ahead of their time and only modestly successful. From 1939 (when Good Morning, Midnight was written) onwards she lived reclusively, and was largely forgotten when she made a sensational comeback with her account of Jane Eyre's Bertha Rochester, Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966. If you enjoyed Wide Sargasso Sea, you might like Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, also available in Penguin Classics. '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
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About the Author
Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1894. After arriving in England aged sixteen, she became a chorus girl and drifted between different jobs before moving to Paris, where she started to write in the late 1920s. She published a story collection and four novels, after which she disappeared from view and lived reclusively for many years. In 1966 she made a sensational comeback with her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, written in difficult circumstances over a long period. Rhys died in 1979.
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Modern Classics Wide Sargasso Sea based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
This novel was conceived as a prequel to Jane Eyre; it fleshes out and gives voice to Rochester's first wife¿here known as Antoinette Cosway¿describing her earlier years, and shows us how she ended being the madwoman in the attic. The story begins in the Jamaica of the post-emancipation act, with young Antoinette describing the difficulties her mother, brother and herself experience as poor white Creoles. Antoinette's father, a former slave owner and skirt-chasing alcoholic, has passed away, leaving his beautiful young second wife the Colibri estate, which is slowly falling to pieces. Shunned by the rich white population and despised by the blacks who call them "white niggers" and "white cockroaches" the threat from their neighbours is very real, and Antoinette has every reason to feel her safety compromised as tensions are mounting. The estate's only horse has recently been poisoned and her mother retreats into mental breakdown, all but ignoring her daughter. Things briefly seem like they might improve when the rich Mr Mason marries her mother, but he ignores his wife's pleas to leave the island, believing her to exaggerate the danger of their situation, until the family is violently driven from Colibri by an angry mob. The second part of the book is told by Antoinette's new husband, the un-named Mr Rochester. Their honeymoon starts off with great passion, but Rochester describes his contempt for the island, it's people and for his wife from the beginning. He retreats from her abruptly, even refusing to call her by her own name (he calls her Bertha instead) and Antoinette falls into despair. Rhys's Rochester is despicable man; clearly stating he's married the young woman for her money, he's quick to believe malicious gossip about her and then write her off as mad when she is distraught by his attitude. This is a short but very rich novel which brims with passion, exoticism, and despair of course, since we know all too well the terrible fate that awaits this sensitive young woman. The perfect follow-up to a reading of Jane Eyre, yet at the same time holds up very well as a great little novel in it's own right.
This book came with a lot of hype for me, and I can see how its not complete success in living up to said hype is in ways a function of its historical moment and mine. Like, the Empire has been writing back for forty years, and the counterhegemonic shock of a subaltern challenge to Jane Eyre in 1966, when we were just getting into Enoch Powell and "send our coloured cousins home" territory, can't really be reduplicated in 2010. And in the sense that this is less insistent and more lovely than Things Fall Apart, or Fanon or whoever, it almost belongs to a later era of postcolonial literature--not the empire writing back a rebuke so much as a couple of confused kids, Antoinette Cosway and Edward Rochester, trying to figure out where they are and why they're implicated in one another and what it all means. There's your postcolonial situation, and Rochester's disorientation in luscious, fragrant Jamaica is as vivid and not less sympathetic (if certainly less terrible) than Antoinette's bewilderment in the "cardboard house" at Thornfield, unsure if she's reached England or not.
And Antionette gets her voice, even if she still burns for it.Poco aside, this is of course an important postmodern novel in at least one other respect, the inverting of the canonical story. In that sense, again, I imagine the impact just had to be more in the sixties, when we hadn't been running every story we've got through the grinder since forever. And here, again, Rhys's light touch was probably the right touch (as opposed to, say, having a vicious harridan named Miss Eyre drive Antoinette off the battlements in the last scene). As I said once in another context, iconoclasts can't be visionaries--this is confusing steps one and two of the creation of new art--but visionaries, of whom Rhys is certainly one, also can't really be Apollonians (shall we call them?)--the postmodern reworlding of prepostmodern texts will of course step up to a whole new level of spohistication, but Wide Sargasso Sea is the radical breakthrough of getting it on the page.
And there is something humanely modernist about the book, as befits the aged ex-flapper who wrote it. In Antoinette and Edward and Grace Pool and even Christophine and Baptiste, we see sympathetic characters, powerfully alienated, with ugly, impossible demons, taking sides and looking out for themselves in a crumbling world (and the historical world of the crumbled slaver aristocracy in the Indies is one I haven't so much thought about in any serious way before). We see them hurt each other irremediably out of fear and spite, but also disorientation and fatigue and the feeling that none of this is really real. We like them, even when they're bad (and Rochester, let me be clear, is much worse than Antoinette ever ever is, and this is also a resolutely feminist text), and wonder how things could have been different. And that's writing. And Antoinette gets her voice, even if she still has to burn for it.
This book got better - the beginning was all a bit muddled and confused, but got more exciting in the second half as things started to happen...
`Jane Eyre¿ is probably one of my favourite novels of all time, and when a family member lent me this prequel, I was quick to devour it. My expectations were not high, however. I was excited about the `Jane Eyre¿ BBC adaptation, and when it turned out to be outstanding and very loyal to its source material, I was keen to watch the prequel that they advertised afterwards. I was not as impressed. I found it dull and could not really connect with Bertha.As it turns out, after reading this novella, the BBC adaptation was as loyal as the `Jane Eyre¿ adaptation. It was sexy, colourful, brooding, exotic and menacing, and whilst I did not appreciate this at the time, I do after reading this. Unfortunately, this loyalty means the shortcomings of the TV adaptation are also true of this novella. It is quite difficult to feel for the heroine, like we are clearly supposed to, and the author opts to make Rochester (who, interestingly, is never named) out to be a villain, and her madness is entirely his fault. It is a plausible exploration that aligns itself with Victorian gender politics; when women were sent to lunatic asylums for as little as depression, and then sent mad inside of them. Actually, it is highly relevant, and it gives the reader a completely different view of Bertha¿s story. This is a double edged sword though. As interesting as it is, and perhaps right, in many respects, it is pretty difficult to grasp the characterisation of Rochester in this manner for all the people that adored his character in `Jane Eyre¿.Besides the character of Bertha, and the fact that this novella is a prequel, it can firmly stand on its own. Not, perhaps, as a story or something to be enjoyed, but for the thematics and how the language complements them. The narration is riddled with imagery, foreshadowing and sheer elegance. It deals with gender politics, Victorian martial laws, colonialism, race, and of course, psychology. Having said that, I would recommend reading `Jane Eyre¿ before embarking on this, as much of it would be lost if you have not read `Jane Eyre¿ first. It also may soil your view on Rochester for `Jane Eyre¿ and give away plot details which would ruin the novel for you considerably.If you have read `Jane Eyre¿, I would not say that this is vital, but if you are curious about Bertha¿s character this novella fleshes her out a bit, though there is still something about her that is lacking. I felt more sympathy for her in `Jane Eyre¿ without all of this background to be honest.