Skip to main content

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Cover image © Penguin Modern Classics.

It’s hard to believe that a book could anger me quite a much as Wide Sargasso Sea did. My anger may well be completely unreasonable, or indeed it may be borne of the exact frustration that Jean Rhys wanted a reader to feel.

The novella commences not long after the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act has come into effect in the British colony of Jamaica and follows the life of a young white Creole heiress, Antoinette, from childhood into adulthood. The story is supposed to be that of the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

As the novella begins, in the faded colonial plantation estate of Coulibri, the sense of a world already falling apart is overwhelming. Our narrator draws attention to the decaying grandeur early on, notably focusing on her mother’s horse: “I saw her horse lying down under the frangipani tree… he was not sick, he was dead and his eyes were black with flies.”

Being caught between the haughtiness of European society and the animosity of the black community, and with the added trauma of an arson at the family home and the subsequent death of her brother, the narrator’s mother, Anette, descends to madness.

Following the demise of her mother, Antoinette ends up in a convent school whilst her step-father Mr Mason returns to England. Eventually, the only form of escape for Antoinette is through a marriage, arranged by the son of her step-father for a fee of £30,000, to the weak, miserable and yellow-bellied Rochester.

Rochester takes over the narrative in the second part of the novel as the newly-married couple retreat to an estate house on an anonymous Windward Island for their honeymoon. This narrative takeover is indicative of his overpowering of Antoinette’s character as he ‘renames’ her Bertha, thus replacing her exotic name with one closer to the grey mediocrity with which he is familiar.

His narrative magnificently fails to appreciate or capture the true lushness and wilderness of the vibrant Caribbean island setting. Instead he sees it only as a form of tropical prison that he cannot comprehend and over which he cannot exert any authority – circumstances which ultimately lead him to destroying Antoinette.

This novella is beautifully written and portrays a Caribbean setting that Rhys’ both feels a part of and yet feels alienated from. On a personal level, the character of Rochester grates and jars – as one would presume Rhys wanted him to. His lack of adventurous spirit in his new surroundings is typical of the old colonial attitudes and for a modern reader, one who enjoys embracing the different textures and fabrics of life around the world, he serves as the embodiment of everything I abhor in human nature.

The miserable conclusion to this novella does little to placate my anger and I feel that Rochester’s robbery of Antoinette’s heritage, joie de vivre and soul is a grave travesty of poetic justice. With that said, this is a novella that everyone with an interest in the imperial and post-colonial world should read.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Wild Nights: Camping Britain's Extremes by Phoebe Smith

Cover image © Shutterstock. It’s been nearly two years that I’ve been talking about my desire to go wild camping. So far I’ve bored my parents intermittently and failed to convince any friends to join me. I chanced on an article on the Guardian’s website by Phoebe Smith and realised that wild camping was an actual thing that people actually did. In my own inimitable style, I set about obsessively researching experts, equipment, locations and guides – a process that is still continuing at the time of writing. With this in mind, I looked up Smith’s book Wild Nights: Camping Britain's Extremes . In the book, one of a few that she has penned on the subject of wild camping, she documents her own personal challenge to sleep in a number of extreme places: furthest points of the compass on the UK mainland, the highest/lowest places above/below sea level and the remotest in terms of distance from any roads. Her story begins in Glencoul, Scotland with what should be a bea

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

Cover image © Harper Collins. I’m definitely a fan of Agatha Christie. There’s something about her work that makes me think of Sunday afternoons and Christmas. That said, I’m much more of a Poirot fan than I am of the Marple stories, but, being in the Caribbean, and needing a ‘small island’ mystery, I turned to A Caribbean Mystery  (1964) . Set on the fictional island of St. Honoré, Miss Marple has been bought a holiday in the Caribbean by her nephew to help her recuperate from some recent ill health. At first she seems distinctly unimpressed with her location where there is nothing to engage her interest; “Lovely and warm, yes — and so good for her rheumatism — and beautiful scenery, though perhaps — a little monotonous?” To pass the time, as one could expect at an exclusive resort like the Golden Palm Hotel, gossip is an easy method. When retired Major Palgrave starts spinning one of his yarns about a murder, he stops abruptly, just as he is about to produce a photo o

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Cover image © Virago Press. I have often been unsure about where in the grand scheme of all things literary Maya Angelou fits. Last August, whilst considering my teaching options for AS Level literature, the decision was reached to switch from teaching Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection The World’s Wife to Angelou’s collection And Still I Rise . In the absence of the ubiquitous York Notes to provide information on the poetry, it made sense to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  not only to shed some light on the context of the poetry, but to answer a nagging question: who is Maya Angelou? Caged Bird is the 1969 autobiography of Angelou’s early years in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, in the USA, through to the age of seventeen. As soon as you learn that she is living with her paternal grandmother, Momma, you realise that her family history is bound to be laced with complexities and confusion. A recurrent theme is the pervading sense of abandonment felt by Maya