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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.

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