Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Genre/Themes: Modern Classic, Historical Fiction, Jane Eyre, Jamaica, British Colonial Rule, Slavery, Racism, Inequality, Victorian Ideals
This book although written by a different author acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Therefore, the blurb and my review both contain spoilers for Jane Eyre. I would recommend anyone to read Jane Eyre before reading Wide Sargasso Sea.
My review for Jane Eyre can be found HERE.
Blurb from Goodreads
Prequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
Born into an oppressive, colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty, but soon after their marriage, rumours of madness in her family poison his mind against her. He forces Antoinette to conform to his rigid Victorian ideals.
I think 90s indie-pop starlet Natalie Imbruglia best sums up my feelings about Wide Sargasso Sea in her most famous song. I am ‘torn’.
Edward. MY Edward Rochester. You’ve changed…
Oh this novel is a tricky one to review and because I somehow have to figure out how it is I feel about this book as a separate entity from the source material… but Jane Eyre and my undying love for that book is just ever present in my mind.
What I loved most about Jane Eyre was the witty, sparky banter between Jane and Rochester. And obviously, I fell head over heels in love with Edward Rochester too. He was dark and brooding but damn it the man had a heart too. He had this amazing fire burning within him. And his love for Jane was EVERYTHING!!!
But he had a Bertha….
I mean who among us doesn’t have an inconvenient wife stashed away in an attic somewhere…..
Yeah I know……
But it WAS okay!! She was conveniently not of sound mind and was therefore not fit for marriage to poor Edward who was oh so cruelly tricked by family into marrying her….
Okay look I know how it sounds but when reading Jane Eyre I just didn’t care about whatever reasons were given regarding Edwards’s marriage to Bertha because I would have swallowed WHATEVER spiel Charlotte Brontë wanted to spin. I’m not proud to admit that my moral ethics flew out the window because I WANTED HIM WITH JANE!!!!
So when Bertha was conveniently removed from the picture I just happily ignored my moral compass and ate it all up! …and people think I’m a warm and fuzzy human being, yikes!!
But what if Bertha was truly the tragic heroine of Jane Eyre????
What if Edward Rochester was…. and I can’t believe I’m saying this…. A VILLAIN!!!!!!
SAY IT AIN’T SO!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And thus, this idea gives us Wide Sargasso Sea….
It follows Bertha’s life. And looks at the whole Jane Eyre story through her storyline…
And unsurprisingly enough considering what I’ve just said about my love for the relationship between Edward and Jane I didn’t like Wide Sargasso Sea. I think I was filled with so much animosity towards this book before I even began it. My heart just didn’t want anyone messing up what to me is a timeless romantic story (Jane and Rochester that is, not Rochester and Bertha!).
So, as I said before, I am torn.
Because Wide Sargasso Sea is well written. And it’s incredibly interesting. And I 100% love that it explores the racial and economic injustices that Bertha was forced to endure and therefore it truly stands on its own as a brilliant feminist piece of literature.
Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea we can see the burdens of racial inequality that besiege the character of Bertha who Rhys names as Antoinette Cosway. The novel is set in Jamaica shortly after the abolition of slavery: Bertha is a French Creole woman with slave owner ancestry and therefore she finds herself caught between the racial classes and in particular is othered by white society.
These experiences from childhood forge her identity. She is quite the loner in a way … but she’s also quite volatile. There is something, I don’t quite want to say sinister, but there is a darkness of spirit that seemingly takes her over.
But one of the difficulties I had with Wide Sargasso Sea is that it is definitely inferred that there is a history of mental instability within Antoinette’s/Bertha’s family so doesn’t that just let Edward Rochester off the hook? Because he didn’t know that she was mentally unfit for marriage? So therefore it actually wasn’t him that drove her to her insanity?
My problem with Wide Sargasso Sea is that it’s basically fan fiction. Really well written and well researched fan fiction!! And that makes it feel unoriginal. Whereas if it had been a story that featured brand new characters rather than taking pre-existing (and pre-loved) characters then I think this novel would have had a better chance of being more widely loved
Jane Eyre is itself lauded as a feminist triumph … and yes we as readers have to think about the privileged position of Charlotte Brontë, and therefore Jane, when it comes to being a white woman compared to how someone such as Bertha would have experienced life. And it certainly was convenient to make Bertha the villain of the piece for the reading audience at the time of publication due to Bertha’s different race; to the modern reader it shows the othering and racial inequality that was rife at the time.
So it is right that readers should feel bad about Bertha being hidden away up in the attic in ‘Jane Eyre‘. But to me and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, even though it tried, still didn’t feel like the feminist triumph in Bertha’s defence that it should have been because the writing just lacked heart in my opinion.
See that’s one of the great disadvantages that Wide Sargasso Sea has. It is invariably going to be compared to Jane Eyre and when it comes to both prose and storytelling Jean Rhys is no Charlotte Brontë. Wide Sargasso Sea lacked wit and emotion. Simply put, it just lacked Charlotte’s deft touch.
But my biggest gripe with Wide Sargasso Sea was how the character of Edward Rochester was depicted. To me it didn’t feel like the Edward Rochester that I met in ‘Jane Eyre‘; those wonderful quips of his were missing and he was lacking in any sort of depth as a character. To me it felt that Rhys twisted and moulded him to fit *this* story which just meant he was unrecognisable to me as Edward Rochester; the only similarity is that both characters conveniently shared the same name.
One could also argue as to why the character of Bertha should ever have been elevated to main billing. As I stated earlier Jane Eyre itself is widely considered to be a feminist masterpiece in its time. Brontë wrote a character in Jane who was entirely principled, so much so that she chose not to sacrifice her principles for love when she found out about the existence of Bertha. Jane was very much independent of thought. Always, from a young age, marching to her own drum beat.
So why then did we actually need Wide Sargasso Sea????
Should we not consign Bertha to just being an ingenious plot device simply put in place to create tension between Rochester and Jane??? To challenge Jane’s convictions? And therefore, the plot device that ultimately showed the true indomitable will of Jane! Didn’t knowledge of Bertha’s existence bring about that most immortal of lines that ‘no net ensnares me‘!!!! Sometimes side characters, are meant to be just that.
However, I think the real need for Wide Sargasso Sea is because of how it acknowledges and tackles the racial prejudices that Bertha endured during her tragic life. If Brontë had chosen to make Bertha an English born white woman then I think perhaps we could have left her be a side character as in Jane Eyre we do see how Edward Rochester took care of her as best he could. (The ableism at hiding a mentally unwell woman in an attic is a whole other topic we could unpick though.)
But I still find myself returning to that difficulty I shared at the beginning of this novel. I simply love the story of Jane Eyre and when I compare this to it it just doesn’t grab my heart in the same way.
And so this all leads me back to Natalie Imbruglia and to the lyrics of ‘Torn’:- Illusion never changed into something real.
This book just felt like one big illusion to me. A trick. Something to try to detract from the purity of the writing of Jane Eyre…
Jane Eyre is my perfect sky and I just didn’t like this torn down version of it.
Other Relevant Reading / Books I’ve Reviewed
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- Reader I Married Him: A Collection of Short Stories commissioned to celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary in 2016