With Jane Eyre on my mind, I picked Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) up on a whim at the library. I opened it one evening. I was hooked. I paused to sleep. Awoke. Opened it again. And was done.
This is easily a one-sitting read if you have the time, or don’t favour sleep in the early hours as I do. At 171 pages (in this beautiful W.W. Norton edition) it’s not a long book, but it’s not its length that made it so ‘unputdownable’.
“𝕰𝖛𝖊𝖗𝖞𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖇𝖗𝖎𝖌𝖍𝖙𝖓𝖊𝖘𝖘, 𝖔𝖗 𝖉𝖆𝖗𝖐.”
The concept of a continuation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 narrative is alluring in itself, but it is Rhys’ writing that maintains my attention. Rhys has a captivating ability to create a world simultaneously vivid and unfamiliar with such clarity. She is concise yet poetic.
This contradiction at Rhys’ essence is epitomised by the genre of the novel: Caribbean Gothic. How can you depict an atmosphere with dreary gloomth at its core under the unforgiving West Indian sun? How can you talk of ghosts and hauntings, madness and despair, with the rum flowing on the salty sea breeze? With spectacular effect, actually! Rhys depicts a world stifling and deadly, protected by an ocean that invariably must be crossed…
The narrative, in three parts, is told firstly and lastly from the perspective of Antoinette, a young girl then young woman whose home is an island beautiful and irresistibly wild. But wilderness untamed can be frightening, and Antoinette’s life is filled with hostility. At the hands of her mother, her neighbours, her husband, safety perpetually eludes her.
“𝕿𝖍𝖆𝖙 𝖎𝖘 𝖜𝖍𝖞 𝖞𝖔𝖚 𝖆𝖗𝖊 𝖆𝖋𝖗𝖆𝖎𝖉 𝖔𝖋 𝖎𝖙, 𝖇𝖊𝖈𝖆𝖚𝖘𝖊 𝖎𝖙 𝖎𝖘 𝖘𝖔𝖒𝖊𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖊𝖑𝖘𝖊.”
The middle part of Wide Sargasso Sea is narrated, predominantly, by Antoinettes’ new English husband. He views Antoinette, born in the Caribbean to an English plantation-owning father and Creole mother from Martinique, as of the island. In comparison, the young man feels unbearably foreign, viewing himself and his wife with increasing disparity, despite her pale skin. Through his eyes the hostility of the natural landscape is brought to horrific light. The sea which Antoinette views as protection, he looks to for escape. In a way that mirrors the bleak and unforgiving coastline of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), Rhys’ atmosphere is undeniably gothic, despite the tropical climate and geography.
To discuss any further I have to reveal plot points, so consider this your spoiler warning. If you’re yet to read the novel, head back indoors; I’m about to wander barefoot through the trees…
Though initially unrecognisable as Charlotte Brontë’s character, the novel’s blurb confirms that Antoinette is the very same madwoman that Jane Eyre encounters at Thornfield. It is no secret that Rhys’ novel is the invention of her backstory, and for the young, victimised Antoinette to evolve into a pyromaniac named Bertha a transformation is necessitated.
A lot is packed into the pages of this novel, but three main tropes stood out most vividly, to me:
Flowers, Names, & Mirrors.
We meet Antoinette in childhood. Her father is long gone. Her mother is disinterested and suffering. Her disabled brother is deteriorating. Her only dress and only friend disappear, simultaneously, in an instant. She is outcast from society due to her parentage. The native black islanders eschew her for her father’s former occupation. The rich white residents reject her for her mother’s untamed demeanour.
Christophine, a Martinique Obeah woman received as a wedding gift from Antoinette’s father to her mother (when human ownership was normalised, in cruel colonialist times), provides guidance and solace. She serves as a housekeeper, and a mother figure to Antoinette, and despite her social position is consciously the freest woman in the entire narrative. Like Antoinette she is ‘other’ in Jamaica, where the story begins. It is she who encourages the female protagonist to be independent, and escape from her husband. It is also she who connects Antoinette most deeply to the Caribbean, teaching her traditions native to this region of the globe.
“𝕬𝖑𝖑 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖋𝖑𝖔𝖜𝖊𝖗𝖘 𝖎𝖓 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖜𝖔𝖗𝖑𝖉 𝖜𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖎𝖓 𝖔𝖚𝖗 𝖌𝖆𝖗𝖉𝖊𝖓.”
This conflict is at the essence of Antoinette – her isolation in and deep connection to the only land she has even known. And yet, in childhood and adulthood alike she demonstrates a fierce positivity and mental strength. When describing her impoverished upbringing, she does not complain but instead recalls the beauty of the flowers flourishing on the grounds of the crumbling Coulibri Estate.
In contrast, her husband struggles with the ecology of the island of Dominica where they honeymoon. He bitterly recalls likening his beautiful young wife to a tropical flower; he comes to believe instead that both she and the land are evil and wild… that he is a victim, maliciously blinded by their beauty.
Every morning they receive their breakfast, delivered to them in their marital bed. Antoinette’s husband describes the serving tray:
“𝕿𝖍𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖜𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖙𝖜𝖔 𝖕𝖎𝖓𝖐 𝖗𝖔𝖘𝖊𝖘 […] 𝖔𝖓𝖊 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖋𝖚𝖑𝖑 𝖇𝖗𝖔𝖜𝖓 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖆𝖘 𝕴 𝖙𝖔𝖚𝖈𝖍𝖊𝖉 𝖎𝖙 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖕𝖊𝖙𝖆𝖑’𝖘 𝖉𝖗𝖔𝖕𝖕𝖊𝖉.”
Before marriage and roses, Antoinette is called a zombi by a cruel young girl outside the convent school. According to Caribbean beliefs, a “zombi is a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead.” Interestingly, as Antoinette’s husband discovers in a book, zombis respond well to sacrifices, particularly flowers.
Whilst the idea of Antoinette as something strange – something ‘other’ – grows in the mind of her husband (himself new and foreign), the instances of flowers only serve to depict the young woman in a positive light. The breakfast rose petals drop only at the man’s touch. It is a reflection of his influence, and foreshadows future events…
“𝕹𝖆𝖒𝖊𝖘 𝖒𝖆𝖙𝖙𝖊𝖗, 𝖑𝖎𝖐𝖊 𝖜𝖍𝖊𝖓 𝖍𝖊 𝖜𝖔𝖚𝖑𝖉𝖓’𝖙 𝖈𝖆𝖑𝖑 𝖒𝖊 𝕬𝖓𝖙𝖔𝖎𝖓𝖊𝖙𝖙𝖊, 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝕴 𝖘𝖆𝖜 𝕬𝖓𝖙𝖔𝖎𝖓𝖊𝖙𝖙𝖊 𝖉𝖗𝖎𝖋𝖙𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖔𝖚𝖙 𝖔𝖋 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖜𝖎𝖓𝖉𝖔𝖜…”
Throughout their relationship, the Englishman attempts to distance his wife from his growing negative impression of her, which develops out of the rumours surrounding her mother. He refers to her as a “marionette”, exposing his desire to bend her to his will. He renames her “Bertha”, exposing his inability to accept her for who she is. He calls her “My lunatic. My mad girl,” exposing his own fraying sanity. And all the while Antoinette, and Rhys, refuse to name him, even once.
Knowing Antoinette’s future fate in the hands of Brontë’s Edward Fairfax Rochester of Thornfield Hall, the descent into madness of Rhys’ currently unnamed male narrator is particularly poignant. It demonstrates the terrifying power which some people held over others in the context of both novels, based upon uncontrollable factors (such as race and gender) determined before an individual’s birth. Whilst her husband is struggling to name and tame her, Antoinette bravely continues in her own journey to understand herself.
“[𝕿]𝖍𝖆𝖙 𝖌𝖎𝖗𝖑 𝖜𝖍𝖔 𝖑𝖎𝖛𝖊𝖘 𝖎𝖓 𝖍𝖊𝖗 𝖔𝖜𝖓 𝖉𝖆𝖗𝖐𝖓𝖊𝖘𝖘 […] 𝕾𝖍𝖊’𝖘 𝖘𝖙𝖎𝖑𝖑 𝖋𝖎𝖊𝖗𝖈𝖊.”
Despite the hardships that she faces in childhood and adolescence, due directly to the varying prejudices of those around her, Antoinette does maintain her sanity. And her positivity. Whilst her husband reveals his weakness and paranoia in confessing “very little tenderness for her, [as] a stranger to [him], a stranger who did not think or feel as [he] did,” even in childhood, Antoinette displays a mature empathy… and saddening longing for acceptance. Following violent abuse from her childhood friend, Tia, Antoinette recalls: “We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.”
In one of many vulnerable, revealing insights that Antoinette offers to her husband, she recalls sharing her mirror with, and perceiving her reflection as equal to, rats. In another lonely moment, she attempts to kiss her reflection, to bestow a little love upon herself. Throughout her isolated life, Antoinette is on a journey of self-discovery. She is told that she is many things, bitterly, but she does not give up hope, and does not stop searching. In presuming her to be something that she is not, her husband forces her down a path so dark that nothing can be discovered. He takes away her name. He takes away her mirror. He leaves her wishing for death so her soul can be with the flowers.
“[𝕻]𝖚𝖙 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖘𝖆𝖉 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖓𝖌𝖘 𝖆𝖜𝖆𝖞. 𝕯𝖔𝖓’𝖙 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖓𝖐 𝖆𝖇𝖔𝖚𝖙 𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖒 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖓𝖔𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖜𝖎𝖑𝖑 𝖇𝖊 𝖘𝖕𝖔𝖎𝖑𝖊𝖉, 𝕴 𝖕𝖗𝖔𝖒𝖎𝖘𝖊 𝖞𝖔𝖚.”
In the end, Bertha may be little more than “a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or a lie.” Antoinette, however, blossoms through Rhys’ powerful addition to Brontë’s classic narrative, never to be forgotten.
This piece is part of my Gothic Psyche series. In addition to offering a politicised exploration of madness and the presumptions of Jane Eyre, Rhys also holds a mirror to society, to Brontë’s interpretation of Bertha, to colonialism. Read more on Jane Eyre here, with more on colonialism forthcoming in March’s Horrible Histories series.
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