At the risk of driving away some of my readership, I must make a confession. The first time that I read Jane Eyre left me feeling slightly underwhelmed. I found that I couldn’t get into the characters very well, and I absolutely couldn’t stand Mr. Rochester. The one character that did completely fascinate me in Jane Eyre was Bertha, “the mad woman in the attic.” Sadly, she is the character that has the least amount of time in the novel. She was insane, driven to a point beyond even being human. As I was reading, I wanted to know her background. What led her to this deplorable state? What kind of person was she when Rochester married her? Thankfully, the answers to these questions arrive nearly a century later in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Set in the Caribbean where the author grew up, this prequel finally gives readers a background to Rochester’s first wife, a woman who falls victim to both her Creole upbringing and her oppressive marriage.
Wide Sargasso Sea is set in Jamaica in the early nineteenth century. Part one is narrated by Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress who finds that she never truly fits in with the world around her. She has a sad childhood with a mother who is not there in more ways than one. As a Creole whose family were slave owners, Antoinette struggles to fit in with any group. She feels like an outcast to both the white Europeans and the Jamaicans. Rhys does an excellent job of creating this sense of gloom and despair, which works well given the tropical setting of the novel. It also provides a brilliant contrast to the dark and claustrophobic setting of Jane Eyre. The is a brilliantly written book with an exotic setting that often feels more like poetry than an actual novel. Antoinette is a free spirit who finds herself arranged into a marriage as the first part comes to a close.
The second part of the novel is narrated by Rochester, although he is never actually named in the book. His marriage to Antoinette is one of societal and financial convenience. Although Rochester is initially entranced by his new wife, he quickly becomes fearful of her as he hears rumors about her past, some which he later learns to be true from Antoinette himself. I never liked the character of Rochester when I was introduced to him in Jane Eyre, and now I have some actual good reasons for this. His cold and rigid nature never seems to match well with the passionate and free-spirited Antoinette. In the course of this novel, he cheats on Antoinette with a servant girl, is emotionally abusive, and insists on renaming his wife “Bertha.”
The final part of the novel is also the shortest as we are now relocated to Rochester manor in England. Antoinette/Bertha has fully succumbed to her madness and is now truly the “mad woman in the attic.” While Wide Sargasso Sea is a quick read, Rhys truly makes Antoinette’s transformation into Bertha very believable.
I enjoyed this novel immensely as it explored issues of both racial inequality as well as power relations in marriage. Wide Sargasso Sea works as a postcolonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. Now that the character of Bertha has been fleshed out for me, I’m willing to give Jane Eyre another try.
“There is always another side, always.”