Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Publication date: 1966
The novel acts as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and imagines the life of the first Mrs Rochester: the ‘madwoman in the attic’. It traces her story from her childhood in the Caribbean through to her marriage, its deterioration and her subsequent experiences in England.
Where did I get hold of the book?
This one was a birthday present.
I’ve also made the decision that, from next year, I won’t continue to list the source of my books, as I’m not sure this necessarily adds to the value of the blog posts. They’re either from the university library or the public library, are a present or already on my bookshelves, or I’ve had to buy them especially. I’m not sure there’s much more to say!
- Find the book in a library near you (worldwide).
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
Having never read Jane Eyre, I obviously picked up intriguing hints about it from this account of the first Mrs Rochester. I guess most people coming to Wide Sargasso Sea will have read Bronte’s novel previously, and will perhaps see Antoinette’s story from an alternative perspective; but this is my first encounter with her, and so when I come to read Jane Eyre (as I will inevitably have to do at some point), I imagine I’ll view the characters of Jane and Rochester rather differently.
In factual terms, I also learned a certain amount (as always!) about the historical period in which the book is set: that is, shortly after the formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire. We see the effect the Slavery Abolition Act had on Caribbean inhabitants of all races, mainly through the eyes of a Creole woman but also through those of an ‘outsider’, Rochester.
Funnily enough, the book I picked up to read after this one was Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair: totally by chance, I promise, unless my subconscious was having a laugh. And it’s thanks to Jean Rhys’s novel that I was able to recognise one of the chapter headings, ‘Thornfield Hall’, as Rochester’s home in England. I’m sure more connections will strike me as I read on.
How did it make me see the world differently?
It reminded me of the reactions I’d had to key characters in two previous Book Diaries reads: the first Mrs de Winter in Rebecca and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If you’ve read those two posts, you’ll recall that I didn’t particularly like either of those characters. At the time I thought this was perhaps because I am an introverted book lover and they are both extroverted party girls; it’s natural that I should stick up for the quiet and the downtrodden against the wild, loud, confident ones who seem to rule the Earth.
However, this novel challenged those feelings. I felt hugely sympathetic towards Antoinette Cosway – and yet at the end I realised that, in the story of Jane Eyre, she must play the part of the wild first wife in much the same way as Rebecca does in du Maurier’s novel. (At least, I have to assume so.) Why, then did I feel so much understanding towards her when I couldn’t towards the other?
The most obvious explanation is that, in Wide Sargasso Sea, we are being told the story from her own perspective, not that of a man or a (biased) successor. Rochester (who is unnamed in this novel) does take up the narration in Part Two, but this is only after we have heard Antoinette describe her own experiences, and seen at first hand how she has been affected and treated by those around her. Rather than feel sympathy for Rochester, therefore, we may view his attitude to her as a further exacerbation of her troubles; although he does appear to have been deceived by his family and friends regarding the marriage, this does not absolve him of all responsibility for the situation.
I’ve been reminded of the valuable lesson that we should not judge another person until we have heard their story from their own lips.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
As I read the novel, I found myself utterly absorbed by the gorgeous verbal pictures Rhys paints of the Caribbean. The vast majority of the book is set in either Jamaica or Dominica, and as the islands are Antoinette’s home, and she feels a strong attachment to them, the overwhelming impression I receive is one of joy, beauty and belonging. The heat, the aromas, the landscape… all contribute to an image of a place that I find myself thinking it would be a delight to visit.
And so I’ve found a potential focus for my next big holiday. Having just come back from a three-week road trip, it’s going to be some time before we can afford to go off on another long-haul jaunt – but the Caribbean has just found its way to the top of my list for when we do make those plans.
Given that I need to write an update in three months’ time to say whether or not I achieved this change (which clearly isn’t going to be possible), I will commit to at least starting up a holiday fund: putting away a certain amount of money each month towards this specific goal. It may be small, but it’s a step in the right direction: and that’s really what the Book Diaries are all about.
A musical interlude
I’m not entirely happy with this song choice, as it captures Rochester’s view of Antoinette rather than her true nature. However, the vibe of the track fits the overall mood of the book – hot and sultry – so I’m sticking with it.
It’s Black Magic Woman by Santana.