The prequel to Jane Eyre is often hailed a classic of post-colonial literature: does it live up to the name?
Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Modern Classics) is the story of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s unfortunate wife who ends up locked in the attic at Thornfield, a ghostly presence tormenting Jane – and Rochester – throughout the book. According to the student edition (an excellent version for anyone interested in studying this text) Jean Rhys disliked the way that Charlotte Bronte had demonised her character from the West Indies, and thought that her presentation suggested racism endemic in the British Empire. To an extent, I can see that – the fact that this madwoman in the attic, Jane’s unhinged double, is from the West Indies does suggest a discomfort with otherness and being different. On the other hand, it is perhaps because Bertha is from the West Indies that Rochester is able to marry her and then treat her the way he does; she has no protection, especially once she reaches England.
Rhys’s story is complex – for a relatively short novella, she employs a lot that readers and writers would find interesting. Told over three perspectives – Bertha, Rochester and Grace Poole – Rhys explores how Bertha (renamed as Antoinette by Rhys) and Rochester get married, and then Bertha’s gradual mental decline. I found it very confusing; Antoinette’s narrative is incomplete, hiding ideas, emotions and events, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because Antoinette herself is unaware full of what she is telling us.
I think, as with Jack Maggs, I didn’t enjoy it as much because it came with that weight of expectation alongside it. While I empathise with Rhys’s suggestion of colonial racism, I found that her portrayal of Bertha Mason didn’t really solve that problem. I did find it interesting that Rochester renames her – and silly as it sounds, I never really thought before about the fact that she is referred to as Mason, rather than Rochester. It’s still not her own name, which Rhys gives her, but it is not Rochester’s either, and I do find that interesting.
The Rochester Rhys sees is not quite the one I was expecting, and this again is perhaps because Rhys is exploring why he becomes the way he is in Jane Eyre I didn’t really get from this an explanation of why he married, or why he then locked her away – which I think is more sympathetically dealt with in Jane Eyre, but again I suppose that is the point. He was cruel at times, which tallies with Bronte’s Rochester – he can be quite callous and play games which have potential to hurt those involved. He doesn’t demonstrate the emotion or empathy I would have liked; I always felt that Bronte’s Rochester was damaged because he had been tricked and trapped in a marriage that went disastrously wrong, but I did think that ultimately he was doing the best he could for Bertha within the confines of what he would do. Locking her away was not, to my mind, intended as punishment; he says himself he could have sent her far worse places and keeping her in the family home, looked after, is actually quite a responsible thing to do.
Overall, I quite enjoyed the idea of Wide Sargasso Sea – I always like to imagine what has caused a character to be how they are when we meet them, and what happens next. I found myself being distracted by the structure – great for those studying A Level Victorian literature but not so great for getting involved in character! – and didn’t really get as much of a sense of character development as I would have liked. Interesting, but probably not one to return to over and over as with Jane Eyre.