“There is always another side, always”: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

On the heels of my Brontë reading extravaganza, I finally picked up Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and pushed through the sad animal deaths in the beginning chapters. And am I ever glad that I did. The book is a beautiful, complicated wonder.

It tells the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife (Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre), the iconic “madwoman in the attic.” Published in 1966 (119 years after Brontë’s novel), Wide Sargasso Sea is a reimagining of Bertha and a reckoning with the way Jane Eyre others and dehumanizes her — she is described in Brontë’s novel as beastlike, maniacal, inherently bad and yet also implicated in her own badness. Bertha is never given a voice in Jane Eyre.

Jean Rhys changed that. Born in 1890 in the Caribbean island of Dominica, Rhys was the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a third-generation white Creole mother. During this time, “Creole” was a term used to describe anyone born on the island, no matter if their ancestry was African or European. Rhys was raised and schooled in Dominica until she was 16, at which point she was sent to England to live with an aunt.

By all accounts she hated England and never felt at home there. It is understandable that she would identify with the character of Bertha Mason and want to push back against Brontë’s colonial, degrading tropes. When interviewed by Elizabeth Vreeland for The Paris Review in 1979, she said:

When I read Jane Eyre as a child, I thought, why should she think Creole women are lunatics and all that?  What a shame to make Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I’d write the story as it might really have been.  She seemed such a poor ghost.  I thought I’d try to write her a life.”

—Jean Rhys
A copy of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys sits in a sunbeam in front of tropical plants.
Penguin Books 1997 edition

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha Mason is reinvented as Antoinette Cosway. Named for her widowed mother Annette, Antoinette’s story is told through her childhood, adolescence, marriage to Mr. Rochester (unnamed in this book), and eventual relocation to England and incarceration in Thornfield Hall.

The book is a fragmented, haunting experience that does a beautiful job of evoking both interior and exterior landscapes with spare and precise prose. Antoinette is a character who we get to know inside and out — she feels deeply, she observes carefully, and, significantly, she fears all the right things. But her prescience doesn’t matter in the end. That we know how her story ends makes reading this book all the more tragic.

I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think, ‘It’s better than people.’ Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin — once I saw a snake. All better than people.

Better. Better, better than people.

Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I was somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer.

I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.”

Wide Sargasso Sea

Now, 175 years after Jane Eyre was published, the enduring question about this character remains: Was she mad when she was locked in the attic, or did being locked in the attic cause her to go mad?

Rhys paints a portrait of Antoinette that has trauma at its heart. At the novel’s beginning, she is living a precarious existence with her mother Annette and her disabled younger brother Pierre. It is post-emancipation Jamaica, and they are a white family who has made their fortune from slavery and sugar plantations. As slave owners, they are reviled by the Black population. As Creoles, they are reviled by the white population. They fit in nowhere, and have nowhere to turn. The stunning first sentences, as Dr. Erica L. Johnson points out in her conversation with Vanessa Zoltan, brilliantly telegraph this tension:

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.”

Wide Sargasso Sea

Antoinette’s story is one in which she loses her beloved home, which is burned to the ground by a group of angry locals. During the fire she runs to Tia, her only friend: “I will live with Tia and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri. Not to go. Not.” But Tia strikes her in the face with a jagged rock and there is no way for Antoinette to escape this loss. Pierre dies that night, and Annette, consumed by anger and grief, is taken away to “rest” and “get well.” When Antoinette visits, her mother literally flings her away. This is a child who has lost everything.

Following a few years in the safety of a sympathetic convent school, Antoinette is removed by her stepfather Mr. Mason and given in marriage to an English gentleman. Neither are certain of this marriage, but it is a transaction that Antoinette cannot refuse.

The early days of their marriage are full of sensual pleasures and a growing affection for one another, mirrored by Antoinette’s love of their home (that had once belonged to her mother) and Rochester’s gradual letting go of his misgivings. While they are clearly from different worlds and struggle to understand one another, they are also building a tentative bridge.

A beautiful, dark-haired woman in the foreground has her head turned and is looking down. A man in a dark suit is behind her and out of focus.
Still image from the 2006 BBC adaptation of Wide Sargasso Sea

So, what changes? Things go downhill after Rochester receives a letter of “warning” from a man claiming to be the illegitimate son of Antoinette’s father. The letter warns Rochester that his wife comes from a long line of madness, that her mother is locked up, and that this madness will surely out.

And while this letter and Rochester’s subsequent meeting with the letter-writer are a catalyst for his changed behaviour to her, it would be disingenuous to pretend that it changed everything. Seeds of doubt had always been there — in a troubling colonial way, Rochester already viewed his wife, their servants (including Christophine, a Black woman who had been Antoinette’s nanny and with whom she has a close relationship), and the very landscape, with its heat and its colour and its fragrances, as suspect. The letter only gives his vague fears of the otherness of his new home and wife a more concrete shape. In this new light, he perceives himself as having been bewitched.

Almost overnight, he turns cruel. He rejects his wife physically and emotionally. Realizing that Antoinette has been named for her “madwoman” of a mother, he abruptly refuses to use her name and instead calls her Bertha, her middle name. It is heartbreaking to see this woman, with her history of traumatic loss and rejection, have teetered so close to finding home and family—and then to have it tumble out of her grasp. Rochester’s cruelty and his casual assumed authority over her very self is enraging.

Names matter, like when he wouldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out of the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking-glass.”

— Wide Sargasso Sea

I’ll admit that this has changed the way I read Jane Eyre. On the On Eyre podcast that inspired this deep dive into the Brontës and nudged me to pick this book up again, the host Vanessa mentions that it is a pet peeve of hers when people get upset with Jane Eyre‘s Rochester for things that Wide Sargasso Sea‘s Rochester did. Guilty as charged. I don’t know that I’ll ever truly be able to separate them, and for that I think Jean Rhys deserves a lot of kudos.

In the end, as we all know, Antoinette is taken to England and locked in the attic at Thornfield Hall. The third and final section of this book is devastating. Antoinette is confused — is she on a boat to England? What has happened? And how much time has passed? She shivers with the constant cold, and she has lapses in memory. The room she is kept in is dark, the only windows small and too high for her to see out of. She waits for Rochester to come so that she can make things right. But he never comes.

Reader, I, too would go mad after 10 years of this.

There is so much more to say about this book. There are complications around Jean Rhys’s own portrayal of Black Creole people, the practice of Obeah, and questions around appropriation. There are discussions needed about mental health and trauma and how these things are represented. There are conversations to be had around slavery and colonialism. And there is much, much more to be said about the ways in which Wide Sargasso Sea maps against Jane Eyre. For these conversations and more, I will point you towards the anthologies Wide Sargasso Sea at 50 and Jean Rhys: Twenty-First Century Approaches, as well as the previously mentioned episode of On Eyre, and Literate Podcast’s episode on this book.

In closing, I would like to draw your attention to the striking and on point title: Wide Sargasso Sea.

The Sargasso Sea is, unusually, bordered by four ocean currents and has no shores. It is notoriously difficult to navigate, due to the four currents that surround it creating a clockwise-circulating system of currents. It is also the ocean that separates the Caribbean from England.

Well played, Jean Rhys.

Jean Rhys, circa 1920s.
Jean Rhys, circa 1979. Photo credit: Teresa Chilton

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