Wide Sargasso Sea is not an ordinary novel – above all, it is a haunting of another story. Published first in 1966, it imagines the beginning of Mr. Rochester’s first marriage to Bertha Mason, here called Antoinette Cosway. Ultimately, it is a postcolonial Gothic tale concerned with the dark underside of its popular source text, Jane Eyre. Its author, Jean Rhys, was born herself in the British West Indies, where the novel takes place, to an English father and a white Creole mother. Situated at the geographical margins but belonging to the privileged white population, she depicts the racial ambiguity and insecurity of her protagonists with personal insight. Thus, Wide Sargasso Sea forces the reader to rethink the canonical representation of Rochester’s mad wife and its underlying racism.
Antoinette Cosway is the daughter of a white Creole family living in Jamaica. Her childhood home is a former sugar plantation, which, once prosperous, has crumbled since the abolition of slavery in 1838. After her family breaks apart due to her brother’s death, Antoinette is sent to a convent. When an English gentleman asks for her hand her stepfather and –brother marry her off with a handsome dowry. Antoinette and her unnamed husband (Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester) honeymoon at Granbois, an estate in the mountains, which Antoinette inherited. Her husband does not feel at home there and soon starts to grow suspicious of the servants and later of his wife. Realizing he does not love her Antoinette breaks down. Rochester decides to separate her from everything she knows and takes her away to England, where, after years of being locked in the attic, she manages to escape one night and sets fire to the house.
From the start of the story, the atmosphere is charged with unease. Underlying the beauty of the Caribbean island is menace and decay: “Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell” (Rhys 16). It is this ambiguity, something abject underneath the beauty, which repels and lures at the same time that winds through the novel in descriptions of the setting but also in the gender and race relations – the Gothic at work as a reminder of the haunting foundations of the Empire.
For example, this sense of threat affects Mr. Rochester from the moment he arrives at Granbois: “Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hill too near. And the woman is a stranger” (59). He sees it first in nature but it soon extends to the servants and his wife. He becomes obsessed with his racial paranoia and dominance over Antoinette as she grows stranger to him. In the end, he sounds almost frenetic:
If she … weeps, I’ll take her in my arms, my lunatic. She’s made but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me. Antoinette – I can be gentle too. Hide your face. Hide yourself but in my arms. You’ll soon see how gentle. My lunatic. My mad girl. (107)
Rhys’ representation of Rochester deconstructs the brooding, romantic hero of the Victorian novel, questions the trope of the mad woman, and brings to light its fundamental racism. It is not a reckoning as such – for Antoinette there will be no justice; the damage has been done – but an attempt to reveal the underlying, intertwined gender and race relations the British empire was founded on and to tell a story that has been lying dormant within one of its most famous pieces of literature for a century.
Penguin, 2000 (1966)
Review by Lena Amberge