Book review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Penguin Books, Film and TV Tie-in edition, 1993 )
‘Without the instinct, the passion might so easily be either sentimental or sensational; without the passion, the instinct might lead to only formal beauty; together they result in original art, at the same time exquisite and deeply disturbing’ – Frances Wyndham
Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress, the product of an inbred, decadent, expatriate community, a sensitive girl at once beguiled and repelled by the lush Jamaican landscape.
Soon after her marriage to Rochester rumours of madness in the Cosway family poison his mind against her; Antoinette’s beautiful face turns ‘blank hating moonstruck’ … and the action narrows, as inexorably as Greek tragedy, towards the attic in Thornfield Hall, the grim Grace Poole and the suicidal holocaust of leaping flames.
After twenty-seven years’ silence Jean Rhys made a sensational literary reappearance with Wide Sargasso Sea, her story of the first Mrs Rochester, the mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It took her nine years to write it, and in its tragic power, psychological truth and magnificent poetic vision it stands out as one of the great novels of our time.
The book is split into three parts. The first one is the childhood of future Mad Wife in the Attic from her perspective, the second is from the perspective of a newly-wed Edward Rochester and, in a short and confusing part, by Bertha, and the third one is by Bertha at Thornfield. Why is part two confusing? Because it’s all told by Rochester, and then it jumps and you don’t immediately realise that the perspective has shifted, and once you’re used to it, it switches back to Rochester.
I was going to base this review on the first reading of this book, but as it’s rather short (only ~150 pages), I thought I’d have another go. The first time I read it, I hated it, more or less, and was left with a feeling of being a bit annoyed that the author had completely failed to understand Rochester. I even said (aloud!) “Well, I disagree” after I had finished it.
On a second read, I’m still not agreeing with her, but I enjoyed the book more. Having read a bunch of books about writing now, I can appreciate the book in a sort of aesthetical way. It’s well-written, the characters have very distinct voices and the use of senses drags you in and gives such a rich colour and flavour that you partially forget that you’re reading a book. Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1894 and was half-Welsh and half-Creole, so she knows what she’s talking about with regards to the Caribbean, and you can tell. It can only have been written by someone who knows what it’s like there. Now, if only the characters weren’t supposed to be Charlotte Brontë’s …
That’s the biggest problem. She’s referred to as Antoinette, not Bertha; even though she’s “Bertha Antoinetta Mason” in Brontë’s original. In this country, your first name, your given name, is the one that goes first. That’s why I confused the hell out of everyone here and had the order of my names officially re-arranged when I filed for a surname change after getting married. In Sweden we tend to put names in the order they sound best together and can specify to the authorities which one we’re officially using. In the UK, it’s always (to my knowledge) the first one that they use, regardless of how many names you have or in which order they sound best. Hence why “Bertha Antoinetta Mason” logically should be “Bertha Mason”, not “Antoinetta Mason”. Yes, they’re in Jamaica, but Charlotte Brontë was a Yorkshire lass, and while it’s pretty safe to say she was well-educated for her time, how clued up on naming conventions on the other side of the world would a person be? And, let’s not forget, a bunch of the people on Jamaica at the time would’ve been British imports anyway. In the book, Bertha is Antoinetta but calls herself Antoinette, because that’s what her mother was called. Bertha is a name she doesn’t like and that Rochester insists on calling her because IT’S HER BLOODY NAME!
Richard Mason is only her stepbrother. Her mother was married to a guy called Cosway, who apparently fell insane and died. The mother then remarried Mr Mason, father of Richard, and she started losing her mind after her son died (the “complete dumb idiot” Rochester refers to in the original). I think part two even mentions Mr Mason having died before the marriage or at least close to it – there is some way that he seems to be removed from the whole set-up. And who did the original say arranged the wedding? Mr Mason and Richard with old Mr Rochester and Edward’s older brother Rowland. The Masons were as in on it as the Rochesters, eager to be rid of her before the Rochesters would realise the mistake they had made.
Then there’s a point where young Antoinette is at school, and she is going to embroider “1839” on something. I thought Jane Eyre was set around 1838? I’m also left with the impression that she’s taken out of school at the age of 17 in order to get married off. Rochester is around 21 or 22 at the time, and Bertha is a good five years his senior (her age being something the Masons had lied to him about before the wedding). Rhys claims Antoinette’s mother died the year before the marriage – the original says Rochester first thought the woman was dead but he came to find out that she wasn’t, “she was only mad, and shut up in a lunatic asylum.”
Also, Brontë is clear to point out that he wasn’t allowed to be alone with her before the marriage and they hardly spoke two words to each other. That way, Edward never had a chance to get to know her beforehand, because if he had he would never have married her. They had nothing in common and he found her a woman with infantile intellect and he couldn’t keep a conversation with her even if he tried.
Seriously, if you read Wide Sargasso Sea, compare what it says with chapter 24 of Jane Eyre. “Yes, but that’s Rochester’s story, he might be lying or trying to make himself look better and Jean Rhys is saying what really happened!” Yeah, well, then you can póg mo thóin, quite frankly (I have lipoedema so it’s large, you can’t miss it). There would be no reason for Rochester to perpetuate the lie about Bertha to Jane at that point. He’s trying to come clean. He knows he can’t get away with lying to her anymore, so he needs to tell her the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Rochester is essentially Charlotte’s dream version of her beloved Belgian Monsieur Heger, so she as the author would’ve needed to make the character sympathetic for her own sake, as much as for the reader and her story’s heroine. We already know Rochester is flawed; Jane knows it and so does Charlotte, but to have him lie when he bares his dark past and lays his heart at Jane’s feet in order to reconcile with her … no, I don’t buy it. He already knows the price of lying to her, and the only way he can hope to get her back is by finally being honest and let her know what happened.
Then there’s the incident with one of the servants which I’m deeply sceptical about. It just seems rather implausible, all things considered. While not unheard of at the time and perhaps not even uncommon, I just don’t think it’s his style. Sure enough, he went off gallivanting around Europe in search for happiness, but that wasn’t until he had put Bertha on the third floor at Thornfield Hall and tried to repress his memories of her. As a newly-wed? I doubt it. He was actually besotted with her when he married her, and while that changed once he came to realise who she really was, I don’t think he’d be at that point just yet.
If you’re going to write a spin-off of something, at least have the decency to stick to the facts as they’ve been laid out in the original. Make up things that aren’t in the original as much as you want, but the bits that are in the original, please get them right. From what I’ve gathered, Jean Rhys had a fixation on Mrs Rochester so trying to apologise for her behaviour by giving her a backstory that doesn’t quite add up to Brontë’s original is understandable. If the characters hadn’t been from Jane Eyre, the book would’ve been excellent. As for now, I think it’s okay. It’s a good book, but she’s got the events and main characters wrong.
It’s my firm belief that Bertha Mason wasn’t half as interesting a person as Jean Rhys makes her out to be. Yes, Bertha is a victim of sorts – being married off to someone who doesn’t know the true you just so that your family can breathe a sigh of relief and hope it’ll be too late to do anything about it by the time the groom notices something’s wrong – but she’s not a victim in the way that Rhys wants her to be. Bertha was mentally ill, not just some high-spirited girl who didn’t like the husband she’d been married off to. I don’t think she was ever really fully aware of what happened, and while that is sad in itself, I think Rhys just tried a bit too hard to make her sympathetic when she quite clearly was never meant to be anything other than a woman whose mental illness was bad to begin with but quickly got worse. (It would be interesting to try and diagnose her, as it happens, but I’ll save that for a rainy day.)
On the plus side, at least the book is well-written and not at all as wildly inaccurate as that Tennant book. I’ve actually started to keep notes because all the inaccuracies started to get a bit difficult to keep track of. Up to and including chapter eight (progress is slow as I keep having to put it aside, mutter and swear for a bit and then read a bit of the original to keep me from going insane), I’ve got two whole pages of things that make me howl in purist agony. Tennant has obviously read and loved Wide Sargasso Sea, but I think the last time she read Jane Eyre was decades ago, if at all. Adèle getting chummy with Bertha is just the tip of the atrocious iceberg …
A cautious 2 out of 5 voodoo curses.