Jean Rhys thought of many possible titles for this, her most famous novel. ‘The First Mrs Rochester’ was one version - clearly marking the novel’s inspiration by the untold stories of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. ‘Le Revenant’ was another title considered: a zombie, a creature from the dead. Yet in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Rhys found a title to do justice to her rich and haunting book. Evocative, exotic, deep - the title is heavy with the book’s promise.
Wide Sargasso Sea may be famous for it’s ‘writing back’ to Jane Eyre, but it is a fine and rich work in its own right. Beginning in 1830s Jamaica, it draws a picture of Antoinette Cosway’s childhood, engulfed by the green forests and lost in a society where her Creole heritage distances her from both the island’s white and black cultures. More poignantly, Antoinette’s own mother also seems lost to her. First in caring for her sick brother, later to a new husband, and finally to grief-laden madness. In this tumult, the magic - or obeah - of the island is perfectly at home; another mystery in a childhood of confusion.
As the novel threads its own figures in with the Bronte’s characters, and Antoinette is married to a never-named husband (yet who readers of Jane Eyre will recognise as Mr Rochester), we see two lives collide, just as the two cultures do, and the two authors of the two tales do. It is this duality that helps weave many of the novel’s haunting spells. Not just binary oppositions - white meets black, man meets woman - but a host of parallels and possibilities. The novel suddenly has another narrative voice introduced, Antoinette is given another name by her husband, and we see that the marriage is not simply the domination of one figure by another, but the result of two people both driven by differing expediencies. It seems that Antoinette, or Bertha as her husband calls her, has lost her name, her voice, and now as doubts are cast over her wits, it seems she must lose her country too. As the story is carried to England and the Thornfield House of Jane Eyre, it might be read as a novel with a fixed ending - a text whose conclusion is already dictated by the canonical words of Bronte’s novel. But just as Wide Sargasso Sea has often been called a post-colonial work, so too it can be seen as post-modern, refusing to confirm its ending, hinting that other options fan out like a series of question marks beyond the text.
So, while raising a host of its own questions, Wide Sargasso Sea posits answers to some of the lacunae of Jane Eyre - reflecting on the notion of female identity and the vocal, mental and social spaces it exists in. But this is not a hostile book; Antoinette’s childhood has much to link it to that of the young Jane Eyre’s, and so we return to the universal heart of the story: the quality of human relationships and the mysteries packed inside that threaten to burst out - whether in love, in magic, or in madness.
‘Rhys took one of the works of genius of the 19th century and turned it inside-out to create one of the works of genius of the 20th century’ Michèle Roberts, The Times
'Andrea Ashworth's introduction unpicks the many nuances of this masterful critique of the colonial condition' Times Metro