Monday 5 July 2010

Wide Sargasso Sea

'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys has been in the TBR pile for some time now. For anyone not familiar with the premise of the book it is the story of the first Mrs Rochester, the mad woman in the attic, from Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre'. In that book she is a shadowy, somewhat threatening presence, who sparks the dramatic denouement, but we don't know anything about how she came to be there. 'Wide Sargasso Sea' recasts her as Antoinette, a vibrant beautiful young woman who's troubled isolated childhood combines with the disruption of an arranged marriage to Rochester upsets the precarious balance of her sense of reality.

The first part of the story is told by Antoinette and is her childhood, living an isolated life with her somewhat disturbed mother and disabled brother on the beautiful estate at Coulibri on Martinique. Her only consolation is Christophine, a loyal servant who has cared for her since infancy, and who has stayed with the family through their descent into poverty and neglect. Her story is coloured by the political situation which is based on it being set in the early 19th century, immediately after the emancipation of the slaves, and the fact that her father was a slave owner. The perfect Caribbean atmosphere is marred by the sense of distrust and uncertainty in the relations between the white former slave owners, the former slaves and local population, it's as if nobody knows how to behave any more. It gives Antoinette a sense of dislocation, not feeling as if she belongs there any more, but not knowing where she does belong. Her mother who has drifted into mental illness since being widowed, pulls herself together and marries again to Mr Mason, but it does not solve all their problems as she hoped.

"In some ways it was better before he came though he'd rescued us from poverty and misery. 'Only just in time too.' The black people did not hate us quite so much when we were poor. We were white but we had not escaped and soon we would be dead for we had no money left. What was there to hate?
Now it had started up again and worse than before, my mother knows but she can't make him believe it. I wish I could tell him that out here is not at all like English people think it is." (p.16)

The rising tension comes eventually to a confrontation which ends in their escape from their home as it is burnt to the ground. Antoinette finishes her story while still young, living with her Aunt and attending a convent school.

The second part is related (without any preamble) by Rochester in the immediate aftermath of their wedding. We have no idea of how they came to know each other nor how the wedding was arranged. Following the apparent death of her mother, Antoinette has been left wealthy from the estate of Mr Mason and this match has been arranged, passing, as was the law at the time, all of her wealth to her new husband. Things seem to start off reasonably well but their relationship is undermined by interference from a 'half-brother' (an illegitimate son of Mr Mason) who is trying to blackmail Rochester and destroy the relationship. He plants a seed of doubt in Rochester about Antoinette's mental health, and her family history, and it is almost as if it is his suspicions and subsequent withdrawal from her that drives her over the edge.

In the third part she is forcibly taken to England and imprisoned at Rochester's house, and being cared for by Grace Poole. Her descent into madness is exacerbated by her isolation and loss of identity. Rochester inexplicably renames her Bertha, further dislocating her from her past, until she eventually dreams of her own death by fire and on awakening she realises that this will be her only means of escape.

The whole book is pure atmosphere, the descriptions of the island and their decaying home, Antoinette's dreams and imaginings, the slightly creepy background presence of Christophine. It is very much a story of it's time, containing all the troubles of the post-slavery world and the powerless position of women. It is the story of the destruction of a woman, how she could do nothing to protect herself, that she did not even think she could help herself. Rochester is like a fish out of water living in the Caribbean, and his sense of alienation adds to his lack of trust in his wife and accepting the rumours and accusations against her. All in all the social, political and environmental factors all weighed against there ever being a future for them.

It is rare for a writer to tackle such an objective; to take a minor character, but at the same time a significant player, in a renown story and make her real. To imagine for us the world in which she lived, and that made her what she was, and to take us on her journey, that lead to her untimely and tragic end. I have not read Jane Eyre, though I am familiar with the story from TV dramatisations, and after reading this I think that I will read it in a whole different light and view the dark and brooding Mr Rochester a little less sympathetically.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for your review Martine. this has been on my TBR pile for some time, you've whetted my appetite, so I'll take it on holiday with me!


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