Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (4/5)

The back says: Set against the lush backdrop of 1830s Jamaica, Jean Rhys’s powerful, haunting story was inspired by her fascination with the first Mrs Rochester, the mad wife of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

If Antoinette Cosway, a spirited Creole heiress, could have foreseen the terrible future that awaited her, she would not have married the young Englishman. Initially drawn to her beauty and sensuality, he becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to reach into her soul. He forces Antoinette to conform to his rigid Victorian ideas, unaware that in taking away her identity he is destroying of himself as well as pushing her towards madness.

I say: More than anything I fell for the language and atmosphere in this. There was this underlying feeling of menace that drew me in, even though it sometimes faded into that level of obvious foreboding that I generally dislike. The prose was frequently beautiful and it somehow felt like moving around in a haze, like I was standing right next to these characters and silently observing them.

That’s what I loved.

What I didn’t love so much was being left with the feeling of not really getting a gist of who the characters were. They felt like faint sketches, and I’m not sure if this is what Rhys intended, but they felt sort of flat. I was so intrigued by their present that I wanted more of their history – or at least enough to make me understand their choices properly. Maybe this is my not so subtle way of saying that I didn’t buy the reasons given and otherwise implied, but it just felt like there had to be more to Antoinette’s mother and I wish that had been explored.

The same goes for the marriage between Rochester and Antoinette. Nothing about it made any type of sense. Well, actually it did make sense, so I guess I just didn’t like the sense it made.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and maybe that aspect of the novel enriches it, but since I read Jane Eyre in my teens and don’t remember a jot about it, I’ll have to pick it again to see.

I have to say that I kept swaying between greatly disliking Rochester and pitying him, so it’ll be interesting to see what Brontë did with him and where she took him. The same goes for Antoinette; she went from having my sympathies and even admiration to just being pathetic. In a way I suppose that was her destiny, or so everyone in the novel would have one believe, but there was something about her state of mind at the end of the novel that was unconvincing.

A 4/5 because of the prose, the setting, the element of voodoo, and the emotions it invoked.


  1. I've always been intrigued by this novel. I read one of Rhys' other books in college and didn't love it. The Jane Eyre aspect of this makes me want to read it.

  2. I wasn't aware of the Jane Eyre aspect until after I had read it and was doing a bit of research. I've stopped reading the synopsis of the classics that are part of my challenge because I don't want to get any preconceived notions about them. I even think I saw a copy of Jane Eyre when I finally installed a bookshelf in my bedroom. And by "installed" I mean I lined up all the black covers and then got bored and just crammed everything in where it would fit. I really need to do an inventory.

  3. Oooh, great review. I have always meant to read this book. Despite having only read it once (and in my teens like yourself) Jane Eyre remains a favourite. I think this will be my classic book for January.

    As much as I loved Jane Eyre I was never a huge fan of Rochester either. At least not always. He was more than a little selfish.

  4. I was discussing this with a co-worker today. She loves Jane Eyre and was going to pick this up as well. It'll be interesting to hear what people who've read (and love) Jane Eyre think of Wide Sargasso Sea. I'll have a different view when I read it again because now I already have an opinion of Rochester and Antoinette (or Bertha as he called her - and she's called in Jane Eyre). I actually own a copy of Jane Eyre (that I didn't even know), so maybe in a about 5 or so books.