Jean Rhys's reputation was made upon publication of this passionate and heartbreaking novel, in which she brings into light one of fiction's most mysterious characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. A sensual and protected young woman, Antoinette Cosway grows up in the lush, natural world of the Caribbean. She is sold into marriage to the coldhearted and prideful Rochester, who succumbs to his need for money and his lust. Yet he will make her pay for her ancestors' sins of slaveholding, excessive drinking and nihilistic despair by enslaving her as a prisoner in his bleak British home. In this bestselling novel, Rhys portrays a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.
~ back cover 1982 Norton paperback edition
So you've recently read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and you think to yourself, "I really want to know more about the story behind Rochester's first missus!" Well, aren't you in luck! Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea takes a stab at what that story might have been. Taking the reader away from all they know & remember at Thornfield Hall, Rhys has us visit 1830s Jamaica (Dominica), introducing us to pre-Mrs. Rochester Antoinette Cosway (aka "madwoman in the attic").
Young Antoinette grows up loving the lush climate of her native land, the warmth, the abundance of creature comforts... but some years into her youth, things turn ugly. There is much tension around the family, what with Antoinette's parents being slaveholders. The time of Emancipation rolls around, bringing several riots and all-around domestic upheavals to the area. In one instance, even one of Antoinette's own friends attacks her! Fearful that the employees will turn on the family, Antoinette's mother, Annette, makes the choice to burn the house down. Annette becomes mentally unstable after the fire and Antoinette is enrolled in a convent school. This pretty much makes up Part 1 of the novel.
"I am not used to happiness... it makes me afraid."
~ Antoinette Cosway
Part 2 is where we first meet Rochester and hear of how Antoinette came to be sold into marriage to him. (Part 3 of the novel is basically her life as the first Mrs. Rochester, though the novel periodically rotates between these three periods of her life as the story progresses). Rochester and his new Mrs. seem to get along pretty well in the beginning but the choice to return to the Cosway family estate as their first residence after marriage proves problematic. The whole place seems to make Rochester increasingly restless, but it doesn't seem to be the sole source of his unease. Any number of things appear to trigger his dark moods. Still, outwardly Rochester admits to liking the natural environment of Jamaica (even if he is giving off that "great place to visit but wouldn't want to live there" attitude). Meanwhile, there are momentary glimpses into Antoinette's character that suggest a true genetic struggle with mental illness of some sort, but there's a sadness to it, as behind her words and mannerisms, she gives off something of a sad, confused, scared little girl trying to figure out what happened to her life. Where did her sunlight go?
Antoinette's half-brother, Daniel (same dad, different moms), writes a discreet letter to Rochester warning him of the "mad" family he's so casually shackled himself to. Rochester shrugs the dark warning off at first, but as the story moves along, we start to see that that letter actually did quite successfully leave its mark on his mind, gradually driving him into his own unique madness. He becomes consumed with anger and righteousness until he comes to the decision to imprison Antoinette as punishment for her family's history with slave trading.
I'd say Rhys does a respectable job staying true to Eyre's Rochester, at least to a point. He still carries a certain level of charm, still somewhat child-like with his petulant moods. But this story takes him to an even darker place. Rhys forces the air of mystique around Antoinette a little too hard at times, making the reading experience annoying at times with the over-reliance on cryptic behavior or speech.
The few pages that make up Part 3 take the reader back to Eyre's setting, first getting impressions from Grace Poole, attendant to Antoinette all that time she was locked up in the tower. The very last pages are given over to Antoinette once again to offer her final say before we bring things back to Eyre's scene of the fire.
It's a decent prequel to a beloved classic. Not earth-shattering, but entertaining in the ideas it presents. I noticed in the list of discussion questions at the very end, one opens with "In Jane Eyre, the madwoman in the attic is a very unsympathetic character...". I can't help but disagree with that. Sure, she comes off as insane when we first meet her in Bronte's book, but even so, I myself wouldn't go so far as to say I found her unsympathetic. Isn't that why we are compelled to pick up Rhys's book in the first place, because we were left wondering what drove Rochester to have her secreted away all those years? He gives Jane a much sanitized version of events, or so we readers suspect... which is why so many classic lit. lovers can't help but have this on their TBRs at some point in their reading lives.
As humans, it unnerves us to think that criminal behavior is entirely senseless, without root. There is a small measure of comfort in being able to say, "Yes, this person was undoubtedly mad, but look at what they were driven to... they just snapped... it's tragic!" That need to have everything compartmentalized, explained, rationalized... Even in the worst of stories, we don't want to think of souls coming into this life with a purely demonic makeup... sometimes we can't help but feel the need to understand, rehabilitate, counsel. Even in Eyre's story, there was something to "the madwoman" that left me thinking some earlier version of her had been deeply wronged to have ended up so... seeing how Rhys wrote a whole novel on this premise, looks like I wasn't the only one feeling a sad question mark around such an "unsympathetic" character!