Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea
Edited by Hilary Jenkins
Penguin Books 2001 (1966)
“Great mistake to go by looks, one way or another.”
— Aunt Cora to Antoinette, Part One Wide Sargasso Sea
As a study in disintegration Wide Sargasso Sea is relentless. The main protagonist is forced to watch her mother gradually fall apart, and then she herself follows a similar journey. In fact it’s hard to name a single character who doesn’t follow a downward spiral. There have been many analyses of this mid 20th-century novel that distinguish it as feminist, post-colonialist and postmodern, and describe it as a prequel or an example of ‘writing back’ or rewriting (it overlaps the chronology of its literary inspiration). Many make reference to ‘the madwoman in the attic’, thus bringing the most marginalised figure in Jane Eyre stage centre and turning Wide Sargasso Sea a reconfiguring of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel. No doubt all these things are true, but anything I add to these observations would be superfluous and, anyway, beyond my capabilities.
So I shall instead focus on just three points — madness, fire and poison — and put down my thoughts on how they inexorably lead to the disintegration of the significant actors in this tragedy.
It wasn’t till the 60s and later that a sea change in respect of women’s mental health was beginning to be noted, in which the catch-all term ‘hysteria’ (encompassing anything from anxiety and distress to post-natal depression and even so-called sexual incontinence) and its often barbaric treatment started to be regarded in medical circles as both inadequate and inappropriate. Jean Rhys’ historical novel, playing out as the reign of William IV give way to Queen Victoria, naturally reflects its period setting; but it also portrays contemporary establishment attitudes to women, attitudes which sadly still prevail in large sections of society.
Consider Annette Cosway, Martinique-born widow of a former slave-owner from Jamaica. After the Slave Emancipation Act of 1833 her mansion Coulibri near Spanish Town, Jamaica was shunned by the estate’s former slaves, slowly succumbing to a shabby desolation. A re-marriage to recently arrived Englishman Mr Mason improves neither relations nor conditions; as a Martinique Creole she is not only despised by the local Afro-Caribbean population but also looked down at by the overseas English. As well as sensing this alienation she neglects her daughter Antoinette in favour of her sickly son Pierre. The tragedy that tips things over the edge for Annette leads to her much greater degradation when she is sent away to a new confinement by her second husband. Alienation, witnessing violence and death, harsh treatment and imprisonment — is it any wonder she becomes a ‘hysteric’?
Then we come to Annette’s daughter Antoinette, who narrates a large part of this story. She regards herself as neglected or ignored by a succession of individuals — her mother, her childhood friend Tia, her stepfather — then trifled with first by her dead stepfather’s son and then the man she is married to. She in turn loses status, close family, the places she loves, the love of the man she married, even her name. She is in effect incarcerated — as were so many women regarded as ‘mad’ until recent times — by feeling besieged at Coulibri, sent to a convent school, trapped in a loveless marriage at the estate of Granbois near Massacre in Dominica and then confined out of sight in Thornfield Hall. Is it any marvel that she too goes mad? Most telling is her observation, “I am not used to happiness. It makes me afraid.” What outlet then is there for her from fear?
Two colours dominate the novel. Greenery is Annette’s husband overwhelming impression of the West Indies, particularly the forest surrounding the honeymoon mansion of Granbois (“great wood”, no doubt named from its environs). He first finds it magical and intoxicating, then oppressive and threatening. The other colour is red, and that is associated with Annette. Red is the colour of the fire in Part One, of the robin’s breast in a song and of the wine in Part Two, of ants and roses and red earth which after it becomes mud doesn’t dry quickly; it is alluded to in the name for strong coffee (‘bull’s blood’) and referenced in the wound Antoinette gets when a stone hits her and in the red curtains at Thornfield in Part Three. And all are pre-echoes of the fire that we know is to come in Jane Eyre, the fire that is evoked in the concluding paragraphs of Wide Sargasso Sea. As a symbol of all-consuming passion in all its forms it’s hard to better it.
The third element that leaps out at me — out of so many in this tale — is poison. The poison prepared by Christophine that marks the tipping point in the novel, when the Rochester character ceases to care for his bride, and the metaphorical poisons that sicken people’s minds, such as rumour, resentment, prejudice and lies.
For a tale set in the 19th century in the Caribbean we may expect many of the stereotypical tropes that speak of its exoticism to Europeans, and one is these is obeah, or folk magic. If, when we read of love potions, we may think of Tristan and Isolde and the tragedy that ensues, then the potion that is administered just over two-thirds of the way through Wide Sargasso Sea is of this nature: nothing good can come of it.
When Antoinette’s aunt tells her it’s a great mistake to go by looks then, like a great many other statements in these pages, it holds a significance greater than its immediate context suggests. In Jean Rhys’ most famous work nothing is as it seems on the surface.
This Penguin student edition is authoritatively introduced and annotated by Hilary Jenkins, though I left most of the discussion for after I had read the novel. I was pleased to discover I was not the only one to consider that, as well as Sargasso prefiguring Jane Eyre, the life of Antoinette Cosway — the Bertha Mason of the Bronte novel — provided many parallels to the Bronte character’s experiences.