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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

September 22, 2011 13 comments

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. 1966. 239p French title: La prisonnière des Sargasses.

Wide Sargasso Sea is known as a prelude to Jane Eyre but there’s more to it than a simple addition to Charlotte Brontë’s novel. It is a stand-alone novel anyone can read even without knowing the details of Jane Eyre.

We are in the 1830s in Jamaica. Antoinette Cosway is a young Créole, a white young woman born in Jamaica from English colonists. Her brother is retarded and her father died when she was young. The first part of the novel relates her childhood in her family’s estate and the ruin following riots with black slaves and eventually the abolition of slavery (1834). It’s a first person narrative, Antoinette is rather solitary as her family is despised by other colonists. Moreover, their estate Coulibri is on a remote place of the island. Antoinette describes the country, the atmosphere, the flowers, the exotic trees. I saw paintings by Le Douanier Rousseau. She’s a sensitive child, afraid of many things, a bit superstitious. She’s impressed by the stories that her black nanny Christophine tells her. That Christophine is an uncanny character. She was prosecuted in La Martinique for practicing voodoo. She influences Antoinette with her beliefs and stories. As Antoinette is left to herself – no governess, no proper education – nothing counterbalances Christophine’s power over her sensitive mind. Her mother has no interest in her education and she runs wild in the nearby wilderness.

Antoinette’s mother is a sort of weird, proud and beautiful woman who escapes destitution by marrying Mr. Mason. He then becomes Antoinette’s stepfather. They live together until a terrible event costs her brother his life and make them flee to Spanish Town, the capital of Jamaica. Her mother will never recover and will sink into madness. Antoinette is left in a convent, to get a little education with nuns and be safely kept. The fears and ghosts are still there. When she’s old enough, her stepfather marries her to an English gentleman she has never met before. This gentleman is never named but we know it is Mr Rochester, one of the main characters of Jane Eyre.

The second part is also a first person narrative but the voices alternate between Antoinette and her husband. They live in Antoinette’s family house. He shares his thoughts, depicts the strangeness of this new environment, the fauna, the flora, the ambivalent relationships with the black domesticity. They are all old servants of the family but he feels hostility towards him and white people in general. Everything is different from what he has always known and he struggles to adapt to the customs of this country and the presence of these unfriendly servants. She details her vision of him, their marriage, their new life together.

Antoinette and he have been thrown into this arranged marriage to satisfy their greedy families. Mr Mason needs to marry his stepdaughter to a stranger, someone who ignores the background of the family and the local gossip. The man’s father needed to marry his cadet son to a rich girl, to secure his living. They’re part of a trade. The man will do his best to adapt. He knows the marriage has been arranged for financial reasons. When a local man sends him a letter revealing the several cases of madness in his wife’s family, all his good intentions vanish. Before that letter, he could live with the idea that they had both been the victims of a trade. After that letter, he will consider that Mr Mason duped him and that he’s even more a victim than she is.

Antoinette perceives the change in her husband’s mood and attitude. She resents it as she tries to love him. She’s always been unbalanced but his rejection throws her into madness, not helped by Christophine’s toxic presence and influence. It turns to hell. Their thoughts and emotions are laid bare and we watch the implacable machine of hatred, madness and violence.

This is a multi-layered book. As a background, we have the history of Jamaica, the colonies, the riots and the conflicts between Black slaves or former slaves and white colonists. Jean Rhys was born in Jamaica and her description of the nature is gorgeous. I heard her pain and her nostalgia in this book, the same kind of feeling that is underlying in the novel by Hella S Haasse I’ve read earlier this year. It’s the particular feeling of the creole, the white person born and raised in a colony. Their childhood memories are there, they belong to this country and yet it isn’t their country. They’re foreigners in their home country in Europe and considered as foreigners in their adopted country. I’ve read that Jean Rhys needed nine years to write Wide Sargasso Sea and that it comes a long time after her other books. I suppose it was tough for her to think about Jamaica, the lost paradise of her childhood.

It is also a fantastic prelude to Jane Eyre, explaining one of its main events in a convincing manner. Charlotte Brontë’s device may seem a little artificial but it makes sense after reading Wide Sargasso Sea. It’s impressive how Jean Rhys perfectly manages to make the stories fit into each other.

I disagree with the French blurb of the book, making of Antoinette alone a victim of a cruel husband. She’s not the only victim and the English man’s hatred grows in spite of him, out of pride. The thought of being a toy in his father’s and in Mr Mason’s hands is enough to ruin all his good intentions to make the better out of the situation. It’s the story of a double imprisonment in marriage. Hence the title. The Sargasso Sea is a sea without shores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near Bermuda. It’s a place where the water is full of seaweed floating on the surface. It could be a place full of life. It isn’t. There aren’t many fish there and sailors dread that area as the winds are weak and the boats get stuck. It’s the perfect metaphor for Antoinette and her husband’s story. They’re stuck in Jamaica, in a nest of lies, of violence and suspicion. The vegetation is luxuriant and keeps them captive. Their relationship is sterile. It is all madness and hatred between the spouses, between white and black people and even between members of a family. The Sargasso Sea is the image of the society that imprisons Antoinette and her husband.

The description of madness is masterly crafted, one of the bests I’ve read. We see Antoinette’s slow journey to hell, fighting against the ghosts of her past and the tricks of her mind. It’s full of pity but doesn’t hide the reality. It is hard for Antoinette but it is also hard for her relatives, including her unfortunate husband. It also shows how helpless he feels in the presence of that illness. Voodoo plays a part as Christophine fuels Antoinette’s craziness with her ideas.

Jean Rhys has an extraordinary style – even in translation – and yet I’ve heard this one isn’t her best book. Lucky me, I have treasures to read ahead. Many thanks to Max from Pechorin’s Journal for bringing her to my attention. He reviewed La Grosse Fifi, Quartet and Good Morning Midnight.

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