Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea After finishing a re-read of Jane Eyre recently, I decided that my next read would have to be Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a book inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel and which I’ve seen described both as a prequel and a reimagining. I don’t read this type of book very often as I prefer to keep my feelings for the originals intact, but this one, published in 1966, is now considered a classic in itself and I wanted to find out why.

As I started writing this review it occurred to me that it would be impossible to discuss Wide Sargasso Sea in any meaningful way without giving away some of the secrets revealed in Jane Eyre and spoiling the Brontë novel for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I will assume that if you’re reading this post you’re already familiar with Jane Eyre, so consider this your spoiler warning!

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Mr Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the ‘madwoman in the attic’. In Jane Eyre, we learn that Rochester was sent by his father to Jamaica where he met the Mason family and married Bertha, a beautiful Creole heiress. Rochester explains that he was unaware of the madness running in Bertha’s family and the fact that her mother was not dead, as he had first believed, but had actually been locked away in an asylum. When Bertha’s own behaviour begins to worry Rochester, he brings her home to England and Thornfield Hall, where he has her imprisoned in an attic room under the care of a servant, Grace Poole.

Jane Eyre only shows us one side of the story: Rochester’s. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys gives a voice to Bertha (or Antoinette Cosway, as she is known here). The first part of the novel, narrated by Antoinette herself, describes her childhood in 1830s Jamaica, just after the Emancipation Act has ended slavery across the British Empire. Antoinette’s own father made his fortune through slavery and since his death the family have remained on their crumbling plantation, Coulibri, where as white Creoles they are isolated and shunned by the freed black slaves and their rich white neighbours alike. As the years go by and Antoinette’s mother descends into mental illness, her stepfather, Mr Mason, announces that friends from England are coming to visit…

In the middle section of the book, we switch to Rochester’s point of view (although he is not actually named in the novel, it’s clear who he is supposed to be) and he relates in his own words the story of his marriage to Antoinette, whom he renames Bertha, and his views on the deteoriation of her mental health. The final, shortest section is set at Thornfield Hall and takes us through the familiar events of Jane Eyre.

I was quite disappointed with this book, if I’m going to be completely honest. Yes, it’s beautifully written but I found the dreamlike, disjointed narrative slightly difficult to follow and while I could sympathise with Antoinette’s situation, I never felt fully engaged with her on an emotional level. I realise that the writing style was probably intended to unsettle and disorientate the reader, but I just didn’t like it. Luckily, my lack of love for this novel has not affected my memories of Jane Eyre or its characters – not even Mr Rochester, despite the negative portrayal, mainly because the character in this novel just doesn’t feel at all like Brontë’s Rochester (not even his ‘voice’ sounds the same).

Wide Sargasso Sea is a short novel (I was surprised when I discovered just how short it was) but it’s also a complex one with lots of layers, symbolism and important themes – including slavery, colonialism, mental illness, race and gender – and I can see why it’s a book that has come to be widely studied in schools and universities. I can recommend the Penguin Modern Classics ‘Annotated Edition’ as an excellent choice for students or anyone who wants to study the story and its background in more depth. There’s an introduction, notes at the end, suggestions for further reading and background information on some of the topics alluded to in the story, such as the Jamaican folk magic known as Obeah.

I did love the concept of giving Bertha/Antoinette a chance to tell her story and I wouldn’t want to put anyone else off reading this book – even though I didn’t find it very satisfying, I know there are many, many other people who have enjoyed it, so if it does sound appealing to you then I would certainly recommend giving it a try.

28 thoughts on “Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    It’s an awful long time since I read this, but I can recall finding it a powerful book. I think I might have liked it more because I was never a huge fan of Jane Eyre, finding Rochester’s arrogance hard to take!

    • Helen says:

      I think part of my problem is that I’m much happier with the style of Victorian novels like Jane Eyre than I am with postmodern/postcolonial fiction. I agree that it’s a powerful book, though, and I can see why so many people like it.

  2. whatmeread says:

    It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember that I was a little disappointed when I read it but in retrospect, liked it better. I think I should try reading it again sometime. I think if you love Jane Eyre, you’re expecting something different. The dreamy writing style might appeal to me more now, too.

    • Helen says:

      I knew before I started this book that it would be different from Jane Eyre, but still couldn’t help being disappointed that it wasn’t more similar! I hope you enjoy it more if you do decide to try it again.

  3. Nadia says:

    I loved WSS. Then again, I love anything by Jean Rhys. Of course, I didn’t care much for Jane Eyre and remember loving WSS when I read it. I’m actually going to be rereading Jane Eyre next month – I’m wondering if I’ll enjoy the book the second time around. I was thinking of rereading WSS as well.

    • Helen says:

      I wonder if I should try a different book by Jean Rhys. It could just be my love for Jane Eyre that stopped me from liking this one. Enjoy your rereads!

    • Helen says:

      I’m sorry to hear this book hasn’t worked for you either, but I’m glad I’m not the only who doesn’t like the style. I hope you have better luck with it if you do give it another try.

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    I’m sorry to hear the style didn’t work for you. It has been a few years since I read this. I remember this being a powerful read though, and like previous commenters I wasn’t that in love with Jane Eyre either which perhaps helped.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it does seem that a lot of people who enjoyed this book didn’t love Jane Eyre. I think my problem was that I do love Jane Eyre (and Charlotte Bronte’s writing style) and would have preferred something more similar.

  5. Alex says:

    I’ve read this twice now, having been convinced that I must have missed something the first time round. But, it still wasn’t a book I warmed to, even on the second read. I have, however, suggested it as part of a trio (Jane Eyre, Wild Sargasso Sea and The Eyre Affair) for this year’s Summer School. If that selection gets picked then maybe someone in the group will be able to explain where the genius in it lies.

    • Helen says:

      I finished it feeling that I must have missed something too, but I’m not planning to read it again – I think once was enough for me. I would like to read The Eyre Affair at some point, though.

    • Helen says:

      I loved the idea of giving Bertha a voice and explaining how she came to be in the attic! I’m glad I haven’t put you off reading this book, as hopefully you’ll enjoy it more than I did.

  6. Lark says:

    I’ve always wondered what this book was about. Maybe if a were a bigger Rochester fan I would read it, but he’s not my most favorite of characters…so I think I’ll pass on this one. But at least I now know why I don’t want to read it. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I don’t know…Rochester is portrayed negatively in this book, so it could actually be a help that you’re not a fan. Having said that, though, I didn’t think he even felt like the same character.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked it, Anbolyn. I did love the concept of finding out more about Bertha’s situation and I’m sorry I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I’d hoped to.

  7. aartichapati says:

    Funnily enough, all the comments here of either really loving or disliking this book make me want to read it more! I have read Jane Eyre, though not recently, and I don’t know if I love it as much as other people do. Also, I love post-colonial fiction, so I’m probably exactly the right audience for this one 🙂 Thanks for reminding me of it!

    • Helen says:

      It does seem to be a book people feel strongly about, one way or the other. It sounds like this might be more your sort of book than mine, so I hope you enjoy it!

  8. Teresa says:

    When I read this, I’d hardly read any Caribbean fiction, and I really didn’t like the style of it much, but now that I’ve read more Caribbean authors and really come to enjoy them I’ve thought about revisiting it. However, I think I’d still have the same problem you did when it comes to Rochester. The Bronte version of him is extremely vivid in my mind, and Rhys’s version really didn’t seem like the same person. I had a similar problem with The Eyre Affair in that Jane didn’t seem enough like Bronte’s Jane. It’s possible that I’m too attached to Jane Eyre to properly enjoy any re-imaginings of it, no matter how intriguing the premise.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read many Caribbean authors so maybe that was part of the problem. It would be interesting to see if you do enjoy this book more now that you’ve read more Caribbean fiction.

  9. J.E. Fountain says:

    I love Jane Eyre and I’ve often wondered about this. I only skimmed, to avoid spoilers (for this, not Jane Eyre), but saw you were disappointed. It’s short enough though, I imagine I’ll still get to this someday.

  10. J.E. Fountain says:

    I usually don’t read this type – it’s fan fiction really isn’t it? – but, as you say, given that it is considered a classic in it’s own right, I thought I’d give it a go. I liked it – not nearly so much as I loved Jane Eyre, but I felt it was a plausible explanation for poor Antoinette aka Bertha.

    • Helen says:

      I have mixed feelings about this type of novel – some of them do feel like nothing more than fan fiction, using another author’s characters and plot, but some, like this one, have something interesting to offer in their own right. Although I didn’t really like the writing style, I agree that it was a good explanation for Bertha’s situation.

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