Tuesday, 10 February 2009


I’ve just finished reading Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – her imagined prequel to Jane Eyre. I had watched the BBC dramatisation of it, with Rebecca Hall as Antoinette/Bertha, a few years ago, and enjoyed it, so I knew the story already. But nothing beats the novel. And what an odd, atmospheric and passionate novel it is. The style is strange – stream of consciousness and unreliable narrators – and very compelling to read.

It’s set in 1830’s Jamaica, and so often I wanted to jump into the pages of the novel, into the lush heat of Jamaica and Dominica, and slap Edward Rochester around the head for believing malicious gossip and for driving his wife mad. I can’t say it’s totally turned me off him but it has certainly made me wary of him. I hope he made a better husband to Jane Eyre than he did to the troubled but ultimately sane, Antoinette/Bertha.

I can see why people have been urging me to read Wide Sargasso Sea for years – it’s creepy and oppressive and interesting all at the same time. And for Brontë fans, it certainly makes for a wider appreciation, or reading, of the sublime Jane Eyre.

Jean Rhys was a fascinating woman: born in Dominica in 1890, she married three times, and lived in Paris for a spell in the 1920’s, where she was encouraged in her writing by Ford Madox Ford. Presumed dead, when her literary output dried up, she was alive and well in Cornwall and Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, though she had had the idea for it floating in her head for years.

It’s a gem of a book and I love the fact that a nineteenth century masterpiece inspired a twentieth century one. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. If you have, what did you think of it?


BarbaraS said...

I enjoyed it very much, even though this was a book that I had to study and get to know very thoroughly for my foundation course for the degree I did. I too wanted to slap Rochester around the place, which means that Rhys did a good job of placing him slap bang into that time.

I later studied the previous book, Jane Eyre, and that too I loved for the story, the way it was told and how groundbreaking it was for the time it was written in. Bronte really knew how to write intense emotions: my favourite scene from that book is actually the opening one, just as Jane the lass loses her temper...

Of the two books though, I prefer Rhys. It's bittersweet, especially when you know how the first Mrs Rochester ends up in the attic, but I've always admired how Rhys tackled the idea of writing her into history, instead of the poor woman being destined to be a madwoman in the attic.

Women Rule Writer said...

Thanks, B. You're exactly right. That's what haunted Jean R, the fact that Bertha/Antoinette was just another mad woman in the attic. She wanted to give her a voice. Rochester had a lot to answer for - he really was a complex, confused man. I hope he didn't drive Jane mad, is all. But I think she could handle him and herself, whereas Antointette had few inner resources, it seems.