Thursday, 9 March 2000

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Edition: Penguin, 1987
Review number: 448

The eventual fate of the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is common knowledge, but what drove her to the state of madness which forms the darkest theme in that famous romance? Jean Rhys' obsession with this question drove her to write Wide Sargasso Sea. It is not precisely what would now be called a 'prequel'; explicit links between the two novels are quite subtle. (The most obvious is that names of characters such as Grace Poole are shared.)

Set in Jamaica in the 1830s, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of a young woman, Antoinette Conway. When her family is ruined, as many plantation owners were, by the abolition of slavery, she is left to grow up entirely neglected, unacceptable both to the white community and to the former slaves living around the plantation. It is only when the family fortunes are restored after her mother makes a second marriage that she attends school. This upbringing and her disastrous relationship with her stepfather sow the seeds of Antoinette's strangeness, but it is not until her own marriage to a deeply conventional Englishman that his attempts to force her to live more like a young society woman begin to turn eccentricity into madness. She is completely trapped, for the law of the time meant that she would have no right to any property if she should leave him - it all passed absolutely to him on their marriage. (This is one of the themes of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Charlotte's sister Anne.)

Not as great as the novel which inspired it, Wide Sargasso Sea is an interesting and engrossing read. It depicts Antoinette's descent into madness in an unusual way; the book only really covers her lucid episodes, being principally written from her point of view, and so there are many gaps for which the only evidence for what has happened is what she is told by those around her.

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