Postal Reading group
April 2022
Notes on the book Wide sargasso sea by Jean Rhys

Despite the widespread acclaim for Jean Rhys’ Wide sargasso sea, giving it status as a ‘modern classic’, and despite the author’s reputation for her prose and characterisation, I regret that I cannot agree with the generally positive comments on this book.

The basic idea is arguably sound, and potentially interesting, promising to be a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, providing a backstory to the Bertha Mason, the famous mad woman in the attic, although known in this novel as Antoinette Cosway. In this story, Antoinette is imagined as a Creole girl in Jamaica, the daughter of slave traders who lost their wealth in the abolition of slavery. She is eventually married to Mr. Rochester, who is alarmed by the rumour of madness in the family. The marriage becomes a loveless one as Antoinette is forced to comply with the rigid norms of Victorian society; expectations which could, literally, cause a young girl to lose her mind.

Firstly, I should admit that, on the basis of my previous experiences I have always found books covering the slave trade, and the corresponding racial tensions to be difficult reads. Similarly, books featuring mental illness can all too easily become distressing; an uncomfortable reminder of our society’s poor understanding and treatment of the condition. Both of these factors may have influenced my opinion of this book. However, it is also fair to say, as many have done, that you should read Jane Eyre before reading this. In that regard I am at a disadvantage, and in the space of the month, I would not have had time remedy that particular omission.

There is a risk with books which seek to borrow a character or idea from another author that they will fail to live up to the reputation created by the previous author, and that the reader must be familiar with the previous work too. From my own experience of this book, and in stark contrast to other members of this group, I can only assume that this is the case with Wide sargasso sea.

Of course, the woman in Mr. Rochester’s attic has a story to tell, and the way in which “the mad woman in the attic”, is portrayed is a point of concern to modern readers. She is a person with a story to tell, and if the intention was to give her the story she deserves, and to explain how she ended up that way, then Rhys’ aim was laudable. One problem, of course, is that there must be many ways of imagining the preceding events, and this book presents one possible version. As one other reviewer has mentioned, slavery in British colonies wasn’t really mentioned in history lessons because “history gets written by the winners”. If real life history is an incomplete guide to the past, one can begin to imagine the difficulties with fictional history.

The more serious problem for me is the disjointed way in which the story was told, and the writing style, neither of which really do Antoinette justice. The first part of the story is told by Antoinette herself and this makes a reasonable start to the book. However, the second (and far longer) part is narrated by Mr. Rochester, and begins with both of them already married. Already, what one might imagine to be a key event, that of their wedding and the circumstances around it, has been omitted.

It is unfortunate that such a significant chunk of the story is devoted to Mr. Rochester, not only because the intention was surely to do justice to the woman in the attic, but also because Rhys’ development of Mr. Rochester is no better than that of Antoinette. Both characters appear to be based on the stereotypes of the period. On the basis of the author’s reputation, this may be an unfair summary, but to me it did appear that neither was researched as thoroughly they deserved.

Furthermore, the writing style was far too disjointed for me to read easily or to enjoy. Much of the prose seemed to be based on fragments of visions, impressions and incomplete sentences, giving it a dream like (or possibly hallucinatory quality). Perhaps this conveys the impression of madness well, but Rhys doesn’t do her readers any favours as it also makes it difficult to follow. Nor does it help understanding if the object was to explain how Antoinette became Bertha, the woman in the attic.

Finally, its unclear what the real point behind this novel is. Yes, there’s a lot about race and gender roles, but in that regard, Antoinette is not an entirely innocent victim, given that her parents were slave traders themselves. If it was an ill-considered marriage to Mr. Rochester, precipitated by her parents losing their wealth in the abolition of slavery, that causes Antoinette to lose her mind then it is unfortunate that she should suffer, but by any other standards her parents got the justice they deserved. If, however, as this book suggests, there was a history of mental illness in the family, is it unclear that either Mr. Rochester, England, or societal norms around gender are entirely to blame.

Ultimately, I feel I have learnt a lot more from the introduction to the book, and from researching this review, than I did from reading the story itself. Indeed, it is perhaps the story of Rhys’ virtual disappearance while living in relative poverty and obscurity which, perhaps, best explains some of the writing. Although I didn’t feel it made an enjoyable read, I can concede that it has provided much material for literary critics to debate.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler