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"Wide Sargasso Sea"
by Jean Rhys
Penguin| March 2000 | ISBN 0141182857
Wide Sargasso Sea is an unnerving read. Most readers are familiar with the book that inspired it, Jane Eyre, and many of us (well, at least some) swooned over the smouldering hero Mr Rochester. But what is so unsettling about this book is that Jean Rhys suggests that Bertha Mason, aka mad wife in the attic, is not just Rochester's skeleton in the closet; she is ours as well. Wide Sargasso Sea, published 120 years after Charlotte Brontë's classic, tells the story of Rochester's first wife, who appears in Jane Eyre as a slavering lunatic, and who lacks any voice to put us right.
Wide Sargasso Sea is set in a lush 19th century Jamaica, all violence, voodoo and vibrant colours, and like many of Jean Rhys's work contains many elements of her own life story. There, a young Mr Rochester (who is never named) meets and marries a beautiful Creole heiress, Antoinette. After the wedding, rumours begin to reach Rochester that his wife's mother was mad, that the girl is promiscuous, and that she may be racially 'impure.' As it blunders through a fog of half-truths, tropical storms and sexual obsession, the relationship breaks down.
Meanwhile, Antoinette's sanity begins to deteriorate. She is a white Creole, not accepted by the black community, and barely acceptable to the white. In many ways, she is Jane Eyre's mirror image, perhaps her doppelganger, but her fate is a very different one. Jane's story is one of passionate personal integrity, but Antoinette's is a contrasting narrative - the breakdown of identity. Jane manages to resist Rochester's attempts to possess her, but Antoinette's identity is gradually subsumed into her husband's, until finally he renames her. Antoinette becomes Bertha.
Antoinette spends most of the book caught in the kind of cultural and racial schizophrenia familiar to readers of Dambudzo Marechera's House of Hunger. It is not until the end that she decides where she stands. Early on, we see an angry slave mob burn down the Masons' plantation house, and at last, Antoinette decides to step into their shoes: she will set fire to Rochester's house, and everything it represents to her.
This is a compelling exploration of the gaps and silences in Jane Eyre. Indeed, much as JM Coetzee does in Foe, Rhys makes a feature of omissions - her book is very episodic. And, of course, it's fascinating to grapple with the dark underbelly of Jane Eyre - we always suspected there was something more to the mad woman in the attic, but never quite knew what - until now. As Antoinette tells us, "there is always the other side."
Wide Sargasso Sea adds a whole new dimension to Jane Eyre, and perhaps that is the way we should be looking at literature. Jean Rhys prompts in us a moment of recognition, forces us as a society to confront unpalatable truths and suppressed narratives:
"Then, not so far off, I saw Tia and her mother and I ran to her, for she was all that was left of my life as it had been. We had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river. As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri. Not to go. Not. When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face. I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We started at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass."
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About the author: Jean Rhys was a novelist. She was born in the West Indies in 1890, and moved to England at the age of 16, where she worked as a chorus girl. She published her first work, The Left Bank and Other Stories, in 1927. Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, and became her most acclaimed novel. She died in 1979.
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