Most of you probably know that Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre. It tells the story of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and her childhood, family and how she came to be married to Mr. Edward Rochester in Jamaica. Jean Rhys wrote the novel in the 60’s as she struggled with poverty, alcoholism and despair. It is considered her best novel and a masterpiece and it revived her writing career and her reputation as an author. Rhys herself was raised in the Caribbean and based Bertha’s life on stories and details she remembered from her time spent on the islands in her youth.
The plot of the novel follows Bertha (Antoinette Cosway is her real name in this novel) as she grows up with a mentally unstable and poverty stricken mother. She lives with her mother and disabled brother on a dilapidated plantation, suffering abuse by the natives and slowly accepting that she is different (because she is creole) and will never fit in anywhere. After her mother marries Mr. Mason their life improves until her mother finally cracks and Bertha is sent to live in a convent. Eventually, we learn that she has married a Mr. Rochester and taken him back to her childhood home where their relationship takes a turn for the worse.
All of these details are very sketchy because the narrative is hazy, dreamlike and disjointed. Rhys’s style is not streamlined, not a straightforward telling of the story. She writes mainly from Bertha’s point of view and Bertha is confused and has disordered thinking most of the time. It is hard to piece together exactly what is happening in the story, but Rhys does a magnificent job of relaying the feelings of her characters so that it is easy to sympathize with them even when they are demonized by those around them.
I know several people who absolutely hate this book because they don’t like the way it portrays Rochester or his life before Jane. I’m not offended by the characterization Rhys creates here because I think it shows Rochester as an innocent, naive young man who married a woman he didn’t love out of duty to his family. Though you could surmise that Rhys is blaming Rochester for causing Bertha’s madness, I believe the madness was already present when he married her. And, yes, he did mistreat and neglect her, but he could have cast her off and left her in Jamaica to fend for herself but instead he took her to England where he could mistreat her on home turf. We know from Jane Eyre that Rochester is damaged, mistrusting and angry. Rhys has just given us her vision of why this might be and she has also given us a view of Bertha which I will never forget. I did read Wide Sargasso Sea when I was a teenager before I had ever read and loved Jane Eyre, so maybe that is why I don’t find it offensive or why it doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of Jane and Rochester’s story.
The lush, descriptive language and the way the wildness of the landscape mirrors the wildness of the characters is an outstanding feature of this novel. I’ve read several Jean Rhys novels and I really like her style. Her novels are bold and different. Wide Sargasso Sea is a brilliant vision of life in Jamaica in the 1830’s and an imaginative take on how Rochester came to lock his wife in a secret attic at Thornfield Hall.
Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea? Has it or would it affect the way you view Mr. Rochester?