Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of the “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—the woman who was the first wife of Edward Rochester, Jane’s lover. According to Jane Eyre, this madwoman was Bertha Antoinetta Mason, born and raised in Jamaica. She inherited the madness that ran in her family. Rochester claims that he was not told of this inherited insanity before his marriage. Later in the book, we learn that she sets fire to the house and burns it to the ground.
Jean Rhys was the pen name of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, born on the West Indies island of Dominica in 1890. Her father was Welsh and her mother was a white Creole (born and raised in the West Indies). She moved to England at the age of 17. Her life story sounds fascinating, and is the subject of a biography, The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini.
Rhys takes the sketch of Bertha Antoinetta Mason given in Jane Eyre and constructs a fully realized character, starting with her childhood in Jamaica, where she lives on Coulibri, a crumbling estate, with her mother and ill brother in the mid-1800s. The family has fallen on hard times: her father is dead, most of their slaves have fled, and the other white people in Jamaica shun them because they are Creoles. The young Antoinette’s best friend is her nanny, a black woman who has knowledge of obeah (folk magic).
The novel is told in an imagistic style, and readers must piece together events and relationships from sometimes disconnected scenes. The writing style is lush and descriptive. Here is a passage towards the beginning, as the child Antoinette, shunned, lonely and almost abandoned by her restless mother, struggles to find a way to spend her time:
I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think “It’s better than people.” Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin—once I saw a snake. All better than people (p. 28).
Antoinette’s mother soon marries a Mr. Mason, and Antoinette takes his last name. (It is this man’s son—Antoinette’s step-brother—who, in Jane Eyre, travels to England to stop the marriage between Jane and Rochester). Antoinette’s mother goes mad from grief due to tragic events. This first section of the novel is told from Antoinette’s point of view.
The second section, which starts after Antoinette is persuaded to marry Edward Rochester, visiting from England, is told from Rochester’s point of view. It is not entirely clear why they get married. Is Rochester only interested in her wealth, to be inherited from Mr. Mason? Does she really love him? He insists on calling her “Bertha” because he likes the name, even though that is not her name, and even though she asks him not to. This section takes place during their honeymoon on a small island in the West Indies. Rochester hears rumors about his wife and her companions, and is not sure who or what to believe. His mental confusion is mirrored by his confusion at the unfamiliar landscape in which he finds himself.
The third section, again told through the eyes of Antoinette, who is now insane, takes place in England during the time she is imprisoned in the attic of Rochester’s mansion. Readers familiar with Jane Eyre will notice events and incidents that are mentioned in that novel, but now re-told through the eyes of the insane Antoinette.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a short, intense book, as colorful as the tropical West Indies home of Antoinette.