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In which Netty is becalmed in a Wide Sargasso Sea …

January 4, 2011

Errr … and now it’s confession time from Netty. I haven’t read Jane Eyre either. Like Andy, the only Bronte book with which I am familiar is Emily’s Wuthering Heights (and, like Andy, I would strongly argue that one does not need to dip further into the sisters’ combined oeuvre). But I digress, as is my wont …

One of the things I asked Andy, when we convened to chat about Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea over a beverage or 10 last week, was this: does this novel – steeped in all its background, being basically a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – stand as an entity unto itself? And we both agreed that it does, although there is no doubt that Jane Eyre enthusiasts can undoubtedly gain a great deal more from Wide Sargasso Sea simply from being familiar with its source.

Andy keeps telling me not to read the introductions to books, and I keep ignoring him – oftentimes to my detriment. My 2000 Penguin Classics edition, borrowed from my friend Shauna – who highly recommended this book to me some two years or so ago, hence its inclusion in ANRC10 – has both a (quite scholarly) introduction (by editor Angela Smith) and an appendix that constitutes Francis Wyndham’s original 1966 introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea. Both of which I read before embarking upon the novel proper. Ah, oops … Not that it made a huge difference, but nonetheless …

So, for the purpose of this blog – and also, because Andy has dealt in much greater detail with the parallels between Rhys and Bronte’s respective works – I am going to deal with Wide Sargasso Sea in the singular sense in which I read it, having deferred my exploration of Jane Eyre until after I had laid to rest Rhys’s final pages.

(I also would like to point out, especially to long-time readers of Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge – and I am convinced that we have at least one or two – that this is the second novel we have read set largely in the Dominican Republic (see our May 2008 archives for what we thought of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast Of The Goat), or Dominica, as it was in Rhys’s day. Which means for the second time I have been entranced by the idea of one day chuffing off to the West Indies – although possibly not until the Australian cricket team gets its shit together, and that could take a long, long time on current evidence …)

So, to Wide Sargasso Sea – Rhys’s final novel, first published in 1966, before which she was largely languishing in obscurity some 27 years after her previous effort. Rhys, who was then 76, had spent several decades refining the novel, which subsequently became her best-known and most widely lauded work. It tells the story, in three parts, of Antoinette Cosway Mason, an ill-fated Dominican Creole (for all intents and purposes here, a white West Indian, as was Rhys herself).

As the novel opens, Antoinette, then a young teenager, tells her story. Her father is dead, and her proud, impoverished mother is struggling to bring up Antoinette and her younger, mentally-disabled brother Pierre in 1830s Jamaica. The family is tended to, in varying degrees, by recently emancipated slaves, some more loyal than others. Antoinette’s mother, Annette, marries wealthy Englishman Mr Mason, but fate – and the vagaries of emancipation – conspires against the family, resulting in a tragedy which spirals Annette into the depths of depression (or “madness”) from which she never recovers. Her daughter, consigned to a religious boarding school, is eventually married off – overseen by her step-brother Richard – to an Englishman who remains unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, but is Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.

Part II is mostly narrated by “Rochester”, newly married to a wife he barely knows and having relocated from England to the strange, exotic land of Granbois, Dominica, where Antoinette has inherited property and wishes for the couple to live. Rochester’s initial readjustment to married life in a new, faraway country soon gives way to increasing suspicion about his new wife, which is fuelled firstly by his mistrust of their coterie of servants – primarily Antoinette’s long-time nursemaid Christophine, whom he rightly suspects of practising voodoo (called “obeah” throughout the text of Wide Sargasso Sea) – and latterly by Antoinette’s self-proclaimed half-brother Daniel. Suspicion becomes contempt, and the balance of power, sadly, inevitably, shifts from wife to husband.

The slender part III is, as Andy has already related, where Wide Sargasso Sea neatly dovetails into Jane Eyre.  Antoinette, now called “Bertha” by her largely absent husband, resides in an attic in a house in England, watched over by her nursemaid Grace Poole, who is the opening narrator. Antoinette is now the “madwoman in the attic”, as she is depicted in Jane Eyre, but still clings to some semblance of sanity, upon which she latches as soon as the opportunity arises. This leaves Wide Sargasso Sea’s conclusion open to several possibilities – does Antoinette kill herself? Does she kill herself and everyone else in the house?  Or is it all just a dream? And, on a personal note, do I now need to go and read all 400-plus pages of Jane Eyre to find out?

Which brings me back to my original question – do you need to have read Jane Eyre in order to truly appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea? Well, yes … but no (sorry for sounding like Danny Frawley there). Would the former enhance the latter? Probably, yes. But is it necessary? No, not necessarily. In short, I enjoyed Wide Sargasso Sea as a stand-alone novel. I very much doubt I will ever attempt to read Jane Eyre – I don’t think I need to, and in all honesty, I don’t really want to.

Because at the end of the day, I enjoyed Wide Sargasso Sea. It made me curious about Jean Rhys’s other novels, and it really, really made me want to go to Dominica, or the Dominican Republic, or whatever the fuck it’s called these days. So, in soccer parlance – permit me an indulgence here – it’s Rhys 1, the Dominican Republic 1, Charlotte Bronte 0. And I don’t even work in sport any more …

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