Book Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys

First line: They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.

Review: My first read for 2016, and ohemgee, what a stunner.

This brief but sumptuous novel -- originally published in 1966, but reissued this year by Norton with a lovely introduction from Edwidge Danticat -- imagines the life of Bertha Mason, the "madwoman" from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

Shifting viewpoints between Antoinette, as she prefers to be called, and a young Englishman we assume to be Rochester, we see a vivacious young woman pinned down by society, powerless and frustrated, pushed to her emotional limits. Is she mad? Rhys suggests she isn't, but her husband -- perhaps a little mad himself -- feels otherwise, and he has the power to punish her and declare her such.

I have to confess that Jane Eyre is not one of my favorites books, so I was predisposed to like Antoinette and hate Rochester. Yet Rhys managed to make Rochester sympathetic, in a way: he's a young man who has to marry for money, and worse, a "Creole" rather than a proper Englishwoman. For a moment, he's even taken with Antoinette but his conservative mores and twisted attitudes about sex and desire transmute his interest into disgust.

Worse, the Caribbean landscape -- hot, wet, and wild -- seems to give Antoinette strength, which repels him:
I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it. (p156)
This is a quick read -- about 170ish pages -- but it invites deep lingering and re-reading (I ended up reading it for a second time a few nights after finishing!). Rhys' writing, as seen above, is lush and evocative, and she can, in a handful of words, paint a scene vividly.

I was strongly reminded of stories like "The Yellow Wallpaper" -- could women's madness be the way men and society cage them and tell them they're mad? -- and while I felt fury toward Rochester, I didn't loathe him as I anticipated. I felt terrible for them both, these passionate people who couldn't connect and were oppressed, in different ways, by society. I was also struck by a similarity to Rebecca, especially with women in both books dreaming of returning to their beloved burned estates.

This edition has a lovely introduction by Edwidge Danticat which reads like an argument for why #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It's a love letter to a story about oppression, colonialism, and solidarity, and might be one of my most favorite introductions to a classic novel ever.

By accident, 2016 might shape up to be my year of (inspired by) Jane Eyre, in a fashion. In my queue for this year was this book; Catherine Lowell's novel about a Bronte descendant, The Madwoman Upstairs; Lyndsay Faye's Jane Steele, a murderous retelling, of sorts; last year's Re Jane;  the short story collection Reader, I Married Him; and a poetry collection, The Jane and Bertha in Me. I ought to just put Jane Eyre in as a reread and see if my feelings for it change!

A must read -- not just for fans of Jane Eyre -- but for anyone who enjoys feminist literature, or novels fraught with unspoken sentiments and explosive desires.

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Caribbean / Jane Eyre / Marriage / Cultural Clash)
Publisher/Publication Date: W. W. Norton & Company (1/25/16)
Source: The publisher
Reading Challenges: The Classics Club, Historical Fiction, Read Harder!

Comments

  1. Hm, it seems I'm going to have to become more familiar with Jane Eyre this year.

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  2. Wow, this sounds really good! I have The Madwoman Upstairs and have read some awesome reviews of it. I'll be adding this one to my wish list, thanks for the rec!

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  3. I'm so happy that I've found someone else who is not a fan of JE - finally! I tried to reread it along with a blogger friend, but I just couldn't get through it a second time. I found myself hating Rochester from the start and well that was enough to put me off. However, like you, I've also been enjoying books that have been inspired by JE. I have all of the books you mentioned, except for the poetry one (which now I need to get). Seems like we can't escape JE after all ;)

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  4. I've been meaning to read this for years, ever since hearing about it during college. But then I needed to actually read Jane Eyre first. Now that I've done that, maybe 2016 will be a Jane heavy year for many of us!

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  5. Your review has made me want to reread this novel, which I enjoyed many years ago. Nice write-up, Audra!

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  6. I haven't read Jane Eyre yet, but when I do this is on the top of my list

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  7. Aaaa, see, I want to read this in the sense that everyone says it's great and the prose is lovely. But also, I love Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester together, and I love the book Jane Eyre so so so so so much (v. formative in my childhood years), and I'm worried that reading Wide Sargasso Sea would mess that up for me. My sister and my friend Kate BOTH SAID it sort of messed it up for them. *bites nails*

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    Replies
    1. Oh, I'm so torn: on one hand, I want to plead with you to read this, but on the other hand, I do think it might change how you see Rochester and I'd hate to kill that for you. He doesn't come off well in this book, although as I said, one understands why he acts as he does -- but he's no longer the romantic (or Romantic) hero Bronte imagined.

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  8. I have read Jane Eyre but this is a author I've not got to as yet.

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  9. So glad you loved this! Jean Rhys is great, and this is maybe her finest book.

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  10. Hello! I stopping by from Carole's Chatter: Book You Loved :-) I also wasn't a huge fan of Jane Eyre - I read that and this for the Classics Club. I found this a tense and atmospheric read, and felt sympathy for both of them too.

    I have a copy of Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye which I am really looking forward to reading :-)

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  11. It’s been probably a full two decades since I read Jane Eyre, which I loved as a child and grew to distrust once my feminism took root. And it’s probably nearly as long since I read this Jean Rhys book, but I remember really responding to it as a reader. Thanks for the trip down memory lane and the prompt to pick it back up again one day.

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