Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys

Continuing in my quest for fiction which emerges from other fiction, I finally filled a gap in my knowledge and read Wide Sargasso Sea the other week.

This is the story of Antionette, a Creole girl who finds herself marrying a man newly arrived from England in the 1830s. Her background, rejected by an insane mother, and his fear of her culture turns the relationship sour and causes her to go mad. Eventually, he takes her back to his home in England and locks her in the attic. The man is never named, but it is obvious who it is: Mr Rochester, the hero of Jane Eyre.

Rhys admitted when working on the novel that she had become fascinated by ‘Bertha’ from Jane Eyre and wanted to tell the other side of the story. Rhys came from a Jamacian background but had settled in London: in short, she wanted to see what had sent ‘Bertha’ mad. What, then, makes a novel such as this – or such as Pemberley - acceptable yet fanfic unacceptable to so many? Rhys’s motivation was to fill in a story from her own perspective, to expand a character who was just a cipher in the original work. And she didn’t have permission to use all these Bronte characters. Yet, as if the act of publication is alchemical, this is considered real fiction and not fan fiction. Strange.

What of the novel? I can see why someone was surprised I’d not read it. It plays with different points of view, it gives us conflicting narrators and cultures, with the voices of Antoinette and [Rochester] clearly expressed. Those are things which always tick my boxes – or push my buttons. It is rather sexy – the seductions of [Rochester] hum with night heat – and rather disturbing – the fractured voice in the final third is so far removed from the girl at the start. It also toys with imagery from Jane Eyre – storms and trees being split apart – which add to the knowingness: there can be no happy resolution to this gothic romance because as readers we already know the happy ending will go to Jane instead.

One difficulty I have in trying to describe the novel is resisting the urge to call it “the story of the first Mrs Rochester”. Why resist? It’s a neat phrase which immediately gives an idea of the story etc. Yet the novel is about reclaiming “the first Mrs Rochester” as a person in her own right, and about how Rochester forces her to sublimate her own identity under that of his idea of what a wife should be. It therefore seems to go against the theme of the novel to describe it with the neat phrase.

Fianlly, I always enjoy a novel which causes Orson Welles‘ voice to purr in my head.

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