20th century Literature, Book review, Bronte, Empire, Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys, Slavery, Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, 1966

“There is always another side, always.”

As you may know, Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ tells the story from ‘Jane Eyre’ of Mr Rochester’s first wife, the ‘mad woman in the attic’, Bertha Mason.wide-sargasso-sea

The idea of giving a voice to a relatively minor character from a classic work of literature may not have been invented by Jean Rhys, but I can’t think of an earlier example.*

The thematic heart of this short novel is an attempt to understand Bertha’s descent into madness. Is Rochester’s description of her condition correct, or is she the victim of a loveless marriage and the brutal property and marriage laws of the time, which allowed a husband to treat an inconvenient wife as mere property? rhys reminds us that in this world wives have fewer rights than the recently emancipated slaves.

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ opens with Bertha, known at this point as Antoinette, as a child, living on an estate in Jamaica. Slavery has recently been abolished, and the comfortable world order in which white plantation owners ruled unchallenged is under threat. Antoinette is mixed race, although her precise racial lineage is unclear – all we are told is that her mother is a ‘Creole’. In ‘Jane Eyre’ an association is clearly drawn between this racial background and the madness that runs in the family. Rochester in particular associates “madness” with Bertha’s racially “impure” lineage. He claims

Bertha Mason is mad [because] she came of a mad family;–idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!” (Jane Eyre, ch 26).

Rochester on the other hand is never vulnerable to this affliction, because he comes from undiluted racial stock:

“Her family wished to secure me because I was of good race” (JE ch 27).

‘Sargasso Sea’ never directly challenges this racist association, although it does contextualise it. Antoinette’s madness is given a much clearer explanation. It seems to derive from a combination of factors. A series of traumatic events in her childhood, not least the burning down of her family home, sets her illness in motion. (This scene of course echoes the end of Thornfield Hall.) The idea that her mother’s madness has played a part in Bertha’s condition is preserved in Rhys’s version of events – Rochester’s explanation that Bertha/Antoinette is mad because she came from a mad family is at least not wholly invented. Finally, Rochester’s cold and harsh treatment of Bertha plays a part in confirming and exacerbating her illness.

In renaming Antoinette, calling her Bertha for no apparent reason except that he seems to like the name, Rochester is treating her like a slave. The plantation’s slaves lost their African names and had easy to remember Christian names imposed upon them. This enslavement is perpetuated throughout the marriage – Bertha loses all her property rights and is eventually imprisoned and kept confined in a foreign land far from home.

In the second section of the novel, Rochester’s narrative voice intervenes. We have already heard his self-justifying version of events in the original novel, but by and large this account shows him to have been mainly honest in his portrayal of his engagement and marriage. Rhys may not have wanted to diverge too much from the original version, but at times I found this voice to be inauthentic. Rochester is admittedly an alien in this land, bewildered by the strange environment, language, and culture. But when he described the honeymoon period of his marriage, it sounds more like locker room boasting than the regretful reminiscences of a man who has lost his wife to illness:

“I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty. Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was – more lost and drowned afterwards.”

I know I have only scratched the surface of this complex and compelling novel, and it probably merits a second, closer read. But I am glad that in giving a voice to the ‘mad woman in the attic’, Rhys gave the first Mrs Rochester a dignity and a depth of character that she is deprived of in ‘Jane Eyre’. In the original novel she is little more than a plot device, an inconvenience whose death is ultimately a cause for celebration. I can’t help thinking of other victims in literature who are denied a voice by their authors, and cry out for the right to be heard.

*Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead’, first produced in the same year that ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ was published, takes a similar idea as its inspiration, but then goes in a very different, less naturalistic, direction.