This is Jean Rhys’s response to the way Charlotte Bronte depicts the madwoman in the attic in a stereotypical way in her novel, “Jane Eyre”, and also the cruelty of Rochester and his attitude towards her. In the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway is the woman in the attic, and her story is told from her childhood in the early nineteenth century in Jamaica, where her family own a plantation. Antoinette is forced into an arranged marriage with Rochester, an Englishman who agrees to marry her for her dowry. He dislikes Jamaica, and returns with Antoinette to England. She has become mentally unstable, eventually being locked away in the attic. The ending merges with the ending of “Jane Eyre“.
“Standing on the veranda I breathed the sweetness of the air. Cloves I could smell and cinnamon, roses and orange blossom. And an intoxicating freshness as if all this had never been breathed before.”
“There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself.”
Recommended only if you’ve read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. (The book can be read as a stand-alone, but I think it makes more sense if the reader already knows the character of Mr Rochester.) The author’s intention was to explain the backstory of Charlotte Bronte’s madwoman in the attic from a feminist point of view, but I found it unconvincing. As the reader, I was initially intrigued by this idea, but I found the writing style frustrating (at times rambling and incoherent with choppy, incomplete sentences), and the character development shallow. By the end, I still wasn’t convinced that this was a plausible depiction of Charlotte Bronte’s characters.
- Guardian: “Published in 1966, this isn’t simply a prequel but a deeply political novel in its own right, in which names echo with a traumatic history that can barely be remembered, let alone mentioned: a town called Massacre, a boy called Disastrous, and Antoinette herself, who is cruelly stripped of her illusions by a husband who insists on calling her Bertha.”
- The Independent: “Wide Sargasso Sea is not just a great novel, it is many brilliant books in one. Multi-layered and complex, Jean Rhys’s prelude to Jane Eyre vividly illustrates how accounts and understanding differ, and creates a sense of the characters’ past being inescapable.”
- 1993: Wide Sargasso Sea, film adaptation directed by John Duigan and starring Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker.
- 2006: Wide Sargasso Sea, TV movie adaptation directed by Brendan Maher and starring Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall.
WH Smith Literary Award (1967), W.H. Heinemann Award (1966)
I agree with your summation. Actually wish I hadn’t bothered as it diminished the Rochester I had imagined from Jane Eyre.
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