Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre. There are going to be spoilers for Jane Eyre all over this, so BEWARE!
So the mad wife in Rochester’s attic, Bertha, has her own story. We know how it ends but what about her life before? Bertha wasn’t born Bertha, she was Antoinette Cosway. Her mother was Annette, a beautiful Martinique woman who moved to Jamaica with her husband, a wealthy slave owner. He died, slavery ended, and Antoinette, her mother and brother were left hated and in poverty. Annette pulled herself together enough to find a rich husband, Mr Mason. Being an Englishman, he underestimates the hatred of the island people toward Annette until a tragedy changes their lives forever.
Antoinette is then sent to a convent where she is relatively happy, but Mr Mason has plans for her. He believes he is securing her future but he’s sending her to her doom.
I put off reading Wide Sargasso Sea for so long. I’m a huge Jane Eyre fan and I thought Rhys was going to be ragging all over Jane, but I was wrong. Mr Rochester on the other hand…looks douchey.
In imagining Antoinette, aka Bertha, Rhys gives her a childhood not unlike Jane’s: poor, hated, neglected, traumatized, and eventually orphaned. Later, Antoinette gains the things that would make her attractive to an Englishman, beauty and wealth, but it’s her non-Englishness that makes her suspect. That quality more than anything else is what makes her husband turn on her. Antionette is as loved starved as Jane but Antoinette expresses it differently. She gives her whole heart and body to Rochester which just makes him think she must be up to something. This isn’t how a respectable English wife would act, especially a wife he only married for money. Antoinette is given the advice that she should keep her distance from him if she wants him to love her, but she cannot and this only makes him more cruel.
That brings me to the reprehensible behaviour of Rochester. In the book’s forward, I read that Rochester represents the British Empire that only takes want it wants from the colonies (Antoinette) and never gives back. That’s fine, and I’m sure correct, but when I’m reading I like to give real human motives to characters. One of the things I felt was happening was that Rochester felt guilty and instead of owning that, he tries to alleviate that guilt by buying into all the gossip he’s been told. Subconsciously, he feels bad about taking all her money, and all the hot sexy loving, while knowing he’s going to drag her to England and away from the few people who love her. So it’s easier to listen to the outlandish tales of his neighbour, a guy with a huge axe to grind, than feel bad about it. Even after she tells him her whole history, he still doesn’t believe her because A) foreign, and B) crazy! He’s got to be right or admit he’s a jerk. I don’t think Antoinette would have become “mad”: her mother had been traumatized and her brother physically ill. It wasn’t a genetic ailment. She could have been happy. I think she just gave into despair like a lot of women of the time. They were driven to it by their circumstances. Why not just give up?
While Rhys borrows some plot from Jane Eyre, it’s a different type of novel. For one thing, about a hundred years separate them. It’s dreamy and modernist. The atmosphere is different. Where Jane Eyre is all wind swept moors, rain, and cold, Wide Sargasso Sea is colourful, lush, and warm. I enjoyed reading Wide Sargasso Sea, it made me think about “Bertha” differently, but it hasn’t taken away my love of Jane Eyre. After all, Bronte’s Rochester is not Rhys’s Rochester.
It’s just a different perspective