Jean Rhys was born in Dominica (West Indies) to a Welsh father and a white West Indian mother. She spent her childhood in Dominica, then was taken to England, and only revisited Dominica once during her adult years. Wide Sargasso Sea is the only one of her novels set in the West Indies. It is the story of Bertha Mason, the madwoman who is Mr. Rochester’s wife in Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre. At least, the novel started out to be Bertha’s story. Jean Rhys wrote in a letter,
“I came to England between sixteen and seventeen, a very impressionable age and Jane Eyre was one of the books I read then.
Of course, Charlotte Bronte makes her own world, of course she convinces you, and that makes the poor Creole lunatic all the more dreadful. I remember being quite shocked, and when I re-read it rather annoyed. ‘That’s only one side—the English side’ sort of thing.”
So Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’ attempt to tell the other side of the story, Bertha’s story. The author runs into a couple of problems. She writes the story of a young Creole (white) girl whose father died and whose mother went insane. Antoinette, as the author comes to call Bertha, has been brought up in an atmosphere of magic and evil and madness, with a black servant who is an obeah woman, a sort of witch or maybe more like the Mexican curandera. I think the novel has at least two goals: to make the reader feel more sympathy for Charlotte Bronte’s Creole madwoman in the attic and to illustrate the deep differences between England and British culture and the life and culture of the English-speaking peoples of the Caribbean.
I already felt sorry for the madwoman, Bertha Mason, when I read Jane Eyre. However, Wide Sargasso Sea made me less sympathetic to her plight, not more so. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys turns Bertha/Antoinette into a superstitious girl who has no ability to adapt or take charge of her life or to make good decisions. Her husband suspects her of sin, infidelity, and madness, and she gives in to him by becoming what he suspects her to be. I can’t sympathize with or respect such a character, although I can pity her. So Rhys’ first problem in this novel is that if her goal is to make us identify with Bertha Mason, that goal is unfulfilled.
The next problem is that the novel seems unfinished. It has an ending; it ends as Bertha is about to burn down down Mr. Rochester’s house as she does in Jane Eyre. This return to the plot of Jane Eyre is marred by the second section of Wide Sargasso Sea in which Jean Rhys has almost decided that the novel is not about Charlotte Bronte’s characters at all, but rather about some other Englishman who marries a Creole girl who then becomes insane. In addition, part of the second section is told from the point of view of this unnamed English husband. The book reads as if it could have used a re-write or a much better editor, and the only way to understand some of the shifts in point of view and intricacies of plot is to make liberal use of the footnotes provided in my edition of the novel. I think I would have been lost without the footnotes.
In short, Wide Sargasso Sea has an interesting premise, but Jean Rhys succeeded in convincing me that nineteenth century Dominican culture, if it was in any way similar to the culture portrayed in the book, was indeed very foreign and dark and mystifying. Almost mad.