Monday, 22 September 2014

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

The unofficial prequel to Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre (incidentally one of my all time favourites). Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress brought up in an initially wealthy though quite volatile family. The story covers her far from idealistic youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage to a certain English gentleman whose identity is never confirmed by the author. In a nutshell, initially Rochester is besotted with her, then things cool off. He renames her Bertha, declares her insane and then relocates her to England. The novel tells the madwoman in the attic story from inside Thornfield from the perspectives of Rochester, Antoinette and Grace Poole.

The novel's narration switches regularly and without warning in some cases, initially between Antoinette and her husband. Rochester pretty much spends the entire novel being surly and unpleasant. He feels like he's been sold to the highest bidder to protect his family's fortune (which he has) as being a second son he stands to inherit nothing. Pretty unpleasant, but nothing out of the ordinary for any marriageable high society woman of the era. Political or financial security marriages were literally women's only career choices. I think the fact that it has happened to a man is what bothers him the most. Obsessed with racial purity and "Englishness", Rochester comes off as thoroughly objectionable throughout.

I can't say I really followed the beginning of the novel too successfully. I gather there are themes of Empire and colonialism, civil rights and prejudice, bad blood on all sides, lots of anger and hostility, but I struggled to make much sense of the actual events. A house burned down and a parrot died...maybe it was supposed to be disorientating and opaque. Antoinette seems to have made little sense of it too, and perhaps we are supposed to feel as detached from the plot as she is from any real identity. She essentially has no identity. She is displaced financially, when all her property transfers to her husband, and displaced racially, as she belongs neither to the white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans. Her husband changed her identity in the most literal sense too by renaming her. Her whole existence is pretty grim.

Honestly, the only parts of the narrative I actually enjoyed were the events that directly overlapped the events of Jane Eyre- the confinement in the attic, the biting of the brother and the inferno. The rest just failed to spark my imagination at all. I found neither of the characters particularly sympathetic, there was no identifying with either of them and their thoughts and actions simply didn't hold my interest. It's obviously the glaze of secrecy and deceit that gives Rochester his moody and mysterious appeal. Without it he's simply moody.

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