In 1966 Jean Rhys reemerged after a long silence with a novel called Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys had enjoyed minor literary success in the 1920s and '30s with a series of evocative novels featuring women protagonists adrift in Europe, verging on poverty, hoping to be saved by men. By the '40s, however, her work was out of fashion, too sad for a world at war. And Rhys herself was often too sad for the world--she was suicidal, alcoholic, troubled by a vast loneliness. She was also a great writer, despite her powerful self-destructive impulses.
Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress who grew up in the West Indies on a decaying plantation. When she comes of age she is married off to an Englishman, and he takes her away from the only place she has known--a house with a garden where "the paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched."
The novel is Rhys's answer to Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë's book had long haunted her, mostly for the story it did not tell--that of the madwoman in the attic, Rochester's terrible secret. Antoinette is Rhys's imagining of that locked-up woman, who in the end burns up the house and herself. Wide Sargasso Sea follows her voyage into the dark, both from her point of view and Rochester's. It is a voyage charged with soul-destroying lust. "I watched her die many times," observes the new husband. "In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty."
Rhys struggled over the book, enduring rejections and revisions, wrestling to bring this ruined woman out of the ashes. The slim volume was finally published when she was 70 years old. The critical adulation that followed, she said, "has come too late." Jean Rhys died a few years later, but with Wide Sargasso Sea she left behind a great legacy, a work of strange, scary loveliness. There has not been a book like it before or since. Believe me, I've been searching.
This book disappointed me as it could have been much better written. After reading Jane Eyre, it is a definite letdown! But others have enjoyed it and it WAS made into a motion picture, so it must have some redeeming features.
I was kind of mixed on this one. Even though I've never read Jane Eyre, I have seen several movie versions of the novel and am quite familiar with the story of Rochester and the "mad" woman who lives in the upper reaches of the gloomy Rochester estate. I think I was hoping for more character development in "Wide Sargasso Sea" both of Rochester and Antoinette Mason. However, for me the narrative was choppy at best, and hard to follow. I never got a real feel for the characters or their motivations. I guess I was expecting more from this.
The other side of the madwoman in the attic met in Jane Eyre...the beauty of this book is not just the tragic story of a woman devalued, but also the language and sense of place the Jean Rhys uses to lull the reader through the book.
We discussed this in our book club. This is a possible prequel to Jane Eyre. Some had read Jane Eyre and some had not.It lets you feel that the woman in the attic had a vibrancy prior to her prior to her marriage.I think she does a good job of giving the other side of the story. Reading it does require an ability to move back and forth between the two characters without a formal heading, but i=I think it works well
Wide Sargasso Sea was planned initially as a prequel to Jane Eyre in order to give more background information on two characters whose troubled lives are sparcely detailed in Bronte's original work. Our author, Jean Rhys, guides us through an island paradise-gone-off and spares no literary expense in delivering as true a picture as possible in colonial, post-slavery Jamaica and Dominica. While this novel does not examine the full list of human emotions, it needles into the most delicate of those feelings and explores paranoid delusions at their most extreme.
The descriptions of madness are indeed vivid. In fact, when I finished reading the book, I was left with a very disatisfied, mildly depressed feeling, and the residual effects took a few hours to wear off. If you are a very stable-minded individual, this book will still be enjoyable, but if you are slightly off center emotionally (and most folks are) the reading of this book ought to be planned- with some fun activity afterward to balance out the serious tone the book leaves with you.