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Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea

The idea of the madwoman in the attic is a staple of English (and other) literatures. The best-known example is, of course, Jane Eyre. While Rhys, in her previous books, did not take on the madwoman in the attic theme, she did take on a related theme, namely the idea of a woman struggling in what is essentially a man’s world and all too often failing to cope with this world. In this book she marries the two themes, telling the story of the first Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. Let me just say straightaway that, unlike other more recent prequels/sequels, this novel is pure Rhys and not in any way a pastiche of Charlotte Brontë. Indeed, if you were not familiar with the novel, you could be unaware of its association with Jane Eyre. The name Rochester is not mentioned. Mrs. Rochester is initially known as Antoinette Cosway and becomes Antoinette Mason only when her mother marries Mr. Mason. Her husband does address her as Bertha but it is not clear why and it is a name she rejects. In short, unless you remember the maiden name of the first Mrs. Rochester or recognise the name of the servant, Grace Poole, you might be forgiven for not making the Jane Eyre connection.

The story has three parts. The first part is narrated by Antoinette Cosway. Her father is dead and her mother – Mr. Cosway’s second wife – who comes from Martinique is not liked by the Jamaicans. They have an estate at Coulibri but they have little money and few people will work for them. The estate is run down. Antoinette has a younger brother who is clearly ill though it is not clear what is the matter with him. Much of her story is about the problems the family faces till Mrs. Cosway marries Mr. Mason. Even then the problems are not over as the house is attacked by some of the locals and burned to the ground. The family escapes but the brother dies, Antoinette is clearly ill and the mother is apparently taken off to an asylum.

The second part is narrated by Mr. Rochester, shortly after his marriage to Antoinette. They have left Jamaica and are on one of the Windward Islands (presumably Martinique) on an estate owned by Antoinette’s mother. It is here that Mr. Rochester realizes that there is more going on than he thought. He learns from one of the illegitimate sons that there is madness in the family. He sees her strange behaviour, shouting at the servants and her strange relationship with her mother’s servant, Christophine, a practitioner of the local form of voodoo, and also the odd behaviour of the other servants. He himself is by no means without blame, clearly rejecting her sexually. However, he clearly is not happy there and, at the end, they leave.

The final episode is again narrated by Antoinette. By now she is now the madwoman in the attic, located upstairs with Grace Poole to look after her. However, she seems to have some degree of lucidity, though rejects the idea that they are in England. She is smart enough to steal Grace Poole’s keys and wanders around at night where she sees what must be Jane Eyre (who thinks Antoinette is a ghost). However, her imagination is alive and she clearly sees images of back home. The book ends inconclusively.

Rhys superbly gives us a portrait of a woman lost in her environment and lost in a man’s world, which she does not even vaguely understand. If you are looking for more Charlotte Brontë, you will be disappointed. But if you are looking for first-class Rhys, this is a great novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1966 by André Deutsch

Other links

Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys and Charlotte Bronte The use of symbolism in the presentation of characters and plots in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea
Creole Identities and Race Relations in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Sugar Cane Alley