Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Published by W.W. Norton & Co
Life is not easy for the white families left in Jamaica after the emancipation of slaves. Many of the former slaves, quite understandably, harbor a great deal of resentment towards their former masters, and riots and attacks are not unknown. It is into this world that Antoinette Cosway is born. By the time we meet, her father is dead and her mother’s nerves somewhat frayed from her impoverished life in this unstable country. A new stepfather gives Antoinette’s family the name Mason and more financial security, but also locks her mother away in her despair after Antoinette’s younger brother is killed by the angry mob that burns down their house.
It is with this background that Antoinette Cosway Mason is married to a man chosen by her stepfather and stepbrother, a Mr. Rochester from England. Antoinette’s difficult childhood has certainly taken a toll on her, but she is still perfectly sane. Until her marriage, that is. I was hoping that “Wide Sargasso Sea” would give me more insight into Rochester’s life and give me more sympathy for the way he acts towards Jane in “Jane Eyre.” It actually had the exact opposite effect. Rochester’s treatment of both Antoinette and the life she loved disgusted me. He clearly hated life in the Caribbean and made no attempt to try to acclimate. And once he decided that he liked neither the Caribbean nor Antoinette, he began taking his feelings out on her, including calling her Bertha because he believed that her mother, also named Antoinette, was insane, even though she begged him to use her real name.
“Wide Sargasso Sea” is fascinating both as a post-colonial novel and as a prequel to “Jane Eyre,” even if it made me furious, it is definitely worth a read. Recommended.
I read “Wide Sargasso Sea” in preparation for the most recent episode of our podcast, What’s Old is New, this one on “Jane Eyre.”
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