An introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea is both a response and a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, set in the West Indies and imagining the lives of Bertha Mason and her family. Bidisha describes how Jean Rhys’s novel portrays the racial and sexual exploitation at the heart of western civilisation and literature.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a visceral response to Charlotte Brontë’s treatment of Mr Rochester’s ‘mad’ first wife, Bertha, in her classic Victorian novel Jane Eyre. Jean Rhys reveals the horrifying reality that might lie behind a man’s claim that a woman is mad, and humanises Brontë’s grotesque invention, the now-archetypal and heavily symbolic ‘madwoman in the attic’. The novel is a vindicating howl of rage and injustice, and a skin-flaying revelation of personal sadism.

Wide Sargasso Sea is also a valuable historical work, written in the 1960s but set in the early 1800s, which explores Victorian paternalism, sexualised racism and the complex social and political history of the West Indies. Rhys vividly imagines Rochester’s time there when he met Bertha, who is a Creole – a naturalised West Indian of European descent. The Emancipation Act freeing slaves but compensating slave-owners for their ‘loss’ has been passed, England and France are the dominating and competing colonisers while Spanish colonial exploration is a past influence, and many formerly profitable estates are in decline because of the absence of exploited labour and a slump in the sugar market.

The novel is alternately narrated by Antoinette (Bertha’s much more elegant real name) and Rochester and has three settings: Antoinette’s crumbling West Indian family estate, Coulibri; an unnamed honeymoon house on a different island; and finally the attic room in which Antoinette is imprisoned in Thornfield Hall in England. In the West Indian settings Rhys skilfully evokes the seething impulses of anger, trauma, fear, mockery and suspicion between, amongst, towards and from former slaves originally from Africa, black West Indian servants who are the children of slaves, mixed-race illegitimate children of white plantation owners who impregnated female slaves, non-white naturalised Creoles, former slave-owners, house masters, newly impoverished plantation owners, colonial interlopers and prospecting entrepreneurs wanting to buy derelict estates. Despite the ending of slavery, the story is far from over: violent justice, a raw fight for survival and the possibility of yet more waves of exploitation are still to come. The hierarchy of racial difference is finely demarcated and noticed by everyone.

Antoinette is a lonely, intelligent, brooding individual who yearns for a mother figure (and finds one in her maid and ex-slave Christophine), yet the reasons for the rejection of Antoinette by Annette (her mother) are never made clear, while slanderous lies fill the space of ignorance and doubt.

Rhys is excellent when conveying the idea that certain things – like slavery – are so traumatic that they are unsayable, and that deliberate forgetting is a trauma response but also a survival mechanism. When Annette’s horse is poisoned by ex-slaves, Antoinette says, ‘I thought if I told no-one it might not be true’ (Part 1). Later, ‘I forgot, or told myself I had forgotten’ (Part 1). Annette wants ‘not to know that one is abandoned, lied about, helpless’ (Part 1). Discarded, slandered and vulnerable: Antoinette’s experience is to be exactly the same as her mother’s experience. The novel traces a repetitive, incestuous history with concise intensity, as if laying down a curse.

Race, colour, status and legitimacy

Annette is subject to judgemental gossip by other white women, who somehow hold her responsible for her first husband Mr Cosway’s failings and abuses. Cosway was a drunk whose sugar estate suffered because of the economic slump and the freeing of his slaves, described carelessly by the gossips as ‘Emancipation troubles’.[1] The rape of slave women by their white male owners like Cosway and the women’s forced pregnancy and child-bearing are written off indulgently as ‘old customs’, while judgement falls on ‘all those women’ and ‘the bastards’ they bore. Cosway attracts tacit excusal, his powerless female victims are pilloried and Annette is slandered because she ‘encouraged’ him. In this unsubstantiated speculation by background characters we find many of the themes of the novel overall: the insidious power of slanderous gossip; men’s sexual exploitation of women; racist sexual abuse; a community’s collusion in protecting perpetrators; a horror of racial mixing and an ever-present anxiety about race, colour, status and legitimacy.

Wearing a mask of civility

Annette’s second husband Mr Mason is a cliché of pure English, Victorian, male arrogance and colonial greed, physically white like Annette and Antoinette but culturally alien, ‘so sure of himself, so without a doubt English’. He marries Annette for her property, which is ‘going cheap’. By contrast, and in markedly similar language, Annette is ‘so without a doubt not English’. Despite looking like Mason, she is nothing like him in background and culture.

Mr Mason and later Mr Rochester are exploiters wanting ‘to make money as they all do’, in Christophine’s words. Early on, in this novel full of premonitions and portents, we are introduced to the idea that malicious people can arrive laughing or wearing a mask of civility; during Mason’s first visit to Annette there is ‘loud laughter’ from his male friends.

In Mr Mason the outright violence and exploitation of Mr Cosway’s slave-using has mutated into a blind derision which is no less inhumane. For Mr Mason, black people are ‘like children’ and yet also pathetically slothful, ‘too lazy to be dangerous’. Just like Cosway before him and Rochester after him, Mr Mason does not see black people as human beings of equal complexity and worth to himself.

Responding to Jane Eyre

The story of Mr Mason and Annette gives a quick and nasty preview of what is about to happen with Rochester and Antoinette. From the earliest days of their marriage Mason dismisses everything Annette says, including her correct assertion that Coulibri is not safe and that the family should leave. Exactly as she warned, ex-slaves set fire to Coulibri, Annette’s son Pierre dies in the attack and Annette is traumatised by this and angered by the fact that her warnings were ignored. She shouts that Mason ‘sneered’ at her like a ‘grinning hypocrite’ when she warned him. Mason takes the opportunity to call her mad and have her locked away and treated ‘as though she were dead, though she is living’. As any reader of Jane Eyre knows, this is exactly what is done to her daughter too.

The fire that destroys Coulibri and kills Antoinette’s brother Pierre is itself a foreshadowing of the fire that destroys Rochester’s home at Thornfield Hall at the end of Jane Eyre – a fire started by Bertha/Antoinette, in which she herself dies. Both fires are expressions of the pain, anger, revenge and despair of the people who started them and Wide Sargasso Sea is chock full of fire images which give the reader an unpleasant frisson, such as when Annette carries Pierre’s body out of the fire at Coulibri with her hair ‘loose’, just like her daughter in the fatal fire of Jane Eyre.

As Antoinette comes of age she senses, and the reader knows, that her life is going to take a permanent turn for the worse. When Mr Mason visits her at the convent and says ‘You can’t be hidden away all your life’, she thinks, ‘Why not?’ and the reader feels terrible dread on her behalf. Just like her mother, Antoinette has accurate intimations of what is about to happen, experiencing an immediate ‘dismay, sadness, loss’. Annette’s money and property have passed into male hands already and the next wave of selling-off of women has begun: Mr Mason is going to sell Antoinette to Mr Rochester.

As she grows older, Antoinette’s dreams begin directly to reference the events of Jane Eyre, as if Brontë’s novel has already set down, like an immovable curse upon a living creature, what is to happen. Antoinette sees her own living death in Thornfield Hall where she is interred ‘when I go up these steps. At the top’. When she imagines being ‘cold and not belonging’ (Part 2) in England, she has finally met her literary destiny, ‘I have slept there many times before, long ago’ (Part 2). This is one of many poignant references to the cultural legacy of Brontë’s novel, in which the monstrous Bertha was read about, feared and hated as an obstacle to Jane Eyre’s happiness long before Rhys filled in the rest of the story a century later. Antoinette-as-Bertha goes on to become a legend just like the suffering women martyrs she is taught about at her convent school: a complex symbol of man’s inhumanity to woman; of repressed sexuality in the Victorian age; of women’s unvoiced but powerful anger; of the ugly truth about colonialism; and of a family secret which is hidden away to preserve the appearance of decorum.

Wide Sargasso Sea psychologically vindicates Antoinette and Annette, demonstrating their intelligence, powerful emotions, personal seriousness and correct instincts. But these traits are not enough to save them. Rochester exploits Antoinette financially, uses her physically, manipulates her emotionally, betrays her sexually, tortures her psychologically and incarcerates her bodily until she commits violent suicide. He enjoys the sympathetic ministrations of his devoted servant-wife Jane Eyre for the rest of his life.

Fair copy manuscript of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre

Fair copy manuscript of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre [folio: 237r]

Rochester ‘stood stubborn and rigid, making no movement but to possess himself of my hand – what a hot and strong grasp he had – and how like quarried marble was his pale, firm, massive front at this moment!’. Mason interrupts Jane and Rochester’s marriage ceremony, disclosing Rochester’s marriage to Antoinette/Bertha, from the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, 1847.

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Rochester

Rochester is not a slave master but a prospector who regards the traumatic exploitation of slaves with flippant faux respect as he pretends to watch his language: ‘not nigger, not even negro, black people I must say’.[2] He is infected by a sense of racial and cultural superiority, insular ignorance and visceral racism, revolting against his new surroundings as if against a food he isn’t familiar with and so doesn’t like. While the newly married Antoinette proclaims happily, ‘This is my place and everything is on our side’, Rochester self-pityingly perceives the landscape as malevolent. He projects his own slyness on to nature: the sea moves ‘stealthily’, the place is ‘not only wild but menacing’, birdsong is ‘a very lonely sound’, rain sounds ‘inexorable’, the smell of flowers is ‘overpoweringly strong’ and the trees are a ‘green menace’.

Hatred of women, uncomprehending mistrust of the West Indies, physical discomfort, vicious racism, class paranoia, horror of miscegenation and an obsession with his status in the eyes of other men combine into a toxic personality. The tenderness and solicitude Antoinette shows actually increase his desire to hurt her: ‘Her pleasing expression annoys me’. From the beginning he ‘watched [Antoinette] critically’, deciding that ‘Creole of pure English descent she may be, but [her eyes] are not English or European either’ but ‘long, sad, dark, alien’. He dismisses the island’s beauty as ‘nothing’ and wants to violate it to uncover some secret which he thinks it’s cunningly concealing: ‘I want what it hides’. This is exactly what he attempts to do to Antoinette, too, and malicious men prey on his suspicions.

Despite Antoinette’s correct intuition about Rochester, she is bullied into marrying by him and Mr Mason’s son, her half-brother Richard Mason, who pressure her with ‘arguments, threats … half-serious blandishments and promises’. She gives in ‘unwillingly’ and Rochester gloats over her powerlessness: her ‘poor weapons’ are only ‘silence and a blank face’. Rochester received £30,000 for marrying Antoinette ‘without question or condition’, with no provision made for her, and she becomes wholly economically dependent on him.

Despite being the perpetrator, Rochester sees himself as a cornered victim who is in danger of being humiliated like ‘a fool’ as a ‘rejected suitor jilted by this Creole girl’. His greatest fear is of being laughed at by the only people he respects: other English men. In a letter to his father he vows ‘never to be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love’. Just like Antoinette – could Rochester but see it – he is the less-favoured sibling yearning for a parent’s affections. He vows that he will behave nobly towards these men, with no ‘furtive shabby manoeuvres’, although this is how he treats Antoinette. He accuses his father, ‘You have no love at all for me. Nor had my brother. Your plan succeeded because I was young … foolish, trusting … you were able to do this to me’. Antoinette could write exactly the same letter to Rochester about what he and Richard Mason have done to her. Yet despite suffering under the patriarchal cosh just like Antoinette, Rochester doesn’t feel any human commonality with her. Because of her racial and sexual difference from him, he can’t see her as being in the same position, having the same human feelings as him, feeling an equally harsh grievance or having the same rights.

Introduced to tenderness, intimacy and physical abandon, Antoinette has let down her guard and is now open to being hurt. That is the risk we all take when we fall in love, but Antoinette has been tricked and Rochester is only pretending to be in love. She asks him, ‘Why did you make me want to live?’ He revels in his power over her, replying, ‘Because I wished it’. In a loving couple, this would be playful pillow talk. In Rochester, it is a terrifying hint.

Rochester gaslights, manipulates and deliberately confuses Antoinette, whose instincts are correct in warning her off him. Throughout, women’s statements of reality are said by men to be the products of raving madness as the Cosway, Mason and Rochester men work together to exploit, abuse, destroy and dispose of Annette and Antoinette. When Antoinette’s aunt Cora intercedes on behalf of Antoinette, Richard Mason describes Rochester to her as ‘an honourable gentleman, not a rascal’ whom he ‘would trust … with my life’. Antoinette’s welfare is not protected by any lawyer’s settlement, while the men’s interests are protected by a casual gentlemen’s agreement in their own favour. When Aunt Cora tries to answer back, Richard Mason resorts to classic ageist sexism, macho aggression and accusations of madness or stupidity, shouting, ‘for God’s sake shut up you old fool’.

All the male characters in the novel use underhanded methods to encourage each other to hurt women. A sly letter from a local mixed-race man calling himself Daniel Cosway alleges to Rochester that not only was Antoinette’s mother mad, her first husband Mr Cosway was also ‘raving’; Antoinette has inherited both doses and Daniel Cosway is himself one of Mr Cosway’s many illegitimate mixed-race children. Just like Rochester, Daniel Cosway is angry at his father; yet it is the women who are hurt with these allegations of race and class intermixing, illegitimacy, female madness and female slatternliness. Daniel Cosway plays on abusive men’s classic defence of their own sadism and sexual immorality, which is that they have been tricked by devious women: Rochester was ‘bewitch’ by Antoinette the same way Mr Mason was ‘bewitch with her mother’. For Rochester, who is suspicious of the black islanders’ voodoo practices, the accusation of witchery has a fearful double impact. Daniel Cosway further inflates Rochester’s racism by hinting that while witchery is in the black islanders, madness is in ‘all these white Creoles’. He also presses Rochester’s most sensitive point, the suspicion that Antoinette is herself mixed race and another of Mr Cosway’s illegitimate slave-class children. At the same time, the men work together to uphold each other’s self image: Daniel Cosway praises Rochester for his reputation as a man with ‘a kind word for all, black, white, also coloured’, which is as far from the truth as could be possible.

Rhys looks shockingly closely at the mélange of racism, sexism, classism and personal sadism which drives Rochester. Rochester says openly that although he may lust after Antoinette – he is ‘thirsty’ for her, a telling warning image of casual consumption – ‘that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her’.

He tortures his wife by sexually using a young servant called Amélie on the other side of a thin partition from Antoinette’s room. His sexual usage of Amélie, as with his usage of Antoinette, is a revenge against imagined provocations: he thinks Amélie is sneering at him, ‘full of delighted malice, so intelligent, above all so intimate’. Yet this intimate, delighted malice is all his own. Just as with Antoinette, Rochester’s usage of Amélie only increases his racism; when he has finished with her ‘her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought’.

A horror novel

Wide Sargasso Sea is a horror novel, one where the source of horror lies in common ‘domestic’ cruelty. Rochester renames his wife Bertha, just like a slave-owner naming his human chattel, to assert his dominance, to distance himself from the taint of her (alleged) family madness and to distance her from her own heritage. He has taken Antoinette’s money, her property, her sense of security, her emotional happiness, her sexual dignity and now, finally, her name. When she laughs disdainfully he calls it ‘a crazy laugh’ which justifies, in his own delusion, his abuse of her. In his psychopathic self-pity, everything he has deliberately done to Antoinette, he pretends to believe she has done to him: ‘You deceived me, betrayed me’.

In brief, jagged, sizzlingly frank and memorable flashes the novel shows nakedly and finally what Rochester really thinks of Antoinette, his sadism, his twisted self-pity and his self-serving lies: she is a ‘drunken lying lunatic – gone her mother’s way’ who he is ‘tied to’ for life unless he does something. The final third of the novel is breathtakingly disturbing. Everything Rochester has experienced of Antoinette, her love, kindness and sexuality, he uses against her: she is a slut who’ll ‘not care who she’s loving’; she behaves sexually ‘as no sane woman would – or could’; her joy and beauty are ‘so pleased, so satisfied’. All things which he himself, not Antoinette, is guilty of. Rochester gives himself permission to take ‘revenge’ on Antoinette who has ‘played her games so often that the lowest shrug and jeer at her’. In reality, it is Rochester who has been game-playing and deceiving and the servants shrug and jeer at him, not her. At long last his true sadism is plainly revealed: ‘She said she loved this place. This is the last she’ll see of it’.

The more Antoinette suffers with the human pain he has caused, the less human he sees her as, until she is like ‘a doll … a marionette’, a plaything and object to be manipulated. At the very end of the novel he describes her, with skin-crawling patronage, as if he were not the perpetrator of her destruction, as ‘only a ghost … nothing left but hopelessness’. And since, like all sadists, he enjoys torturing his victim, having pretended she is mad and done everything he can to mistreat her until she feels like she is indeed going mad, he makes sure she can never get away from him: ‘She’s mad but mine, mine … my lunatic. My mad girl’.

This unforgettable novel is a damning indictment of slavery and colonialism, the centuries of trauma they create and the racism that underpins them; and also of the most intricate woman-hating abuse, patriarchal laws which make women dependent and sexist slander based on age-old stereotypes. Any woman on the planet who has survived an abusive ‘relationship’ in the 21st century, let alone in the 20th century when the book was written, or the 19th century when the book is set, will recognise the sociopathic two-facedness of Mr Mason, Richard Mason, Daniel Cosway and Rochester and the way their male cronies and even male strangers collude to support the financial, sexual and emotional abuse of women.

Anger, sorrow, hatred, fear, desire, prejudice and pain are mixed together and melted down to form the scalding ore of Wide Sargasso Sea. For a reader of this blistering masterpiece, it is devastating to come to the last page and know that with all this, the worst is still to come.

Footnotes

[1] All the quotations under the subheadings 'Race, colour, status and legitimacy', 'Wearing a mask of civility' and 'Responding to Jane Eyre' are from Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea unless otherwise stated.

[1] All the quotations under the subheadings 'Rochester' and 'A horror novel' are from Part 2 for Wide Sargasso Sea.

 

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  • Bidisha
  • Bidisha is a writer, a BBC radio and TV broadcaster and a Trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation. She is the author of two novels, two bestselling works of travel and reportage, Venetian Masters: Under the Skin of the City of Love and Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine, and most recently her fifth book Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices, based on her outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees.

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