I think my favourite book of last year has to have been ‘Jane Eyre’ such an incredible read that every time I have seen a review of it or talked about it since I have wanted to open the book at page one and read again. Yet that said I am not the biggest fan of re-reading a book too close to the last time, a small issue I had with ‘The Green Carnation Prize’ last year, and so instead I thought I would try ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys which tells the tale of the first Mrs Rochester, though its also a brilliant read in its own right which I wasn’t really expecting.
‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is a novel of three parts and as it opens in part one we find ourselves in Jamaica in the 1830’s. Antoinette Cosway, now Mason, tells us the story of her youth from growing up with her mother and disabled brother several years after her father seemingly drank himself to death after the emancipation of the slaves – so he then leaves his family in the same state. Things change however when Antoinette’s mother meets Mr Mason, and Englishman of wealth who asks for her hand and restores the land, only the local community have other ideas and in a rebellious act burn their house down. From here things seem to deteriorate further with the death of her brother causing a madness in her mother soon Antoinette is sent to a convent. If you’re thinking I have given everything away then you would be wrong as this all happens in just part one which is a mere 40 pages.
The next narrator to take the helm is an unnamed English gentleman (though clearly it’s mean he is Rochester) who has recently married. As we read on we begin to recognise who is wife is and how he married her due to a mixture of her bewitching allure and also for the fortune she holds from the death of her steward, I think that’s the write expression I am sure I could be wrong. From here I shall say no more on the plot other than that our new narrator receives word that the wife he met may not quite have the history or the stability he is lead to believe and as the reader we follow on from there.
The thing that I loved the most about ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ was the writing. Jean Rhys manages to depict a steadying madness both through Antoinette’s first person narrative, which becomes more jumbled and slightly confused as she reflects on her youth and again later in the book, and through the observations people make of her. Jamaica is vividly drawn, I could smell the flowers and feel the heat and delight of the land as well as its darker sides which Rhys makes sure we enter on several occasions. Antoinette, or Bertha as she becomes, is a complex character and if you’re like me you will be left wondering if the madness was always there or whether circumstances and desperation could be the cause.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I started ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as all I had really heard about it was that it was a prequel of sorts to the classic novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Whilst this is in many ways true to simply say that would be to do Jean Rhys a disservice. This is a fantastic novel that you can read as a stand alone tale of a young woman born into hard circumstances, the decisions she has to make and the effect that this then has on her throughout her life. 8.5/10
I am now left wondering if I should maybe try some other prequels like Susan Hill’s ‘Mrs De Winter’? There is of course the possibility of other off shoots like ‘The Eyre Affair’ which I have always been somewhat wary of – I am aware that with ‘Rebecca’ being one of my favourite reads that might seem rather silly as it’s sort of a twist on ‘Jane Eyre’ too. I am also left wanting to read many more of the novels of Jean Rhys, can you recommend which ones I should give a whirl? Or maybe I shouldn’t as I know she had vanished for some time before this novel was published.