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Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 30 Mar 2000
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Jean Rhys' late, literary masterpiece "Wide Sargasso Sea" was inspired by Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre", and is set in the lush, beguiling landscape of Jamaica in the 1830s. Born into an oppressive, colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. After their marriage the rumours begin, poisoning her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is driven towards madness.
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Her grand attempt to tell what she felt was the story of Jane Eyre's 'madwoman in the attic', Bertha Rochester, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is edited with an introduction and notes by Angela Smith in Penguin Classics. Born into the oppressive, colonialist society of 1930s Jamaica, white Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent beauty and sensuality. After their marriage, however, disturbing rumours begin to circulate which poison her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is inexorably driven towards madness, and her husband into the arms of another novel's heroine. This classic study of betrayal, a seminal work of postcolonial literature, is Jean Rhys's brief, beautiful masterpiece. Jean Rhys (1894-1979) was born in Dominica. Coming to England aged 16, she drifted into various jobs before moving to Paris, where she began writing and was 'discovered' by Ford Madox Ford. Her novels, often portraying women as underdogs out to exploit their sexualities, were ahead of their time and only modestly successful. From 1939 (when Good Morning, Midnight was written) onwards she lived reclusively, and was largely forgotten when she made a sensational comeback with her account of Jane Eyre's Bertha Rochester, Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966. If you enjoyed Wide Sargasso Sea, you might like Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, also available in Penguin Classics. 'She took one of the works of genius of the nineteenth century and turned it inside-out to create one of the works of genius of the twentieth century' Michele Roberts, The TimesSee all Product description
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He was tricked into marrying Antoinette (as is revealed in Jane Eyre, but there is more detail in Wide Sargasso Sea) and he didn't abandon her when her madness became apparent or have her committed to an asylum because he knew what those kind of institutions were like.
In wanting to marry Jane, he didn't feel as though he was already married and committing bigamy because Bertha was no kind of a wife.
I liked the way Wide Sargasso Sea gives the reader the social and historical context to the life of Rochester's first wife, how they met and how being mixed race means that she was never really accepted by black or white people in the West Indies where she was born and raised.
Wide Sargasso Sea is narrated in turn by Antoinette and Mr Rochester. I liked the vivid descriptions of the landscape and the way the heat of Jamaica contrasts with the cold in Jane Eyre.
I did feel it was a little disjointed in parts, but a good read for any Jane Eyre fan.
I had to read this for my book club and I was really reluctant to read a 'prequel' to my beloved "Jane Eyre", but this was beautifully written and so different in tone and setting, with a completely different energy that it was immensely enjoyable on its own merits. I did feel it added to my understanding of Mr Rochester and my enjoyment of the original book.
Also, it's super short, so great for these bookclub months when everyone is really busy. No harm in being pragmatic!
If you are particularly interested in the character of Bertha Mason/Antionette, Madwoman in the Attic is also a good non-fiction read.
The book has three parts and each part sees a different narrator. Part one takes place during Antoinette's childhood and it is she who narrates. Part two takes place just after Rochester and Antoinette marry and it is Rochester who narrates. Then finally part three, which takes place in England. Antoinette is now within the attic of Thornfield Hall. At the beginning of part three, we hear briefly from Grace Poole, Antoinette's guard, we then hear the remainder from Antoinette herself.
Personally, this short novel really came to life during parts two and three. I found it interesting that during part two - following the marriage of Antoinette and Rochester - we hear the story from his point of view. Rhys wrote this novel to give the mad woman in the attic a voice, yet here she takes it away again to a certain degree. Although this is not meant as a criticism on my part, it is interesting to ponder why.
However depsite all this, WIDE SARGASSO SEA is a beautiful, fraught novel of love, obsession, death, folklore and madness. There are many layers to this little book and many themes - for example, there is a recurrent theme of dreams and mirrors. Rhys is also an expert at not only creating very believeable characters but also at bringing the location to life. The way that she describes the forest, through the eyes of Rochester, really helps you to understand just how hostile he finds the foreign place he is living in with his new bride.
I loved this book. Regardless of whether you have read "Jane Eyre" or not, there is much to enjoy here. I'm really looking forward to discussing it with my bookclub.
Oh, and a final comment on this particular edition - I highly recommend it. I read this book in preparation for a bookclub; the introduction, explanatory notes etc, were very informative. And, as each page has small line numbers next to the text, the commentary does not have to get in the way of your reading experience - if you want the explanation, you just turn to the back of the novel and find the relevant note.