“There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”
Wide Sargasso Sea, a book I had read twice before and of which I had very good memories was chosen by my book group, so I was pleased to have an excuse to re-read it. Although – as is often the mysterious way with books we’ve loved in the past – I found I no longer had my old copy with its lovely vibrant cover, so I bought a new edition, with a rather less vibrant cover.
Set against a backdrop of lush, Jamaican plantations suffused with tropical colour, there is a languid rhythm to Rhys’ prose which seems to echo the land in which we find ourselves.
Jean Rhys’ inspiration for this novel was of course the nineteenth century classic Jane Eyre (one of my favourite books). Bringing the madwoman out of the attic, and exploring the woman of whom we catch only glimpses of in that famous, earlier novel. In this novel Rhys explores the imagined childhood, adolescence and young womanhood of ‘Bertha’, showing us how, struggling to find her place within an oppressive patriarchal society driven by questions of race, she came to be the mad woman in the attic at Thornfield Hall. From early privilege in Jamaica, to poverty; we watch Antoinette’s final descent into ‘madness’ and incarceration.
Born into the suffocating colonialist society of early nineteenth century Jamaica, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway was allowed to run rather wild as a young girl. The daughter of a former slave owner – Antoinette grows up in a world where colour is at the heart of all communities – it dictates who has the power – who is accepted and who isn’t. As she grows up Antoinette begins to realise that her position as a creole is a difficult one, belonging to neither the white European world or to the black Jamaican community. Antoinette’s father is dead, and eventually her beautiful, vague mother re-marries Mr Mason, who has a son from his first marriage; Richard – a man with who readers of Jane Eyre will be familiar.
A fire at the family home has catastrophic consequences, her mother is traumatised, taken away to get better and Antoinette is sent to a boarding school. Antoinette has little contact with her mother after that, and eventually she too dies, and Antoinette’s fate is in the hands of her stepfather and his son.
A marriage to a wealthy Englishman is arranged – a marriage Antoinette has doubts about herself – doubts she allows her fiancé who she barely knows to brush aside. Antoinette has a particularly close relationship with her old nurse Christophine, who is openly distrustful of the Englishman – who Rhys never actually names, the reader is left to assume his identity. During this section of the novel the perspective shifts between Antoinette and her husband. He is a man immediately at odds with his surroundings, suspicious of the local community – he is ripe to be swayed by rumour and conjecture.
“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”
Daniel; a local mixed race man – claiming to be Antoinette’s illegitimate half-brother, writes spiteful little notes to the Englishman, slowly dripping the poison necessary to add credence to his already raised suspicions. Daniel speaks of madness in the family, allows Antoinette’s husband to believe himself to have been deliberately deceived. He re-names his new wife Bertha – a name he claims to prefer – a name Antoinette dislikes, as so often her opinion is not listened to or acted upon. Her, name and her voice taken away by men, her mental state questioned – how easy it becomes to call a woman mad.
Antoinette, already emotionally vulnerable, and with her trusty nurse’s suspicion ringing in her ears, is devastated by her husband’s betrayal of her, and the apparent failure of her marriage. Becoming paranoid her behaviour becomes more erratic seeming only to confirm the spiteful whispers her husband has been listening to.
“If I was bound for hell, let it be hell. No more false heavens. No more damned magic. You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing.”
In the final part of the novel, Bertha – as she is now called – is locked away at the top of a great house in England. In the care of a woman named Grace, she awaits the promised visits from her husband that never come – and gradually becomes aware of the visitors to the house – a whole world taking place beneath her feet to which she is not admitted.
This was a really wonderful re-read, the imagery is rich and evocative. I was surprised how much I had forgotten in the last fifteen years or so, and how much more I got from the novel now, that I suppose is the real pleasure of re-reading.