Antoinette really is the girl he told you not to worry about.
*WARNING* this review will 100% spoil the entire plot of Jane Eyre for you so stop reading right this second if you don’t want to ruin it for yourself xx
Charlotte Bronte’s ‘mad woman in the attic’ is a gothic plot device no more. In Jean Rhys’ masterpiece, she breaks free the wife that Mr Rochester had squirrelled away and places her centre stage in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Set well before Jane Eyre descends on Thornfield Hall, Rhys takes us to postcolonial Jamaica – the home of Creole heiress, Antoinette Cosway. A few years after the Slavery Abolition Act 1883 is passed, the once – disgustingly so -wealthy Antoinette and her mother now live in near poverty and maddening isolation. Unsure of her place in the world, Antoinette’s life is turned upside down when she marries a moody and mysterious Englishman.
I know Jean Rhys is literally piggybacking off Bronte, but this novel is so well executed that it’s outstanding in it’s own right. Jean Rhys completely flips Bronte’s gothic novel on its head, telling the story from the perspective of Antoinette (or Bertha, as old Rochester renames her). Side note: if you thought Mr Rochester was a twat in Jane Eyre, you haven’t seen the half of it.
“There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”
Drawing on everything from postcolonial racial tension, mental health issues, adultery, witchcraft – you name it, this novel probably brings it up at some point. The first part of Wide Sargasso Sea focuses on Antoinette Cosway’s lonely childhood in the lush, heady Jamaican heat. This inebriating, intense setting is mirrored by the unreliability of the narrators – Antoinette and Rochester – and the other characters. We’re never quite sure who is telling the truth as rumours circulate and Antoinette’s family history is continually called into question. Antoinette finds herself both within and without a place in this new postcolonial world; her family are unable to truly settle in Jamaica, yet they cannot call England home.
“You can pretend for a long time, but one day it all falls away and you are alone. We are alone in the most beautiful place in the world…”
Set in the years after the demise of the British slave trade, one of the novel’s strongpoints is the way it presents a shift in the power dynamic between former Jamaican slaves and the abhorrent – and now powerless – slave drivers. While Antoinette herself is mixed race, the justified distain that the other islanders have for the Cosway’s leads them to brand her a ‘white cockroach’, alienating her further from either of her possible homelands. Arguably, it’s this sense of displacement that leads to her undoing.
I guess the novel’s downfall is probably the ropey bits at the end that explicitly – needlessly – tie Wide Sargasso Sea in with Jane Eyre. Like, we already know who Antoinette is and how she fits in with the novel so literally placing her in Thornfield at that fateful, fiery moment (you know the one I mean, the fiery one) made my eyes roll out of my head. Anyway, I deducted half a star for this because the novel is honestly so good it doesn’t deserve to lose a whole star.
Overall, this book is mad (ha) and I would highly recommend.