Saturday, 1 February 2014

'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys (1966)

Synopsis: Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. It focuses on the character of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester's first wife and the mad woman of the Thornfield attic. Bertha is renamed Antoinette Cosway and the book covers her marriage to Edward Rochester and her descent into madness. Wide Sargasso Sea is split into three parts. The first part of the book focuses on Antoinette's childhood in Jamaica and is told from her own point of view. The second part of the book is told (mostly) from the perspective of the newly-married Edward Rochester. The final part of the book is told from the perspectives of Antoinette and Grace Poole while Antoinette is at Thornfield, England. The story then goes briefly into the events of Jane Eyre.

Jean Rhys was brought up in Dominica and read Jane Eyre for the first time when she was 16 and had not long arrived in England. Rhys strongly disapproved of Charlotte Bronte's treatment of Bertha Mason. She felt that Jane Eyre demonised Bertha and that the book would have been far more interesting if Charlotte Bronte had made Bertha the main character. About 60 years later Rhys would go on to write a prequel to Jane Eyre in order to "right the wrongs" of Charlotte Bronte's book. Wide Sargasso Sea is now widely considered to be a classic in its own right and has been much praised by feminists for giving the character of Bertha Mason a more sympathetic portrayal.

When I read classic books I can usually understand why they're classics. There have been some classic books that I've found overrated but I've still been able to find merit in them. But not this time. As far as I'm concerned Wide Sargasso Sea is absolute rubbish! I feel that strongly about it. I don't want to upset its fans but I really hated this book.

If I hadn't read Jane Eyre then I don't think I'd have had a clue what was actually going on in Wide Sargasso Sea. I found Jean Rhys's writing so confusing and hard to follow that I often had to re-read sentences. The story jumps around rapidly, the narrators will change around without a moment's notice, and the language itself is just so convoluted and dry. I absolutely hated Rhys's writing style. I found it beyond tedious.

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books of all time and Wide Sargasso Sea completely fails as a Jane Eyre prequel. Considering that Wide Sargasso Sea is supposed to be the story of Jane Eyre's Bertha Mason I was extremely irritated at how much of Bertha's backstory Rhys changed. Rochester and Bertha Antoinette meet about 30 years later than they should have done if Rhys had gone with Charlotte Bronte's timeline. This is because Rhys wanted to incorporate some historic race riots into her story. I can understand Rhys wanting to emphasise the racial tensions that were going on in Jamaica but her altering of the time period really annoys me because it's simply not giving a true depiction of Bertha's life. Also, Bertha Antoinette isn't even a real Mason in this book. She's Mr Mason's stepdaughter instead of his actual daughter.

I disagree with the thing that many feminists praise about Wide Sargasso Sea. I'm completely against the suggestion that Bertha wasn't a sympathetic character until Jean Rhys came along. You can accuse me of being biased all you want but I have always considered Bertha to be an extremely tragic and sympathetic character. Her family deceived a man into marrying her before she could become a burden to them and - once she was off their hands - she then lost all grip of her sanity and ended up in a cold, foreign country. In her more lucid moments this must have caused Bertha grief. Yes Bertha isn't a particularly well-developed character and she doesn't get very much page-time but then Jane Eyre isn't her story. It's Jane's! And I actually find Bertha more sympathetic in Jane Eyre! What makes Bertha go insane in Wide Sargasso Sea? Rochester! The only reason why Bertha seems to go insane in this book is because her husband didn't love her or her country and because he once slept with a servant. But hang on a minute, I thought Rhys was trying to give us a Bertha who is a strong character? How can I believe that Bertha is a strong woman when she goes insane just because she suffers rejection by a man?

I also hated Wide Sargasso Sea because of Rhys's depiction of Rochester. It couldn't be any more obvious that she hates him and that really upset me. Of course I realise that Rochester has his faults but I absolutely refuse to believe that he could have ever acted in the way that he acts in this book. The Rochester that I know and love would never insist on calling his wife a different name when she obviously detests it. He would never brood and complain constantly. He would never have had sex with a servant girl in the room next to his wife and not even care about his wife overhearing them. The Rochester of Wide Sargasso Sea doesn't even talk like the Rochester of Charlotte Bronte's book! OH ROCHESTER! WHAT DID JEAN RHYS DO TO YOU?!

I hated this book and I never want to read it again. I'll never understand how people can love this book. I'll never understand why this book is considered to be some kind of literary, feminist masterpiece. The writing is horrible. The characters are all flat and unsympathetic. It ruins Jane Eyre's Edward Rochester. It's a terrible prequel to Jane Eyre and a terrible book in its own right. In fact the only remotely good thing that I can say about Wide Sargasso Sea is that it's short. As the book is a novella it's only 150 pages long. Again, I'm sorry if this post offends any fans but I despise this book. I think it's an overrated mess.

Rating: 0.5/5 (the lowest rating I'll give)

P.S. If you're after a genuinely brilliant Bronte-inspired read then I strongly recommend that you read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca instead.


Hamlette said...

Right! I'm never reading this book, then. Thanks for saving me some time!

Hannah said...

Well, I do love helping people :D Seriously, this book is awful. I wouldn't even recommend it to a person who hated 'Jane Eyre'. The writing is unbelievably torturous and boring.

Mizzie-Me said...

I generally dislike explicit feminism in literature – it sounds outrageous for a modern woman to say that, but what I actually mean to say is I dislike the "negative" kind of feminism – the sort that tries to prove a point by demonizing all the males (like you are describing Rochester's treatment here) or interpreting everything, absolutely EVERYTHING as bad treatment of women. Neither of these techniques gets anything across, in my opinion.

Hannah said...