by Jean Rhys
I’ve always had reservations about Mr. Rochester. To me, he never seemed like the desirable man that Jane Eyre and so many readers of Jane Eyre saw him as. So Wide Sargasso Sea, a book imagining the backstory of his first marriage, played right into my suspicions.
My copy of the book included relevant excerpts from Jane Eyre after the main text*. Reading through Rochester’s description of his marriage, I found myself getting angry at him. “How dare you say that! That’s not what actually happened!” It took me a moment to remind myself that by “actually happened” I meant “happened in Jean Rhys’s version”. And that in fact his version of events might have been perfectly accurate as far as Charlotte Bronte was concerned. Even so, I find that Jean Rhys’s version is the one I believe. Rochester in Jane Eyre is just trying to save face and convince himself that he doesn’t bear any responsibility.
On the other hand, I didn’t find myself liking Antionette/Bertha in Wide Sargasso Sea much more than I did in Jane Eyre. She’s a much more developed character in Wide Sargasso Sea, but my primary response is still to feel sorry for her rather than to connect with her. Her life is a vivid example of the powerlessness of women at that time. At nearly every step, her future is controlled by the men in her life, aided by laws that gave men ownership of all their wives’ property.
The majority of Wide Sargasso Sea takes place in Jamaica and in Dominica (where Jean Rhys was born) in the first few decades after slavery was abolished in the colonies of the British empire and one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its portrayal of the confusion of relationships between black and white people following emancipation. Relationships had changed so suddenly that no one knew where they stood with each other.
Antionette, the future Mrs. Rochester, is the white daughter of a formerly slaveholding family. While reading the book, I had the strange sensation of feeling sorry at times for the former slaveholders who had lost most of their wealth and were hated by many of the newly freed blacks and looked down on by most other whites. I had to quickly remind myself that Antionette was still far better off than the former slaves. At the same time, Wide Sargasso Sea also clearly depicts the racism and hypocrisy of the white characters. (Such as a white man thinking it disgusting to touch a black person in any manner- but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a black woman when he feels like it.) Although the novel is written from the perspective of white characters, I felt that Jean Rhys did an admirable job in sympathetically showing how both black and white people were struggling to figure out their places in the new world they found themselves in.
*I didn’t know it until I started reading, but the copy I grabbed from the library was the Norton Critical Edition. Which means it had many footnotes, both helpful and unhelpful. More interestingly it also contained excerpts from Jane Eyre, and essay by Rachael Carson explaining what the Sargasso Sea actually is, and a fascinating selection of letters that Jean Rhys wrote discussing the book while she was writing it. I’d definitely recommend this edition.