WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys (First published by André Duetsch, 1966)

sargassoIf you’re as geographically challenged as I am, you probably need to be told exactly where The Sargasso Sea is. A Google search will throw up maps locating the stretch of water in the North Atlantic near the West Indies. Further research identifies it as a kind of oceanic black hole into which many an unsuspecting voyager has disappeared.

Written late in life, Wide Sargasso Sea is widely viewed as Rhys’ masterpiece and it’s certainly her most famous work. Rhys chose the title as a metaphor for a great divide between the island of the West Indies and mainland Europe. Various forms of physical, emotional, cultural, racial and psychological separation make up the content of this rich yet challenging novel.

Jean Rhys’ father was a Welsh doctor and her mother was a white Creole. She was born in Domenica in 1890 and came to England when she was 16. She married twice and her relationships with men never ran smoothly. Her unusual background and resistance to bourgeois convention gave her an affinity for the exile and an innate sympathy for women who, in search of protection, are open to exploitation.

The novel is essentially the back story to the madwoman in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The link between the 19th century classic and Rhys’ modernist fiction is never made directly. For instance, while much of it is told from the perspective of Edward Rochester, he is never named.

Jean Rhys (Photo by Paul Joyce 1977 – National Portrait Gallery, London)

His ‘mad’ bride is called Bertha in Bronte’s novel but Rhys calls her Antoinette Cosway and implies that the renaming is part of Rochester’s controlling nature; Antoinette complains: “Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too”.

The ‘obeah’ she refers to is the religious folk practice in Africa which was widely seen by Europeans as superstitition bordering on witchcraft. The divide between ‘straight’ religion and voodoo type practices is another of the divides Rhys addresses.

Rochester and Antionette/Bertha are married but remain in mutual isolation. He is tight, restrained and conventional; she is fragile, passionate and impulsive. He feels tenderness and lust but not love; she is unaccustomed to happiness and distrusts feelings of comfort or ease.

The novel is demanding because it relates a series of mysteries but makes no attempt to resolve or explain them. Antoinette’s descent into madness is never presented in simple cause and effect terms.

In a a critical essay, Thomas F. Staley describes The Wide Sargasso Sea as “a study in unfulfillment” and although the ending is no surprise to any reader with a passing knowledge of Jane Eyre, it is “a tale of the telling rather than the telling of the tale”.

It may be only around 100 pages long but this is not a novel that you should try to race through in one sitting and you will probably want to read more than once.