My old book group had Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys on their “to read” list for ages, and it never was selected. I’ve been meaning to read it since I first read Jane Eyre a couple years ago, and finally have. Rhys has imagined the backstory for the character of the first Mrs. Rochester. It’s a slim, deceptively difficult novel to read. Set in Jamaica, the narrative has the vagueness and heat of a fever dream. Many things are mentioned as matter of fact, and I had a continued unease that I didn’t understand the text, or they wouldn’t be explained, though nearly all of them were further into the book.
Antoinette is the daughter of a former slave owner and his beautiful Creole (white West Indian) second wife. The unrest in the islands leads to early tragedy in her family that never loses its hold. She is the narrator of the first section.
Seeking security, her family marries her off to young Mr. Rochester, new to the islands and barely recovered from fever. He narrates most, but not all, of the second section–though I haven’t seen this noted in most analyses, there is one departure that is told from Antoinette’s point of view. He is the second son of a wealthy English family, so he has no prospects of fortune of his own. He receives a large dowry, and the marriage starts off well enough. Rochester is young and paranoid, though, and the gossip about his wife and her family history make an impression on him. The marriage falters through several ugly incidents, until Rochester plans to leave.
The third section is narrated again by Antoinette, who Rochester now calls Bertha, because he likes the name. She is a prisoner in his home, and drifts in and out of lucidity as she moves toward her place in the narrative of Jane Eyre.
This is not an easy, or enjoyable, read. It is often hard to follow and understand. It is haunting, though, as well as provocative, disturbing and tragic. It looks at unpleasant truths about family, slavery, sexism, and racism. I will read this book again; I feel certain that it will yield more the second time around. Next time, I will read the annotated Norton Critical edition. I’d like to find out more about the history and world politics of the time.