Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Book cover of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

That has to rank up there with the strangest book covers of all time. Bananas, really? Ugh. Anyway, I have to admit to not really getting along with Wide Sargasso Sea – I found it confusing, uninteresting and vaguely disparaging to the character of Mr Rochester. It’s only saving grace was my sudden, desperate need to go read Jane Eyre. Which I did, so… win.

Plot summary: Born into the oppressive, colonialist society of 1930s Jamaica, white Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent beauty and sensuality. After their marriage, however, disturbing rumours begin to circulate which poison her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is inexorably driven towards madness, and her husband into the arms of another novel’s heroine.

SPOILERS FOR JANE EYRE!

Just in case you weren’t aware, Wide Sargasso Sea was written in 1966 as a semi-prequel to the classic work Jane Eyre. Jane herself doesn’t feature; instead it follows the sad life of Bertha Rochester, the mad wife of the love interest in Jane Eyre, about whom almost nothing is known. 

It’s written in three parts with different narratives – a young girl watching her mother spiral into madness, a newly-married husband and an older woman in despair. The change of POV can be incredibly confusing as there’s no warning and no title to tell you which character you’re following. I spent the majority of the second part working out who on earth was talking, as it’s really not clear at all. It didn’t help that I didn’t know the main character’s name until halfway through the damn book.

There isn’t actually a massive connection with Jane Eyre, or not that I could see. I didn’t recognise Mr Rochester when he eventually popped up until quite late on. Considering that was pretty much the only reason I read it, it didn’t help, especially when the story itself isn’t always that riveting. It was repetitive enough for me to think the narrative was actually telling the same event from different perspectives, when it was actually a different event about twenty years later. It’s not subtle in the slightest and tries to bludgeon The Point home as hard as possible.

When it does link up with Jane Eyre, it’s quite confusing. There is literally no reason why Antoinette suddenly becomes known as Bertha, and there’s only a half-hearted attempt to explain it. It doesn’t make sense. The whole thing feels like a story that Jean Rhys wanted to write and so she threw in some Eyre-allusions so people would actually read it. 

That said, the third part reads almost like a different book. It connects, it makes sense and it’s written incredibly well. Whatever problems I might have with the plot of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys can clearly write emotion well. I finished the book profoundly depressed, but that’s a sign of an author that knows how to get inside your head. It’s stormy, atmospheric and a tense read.

It’s also possible that part of the reason I wasn’t fond of this book is that it doesn’t set Mr Rochester out as an even semi-decent person. I mean, we know from Jane Eyre that he did things in his past he’s ashamed of, but Wide Sargasso Sea sets him out to be almost evil. As the only character really consistent in both books, he’s the sole measure we have for comparison and it just… doesn’t. His conduct, his dialogue and his thoughts don’t match up with the Mr Rochester we know. It could be anybody; it’s just not recognisable as that same character. 

As you can probably gather, I was less than impressed. It wasn’t a good enough to story to stand on it’s own feet and the connection to Jane Eyre wasn’t strong enough to support it either. It could have been the backstory of Jane Marple or Jane Bennett, and it would hardly have made a difference. The third part of the book really is well-written, but those few chapters of emotion aren’t sufficient to over-ride the repetitive, derogatory chapters from the remainder. 

Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea? Did you think it was true to the original novel?

Comments

  1. It's so strange to see someone reviewing Wide Sargasso Sea! I just read it last semester for one of my classes and honestly, not one of my faves. I just got really confused! Definitely like Jane Eyre better. I did like how creative Jean was though! Props.

    xo

  2. Ellie says:

    THANK YOU. Because I flicked through my copy of this book the other day before thinking "nope, this one's gonna get culled"… and now I don't feel even remotely conflicted about the fact that I'm selling its skinny ass to someone else. 😀

    1) I was ALREADY annoyed by the Antoinette-Bertha thing. 2) The pages I flicked through just looked dense, and 3) I LOVE MR ROCHESTER.

    Thanks for stopping me getting all panicky and taking it home again. *bows in gratitude*

    1. Ellie says:

      P.S. I WOULD, however, still quite like to watch the adaptation. It might be more accessible (and coherent) that way, and I love Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall so… *fingers crossed*

  3. The library book I've read had an even worse cover, trust me, bananas look super cool compared to that. 😀 But I definitely agree with you. We had to read this for one of our English lit classes last year and I was really struggling with it. I found it uninteresting and very confusing too. I liked all those references to J.E. but other than that… meh.

    1. Hanna says:

      A lot of people seem to read this in school/university and I cannot for the life of me work out why. It just wouldn't be ANYTHING without the J.E. references and it's hardly a classic in its own right. Arrrrrgh!

      I'm intrigued what was on your cover though!

    2. I don't know! I had to read it because my class was about the Bronte sisters (we read most of their books as well as Wide Sargasso Sea and some biographical stuff) so it makes sense but… I have no idea why anyone would read it in school 0__0

      Hang on, I'll show you. It looked like this but it looked ten times worse in real life.

    3. Hanna says:

      Oh wow. That is pretty hideous. I can't really imagine how that could be any worse in real life, but I'll take your word for it :s

      Ah, that does make more sense. A friend of mine read it in school when she was about 15… and they DIDN'T read Jane Eyre!

  4. You know, I'm actually kind of relieved that you *didn't* like this! And not out of spite or anything but because I just couldn't bear it and I would have had to try and re-read it or something equally ridiculous if you'd come out and raved about how amazing you thought it was!

    It was a few years ago that I read so I couldn't 100% remember whether I was just grumpy or I was judging the book by the fact that the person who leant it to me was kind of weird…I didn't even WANT to borrow it but she kept talking about it at work and clearly my responses were too polite and she brought a copy into work so that I could borrow it (which I obviously couldn't refuse). Then she kept asking if I'd read it so I started it and hated it, which was awkward…it's good to know that it really is just bad!

    ANYway, I detested the book for exactly the same reasons as you – if it wasn't for it ham-fisting its way through some Jane Eyre links, nobody would be lured into wasting their time reading it. That would be better for everybody, frankly! Aaaaand I'll leave it there before I get too ranty :-/

    1. Hanna says:

      Haha, I understand completely. God forbid you reread this thing – once is quite enough!

      Did you tell her you didn't like it? Honestly and genuinely, I don't really see what there is to like. Even if you don't dislike it as much as we/I did, I just can't find anything really positive about it. It's only really A Thing because it's a Jane Eyre story… so go read that!

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