“Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys

Inspired by Jane Eyre, this novel tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette, the white daughter of former slave owners who grows up in the Coulibri Estate, a down at heel plantation in Jamaica. In Part One, told by Antoinette, the family finances are in ruins following the Emancipation Act freeing the slaves, and her widowed mother struggles to keep the estate and family going, as the family are resented and tormented by the black community. Her mother remarries, but tragedy is not far away, as the family are driven from their estate, Antoinette is rejected by her mother and sent away to school.

In Part Two, an Englishman tells the story of his wedding and the start of his marriage to Antoinette, followed by his account of the rumours and tales that surround her heritage, while Antoinette sinks deeper and deeper into her memories, thoughts and fears, culminating in a trip to Christophine, a servant from Antointette’s childhood whom she always had a connection with and who is known to practice obeah (a local religious belief, including healing beliefs viewed by Europeans as witchcraft).

Finally, Part Three is told in Antoinette’s voice, and is based back in England, where she is cared for by Grace Poole, and concludes with a familiar story from Jane Eyre.

I’ve not read many “classics”, so I’ve been catching up on the odd one, here and there, and last year I read Jane Eyre before I watched the BBC1 adaptation, and it was only subsequently when I heard about the BBC4 dramatisation of this novel that I even knew it existed. And I am so glad I found out about it. Completely different in tone, whereas Jane Eyre is the story of a naive young woman falling in love, Wide Sargasso Sea is an illuminating insight into the mind of a mentally disturbed young woman. Whilst always in the first person narratives, it is a contemplation on the factors that may have been involved in driving someone to insanity, and perhaps even questioning whether she is even insane, or merely reacting to the environmental and emotional factors that have shaped her from a young child, or possibly suffering from an illness she has inherited from her mothers genes, who also displayed the same characteristics.

The first person narrative forces us into Antoinette’s thoughts initially, and when the narrative changes to her husband (he is never actually named), we have the mirrored point of view, and look at her from the outside again. But, whoever the narrator is, we are firmly in the centre of their world, and it is a genuinely thought provoking story.

Although this is a short novel – only 125 pages – it is rich and dense in language, and enthralling throughout. I loved this book, and especially if you’ve read Jane Eyre, but even if you haven’t, I would recommend it as a great read.

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