Originally published in 1966 by Andre Deutsch
My edition: The 2000 Penguin Modern Classics paperback.
WHEN I Discovered This Classic
I’m honestly not sure. I feel like I must have learned about it at university when studying Jane Eyre, but it didn’t really enter my consciousness until last year when I finally began reading and exploring the Brontës.
WHY I Chose to Read It
After not loving Jane Eyre last year I was really hoping to read this and see my opinions of Rochester reflected somewhere – I figured that Wide Sargasso Seas would be that place.
WHAT Makes It a Classic
This prequel to Jane Eyre put Jean Rhys on the map after a writing career that left her largely unknown. It's a post-colonial novel exploring race, feminism and power - an unforgettable combination.
WHAT I Thought of This Classic
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Jean Rhys’s most famous novel, but I really enjoyed it. In fact, I'd even say that I prefer it to Jane Eyre.
The prequel/response to Jane Eyre is set in 1940s Jamaica following the abolishment of slavery. Antoinette Cosway is a Creole (white Jamaican) heiress and we follow her from her childhood to her marriage to an unnamed Enhglishman to her removal to Thornfield Hall which brushes up against Charlotte Brontë’s classic.
This book is only just over 120 pages and it really packs a punch – in story, in characterisation, and in themes. It tackles racism, post-colonialism, madness, sexism, feminism and more.
I had many problems with Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and Rhys’s novel confirmed those problems, and exacerbated them. He’s portrayed as a Romantic hero, but in Wide Sargasso Sea he is a fortune hunter, mentally abusive, and takes away every right that his wife has left – and there weren’t many to start with. The madwoman in the attack is known as Bertha in Jane Eyre – a name that Antoinette’s (unnamed) husband gave her during this book as he didn’t like her given name. I mean, COME ON. Let’s not forget that he then moved his wife thousands of miles from her home and imprisoned her in the attic. How can Mr Rochester be a romantic hero?
Wide Sargasso Sea is an uncomfortable and unpredictable read, switching between the narration of Antoinette, Rochester and Grace Poole (Bertha's keeper in Jane Eyre) and exploring the imbalance of power in marriage and between white and POC people in an almost stream of consciousness narration. But it’s so easy to fall into Rhys’ lush, vibrant writing that i was soon swept away and had to make myself stretch it out to last a few sittings.
I feel like Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel that I would have really benefited from studying at school or university, but alas. I’d also recommend picking up the annotated Penguin Modern Classics edition – it’s super useful.
WILL It Stay a Classic
The way Wide Sargasso Sea dismantles the madwoman in the attic and female sexuality was groundbreaking for its time and has become essential reading alongside Brontë’s masterpiece.
WHO I’d Recommend it To
- Fans of Jane Eyre, and those who weren’t fans of Jane Eyre.
- Those interested in 19th Century society outside of the US and UK.
- Brontë fans.