Summary: A postcolonial prequel to Jane Eyre told from the perspectives of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole woman who would later in her life come to be known as Bertha Mason, the mad wife in the attic of Thornfield Hall. The reader is plunged into the lush, cruel, passionate world of the West Indies shortly after the abolition of slavery. It is from this vantage point that we watch the hasty courtship and slow decay of Antoinette and Edward Rochester. There is so much mystery and multifaceted meaning in this novel that an accurate summary is hard. It is a story of magic and madness, spiritual death, betrayal and abridged, buried histories.
Review: I'm still not sure I understand this novel. I feel that I'm approaching closer to the meaning, but I may need to re-read it several times before I am sure. The prose is lush and captivating in a way that is refreshing after weeks of reading crusty - entertaining, to be sure, but crusty - old novels. Rhys' writing is like a slow, sensual poison.
I was delightfully surprised by how fair this novel was. The summaries and wikipedia page, not to mention what everyone says about it, had me prepared for a one-sided, harping indictment of colonialism, patriarchal order, and The Man. Because of my great affection for Mr. Rochester, I was worried he would be a monster in this novel. However, Rhys deals with his situation very delicately. We cannot in truth blame him any more than we can blame Antoinette. Parts 1 and 3 are in her voice, but the second part gives him a chance to give his view. I appreciated this.
There are few things I like more than parallel novels. The whole concept of seeing the story from another side is enough to have me on board. What Wide Sargasso Sea does goes completely beyond that. It is good to have a knowledge of Jane Eyre in order to understand the ominous hints - the glimpses of attics and fires - but not necessary. Rhys need not merely rail against Mr. Rochester for being a British man, to prove the deficiencies of Jane Eyre. She instead shows the economic and social devastation of the white Creole inhabitants of the West Indies after the abolition of slavery. She has the obeah and the rum, the racial tension and the escalating series of betrayals to explore.
It's such an intricate novel that, even on the most basic level of event, it is hard to tell what is going on. This is not a book to read with half your attention elsewhere - it requires constant scrutiny. This could be a flaw or an attraction, according to what you are looking for in a book.
Quotations: "'You are safe,' I'd say. She'd liked that -- to be told 'you are safe.' Or I'd touch her face gently and touch tears. Tear -- nothing! Words -- less than nothing. As for the happiness I gave her, that was worse than nothing. I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did."
"I took the red dress down and put it against myself. 'Does it make me look intemperate and unchaste?' I said. That man told me so. He has found out that Sandi had been to the house and that I went to see him. I never knew who told. 'Infamous daughter of an infamous mother,' he said to me.
But I held the dress in my hand wondering if they had done the last and worst thing. If they have changed it when I wasn't looking. If they had changed it and it wasn't my dress at all -- but how could they get the scent?"
"Wherever I went I would be talked about. I drank some more rum and, drinking, I drew a house surrounded by trees. A large house. I divided a third floor into rooms and in one room I drew a standing woman -- a child's scribble, a dot for a head, a larger one for the body, a triangle for the skirt, slanting lines for arms and feet. But it was an English house.
English trees. I wondered if I would ever should see England again."