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Fiction

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

I am supposed to write a long report at work about some analysis in the project and expected it to run about 15 reviews long (considering that my review is about 2 pages of A4 paper usually). But I’m taking a break and hopefully write a quick review about Wide Sargasso Sea. (I’m feeling a little guilty…)

What is it:

The Wide Sargasso Sea doesn’t require further introduction. In this book, the author Jean Rhys rescues the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and brings her to life as the beautiful and tragic Antoinette Cosway. This is long before she was married to Mr Rochester (although the book didn’t say it was Rochester but a unnamed Englishman) and eventually turned into a man woman that is hidden in the attic.

The book acts as a prequel to the 1847 Jane Eyre and it is set in the lush tropical island of Jamaica, a lush and ravaged Eden ripped apart by escalating tensions between the former slaves and the Creole heiress’s colonial family. Antoinette’s marriage to a visiting Englishman seems to promise the escape from the island’s distress.

The lovers’ intense affair takes a sinister turn as they become caught in malicious rumours and past history and possibly a less than pure and disingenuous intention for the marriage.

Why I read it:

Jane Eyre was my first book blog review when I started this blog in 2008. Mel of Reading Life referred me to this book. I saw this on the library shelf last month, looks like a quick read, it is. I finished it within a day.

What I thought:

This is one of those books that long before you read it you heard about how good or how great it is going to be. * trepidation *

<contain mild spoiler>

The surprise for me was that it was told in different voices. The book is divided into three parts. The first is about Antoinette’s troubled childhood in early 19th century Jamaica, in a town called Coulibri. The natives, who looked down at her ancestry and called her horrible nicknames like “white nigger” or “white cockroach”. Pierre, her brother was mentally disabled and died during an accident. Her mother became distant and spiralled into depression and madness. So Antoinette was left alone and was more attached to her Jamaican nanny, Christophine and Aunt Cora.

The second part is Antoinette as young lady who is about to be married to an Englishman. It was told from the eyes of the Englishman. They got married and spend their honeymoon in a remote house surrounded by thick jungles with Amelie the servant for company. The pace picks up as Antoinette’s cousin, Daniel Cosway came out of nowhere and slander poor Antoinette, recounting her parent’s history and forewarn the Englishman of the possibility of Antoinette following the footstep of her mother’s mental health.

The third and final part feature a bleaker and confusing story-telling of Antoinette locked away in a house in England and the future that is in store is not any better, as we all who read Jane Eyre would know.

Read it as a novel, I found the story and plot line falls short of my expectation of a good read. This is one of the few moments that I wish the novel was a little longer, so that I can get to know Antoinette a little better. Get to know what is her inner turmoil are, for it was never clear. Antoinette’s portrait was painted by other people’s views about her and I ended up feeling more sorry for her than actually get to know her a little better. Getting to know Antoinette better, I thought was the whole objective of writing this book, giving the mad woman in the Rochester’s house, Antoinette, a voice. A distinct voice to her triumph and tribulations. Joy and sorrows.

I thought the setting is very different from what I would normally read. I didn’t know about the Creoles and how the poorer Creoles could be maligned by all, though still rely on the labour of the black population to keep them alive. The gulf between the Creoles and the English gentry from England indeed seems wide, by times, and I think Jean Rhys really did a good job of bringing all these distinctions to light.

Favourite line:

‘Caroline asks if you will shelter in her house.’ This was Antoinette. She spoke hesitatingly as if she expected me to refuse, so it was easy to do so. – page 57

It was all very brightly coloured, very strange, but it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry. When at last I met her I bowed, smiled, kissed her hand, danced with her. I played the part I was expected to play. She never had anything to do with me at all. – page 64

‘Why did you make me want to live? Why did you do that to me?’ asked Antoinette
‘Because I wished it. Isn’t that enough?’
‘Yes, it is enough. But if one day you didn’t wish it. What should I do then? Suppose you took this happiness away when I wasn’t looking…..’
‘And lose my own? Who’d be so foolish?’
‘I am not used to happiness,’ she said. ‘It makes me afraid.’ – page 77 

Getting the final word in:

It is a risk to write a book that readers around the world knew about the ending. The risk is that there are not many surprises but also the journey must be more rich and luxurious to make the reading journey worthwhile for the readers. In this case, the journey was too short, it didn’t do Antoinette justice. Besides the noble intent of giving the forgotten woman a voice, I regret to say this novel didn’t touch me more profoundly than it should. Mr. Rochester has never loved Antoinette and upon listening to the slandering of Antoinette only choose to believe it. I never like Mr. Rochester anyway and I thought it was disappointing that such a wonderful girl like Jane Eyre would fallen for him, so this book (although not related or meant to relate to Jane Eyre) has validated that Mr. Rochester is a control freak and a criminal to lock Antoinette up and I felt in this book, Antoinette has been redeemed.

If there is anything that you should take away from this book, it is that for every story “there is always another side, always”.

Rating: 

Note: The term Creole is sometimes used to describe anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, who was born and raised in the region. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, “creole” is used to refer to people of mixed race accepted as white, and people classified as black/mulatto who are mixed of European, African and both native and east Indian.

Paperback. Publisher: Penguin Classics 1966, 2000; Length: 156 pages; Setting: Jamaica. Source: Reading Central Library copy. Finished reading on the 22nd September 2012 (in a day).

Other reviews:

Kim @ Reading Matters: Rhys has such a way with language, particularly when it comes to describing the beguiling landscape, thatWide Sargasso Sea is a joy to read.

Amy Reads: A fantastic read that I would recommend to any who are interested in feminism and women’s rights, in classics and Jane Eyre, or just in a great story.

Soy chai bookshelf: Wide Sargasso Sea is not the easiest of reads and probably not worth the effort if you haven’t already read Jane Eyre.  Yet if you’re willing to read actively and reshape or at least reconsider your preconceptions of its principal characters, it is well worth the effort.

About the writer:

Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979) was born in Dominica in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a while Creole mother. When she was 16 she came to England, where, after her father died, she drifted into a series of demi-monde jobs – chorus girl, mannequin, artist’s model.

she began to write when the first of her three marriages broke up. She was in her 30’s by then and living in Paris, where she was encouraged by Ford Madox Ford. Ford wrote an enthusiastic introduction to her first book in 1927, a collection of stories called The Left Bank. This was followed by Quartet (1928), after leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). None was particularly successful, no doubt because all were decades ahead of their time in theme and tone, dealing as they did with women as underdogs, exploited for, and exploiting their sexuality. With the outbreak of war, the books became out of print and Jean Rhys dropped completely out of sight. It was generally thought she was dead. Nearly 20 years later, she was discovered, due to the enthusiasm of writer Francis Wyndham. in 1966, she made a sensational reappearance with Wide Sargasso Sea and won many literary awards. Her only comment on her sudden great success was ‘It has come too late.’

She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966 and a CBE in 1978.

Awards and nominations

Adaptations

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

27 thoughts on “Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

  1. I didn’t like this book very much, although I can’t exactly say why – it’s too long ago that I read it. I think I didn’t like the main character nor the setting, and/ot that the book had nothing in common really with Jane Eyre (the book) – it was completely different.

    Anyway, it’s one of those books where it’s good to have read it, I think.

    Posted by Leeswammes | October 4, 2012, 8:24 pm
    • Judith,
      Yes I totally agree with what you said Judith. It is how it feels like. One of those books that it’s good to read, probably don’t remember much later on. I feel like marking down to an average read (2.5 stars) for the book!

      Posted by JoV | October 4, 2012, 8:30 pm
    • Lee, if you do not like the main character, I think you are falling into Rhys trap of reading her character as if you were a colonial master imposing your values on your possessions

      Posted by Mel u | October 8, 2012, 10:11 am
  2. Yes, I’m glad I read it, but I really didn’t like it. My issue was more with the writing style than anything, but I agree with you as regards the length–it needed to be fleshed out more. I did like the conceit, which is one I’m not generally in favor of (i.e., spinning off of someone else’s world), so I guess I had high hopes that just didn’t get met.

    Posted by Sly Wit | October 4, 2012, 8:36 pm
    • Sly Wit,
      Phew, I thought I was the only one who seems meh! about this book. I don’t want to sound critical but I wonder how much fame of this book hinges on hype and how much is pure brilliance?
      Thanks for dropping by and for the first comment Sly. Appreciate it.

      Posted by JoV | October 4, 2012, 8:44 pm
  3. I read this book earlier this year but actually really liked it. I loved finding out about Antoinette, and about the dark exotic island she grew up on. I personally felt sorry for both her and her husband. As I think they were both mistreated. I came to this book straight after having read Jane Eyre which I wasn’t exactly in awe of though I’m afraid. So that might have coloured me the other way to this book.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | October 4, 2012, 8:55 pm
    • Jessica,
      Ahh… in this book I find no reason to feel sorry for Antoinette’s husband! I quite like Jane Eyre for a lady with principle that she would stand up for. I’m glad you like this more than I did. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | October 4, 2012, 9:05 pm
  4. As I always say here – taking someone else’s ideas and characters (even if it’s only tangentially)?

    No thanks…

    Posted by Tony | October 5, 2012, 6:13 am
  5. I haven’t read Jane Eyre yet (!) and I didn’t know that Wide Sargasso Sea was supposed to be its prequel. Good that I know now! Perhaps the first Thursday Next book by Jasper Fforde is a good follow-up read for you? It deals with the world of Jane Eyre in which the protagonist is dropped.

    Don’t feel guilty about posting a book review instead of working on your report! We all need a breather sometimes 🙂 (And I should be feeling guilty because I still haven’t read The Loving Spirit. I’m saving your review and Bina’s for when I’ve finished it. Probably before the end of next week…)

    Posted by Chinoiseries | October 5, 2012, 1:43 pm
    • Chinoiseries,
      Don’t worry about The Loving Spirit Tze-Wen now that you came out clean with it. lol 😀 Jasper Fjorde.. ? hmm I saw that Jane Eyre Affair book, looks good. But I think it’s enough of reference to Jane Eyre for now. Maybe later… !

      Posted by JoV | October 5, 2012, 7:36 pm
  6. I have to admit that I didn’t know what this book was about before reading your review, but now I do I’m desperate to read it! A lot of the history will be new to me as well, which is another reason to pick it up.

    Good luck with your work report!

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | October 5, 2012, 7:59 pm
  7. I’ve never seen any negative about this book before – everyone else seems to love it. I bought a copy last year, but haven’t read it yet. Your comments make me reluctant to try it now, but I’m sure I will at some point. Hopefully I’ll enjoy it more than you did

    Posted by farmlanebooks | October 5, 2012, 8:12 pm
  8. I love Jane Eyre too much to ever read this book. Unlike you I did like Mr. Rochester (because Jane thinks his jokes are funny, and he thinks she’s funny too), and he and Jane are my favorite literary couple. I’m way too scared that Wide Sargasso Sea would ruin Mr. Rochester for me. And be depressing meanwhile.

    Posted by Jenny | October 7, 2012, 11:35 pm
  9. In my post I tried to talk about how the structure of the novel and the prose style reflects both the madness of Antoinette and the control of Rochester.

    Posted by Mel u | October 8, 2012, 10:16 am
  10. Love your review, though sorry to hear you didn’t love it more. I absolutely love your take away here, that there is always another side. Thanks for this fantastic review!

    Posted by amymckie | October 19, 2012, 1:00 am
  11. You’ve just reminded me that I have always meant to read this book so I will do so as soon as possible. 🙂

    Posted by AnotherJo | October 28, 2012, 6:26 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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