Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review #11: Wide Sargasso Sea

This book, recommended to me by my well-read critique partner, may or may not tickle the fancy of every Jane Eyre fan--of which I am a big one! Bottom line, it is written as the back story for Rochester's mad wife, Bertha, who is imprisoned in his English manor house.

A slim volume, not even 200 pages long, it begins with a first-person account by Antoinette Bertha Cosway (later Mason by adoption) of her bleak childhood on a ruined Jamaican estate, with her widowed mother and disabled brother Pierre. They are watched over by two 'loyal' retainers, Christophine and Godfrey. She narrates the story through her mother's remarriage to Mr. Mason, the burning of their home, and her mother's resulting madness.

Part 2 picks up with the (unnamed) Edward Rochester whose marriage to Antoinette is arranged by her step-brother Richard Mason. The marriage brings Edward a large amount of money which, as a second son, he has no hope of receiving by inheritance from his own family.

Their wedding trip is at first passionate and later disastrous, as Rochester listens to the tales of her purported illegitimate brother Daniel. Suspicious of Antoinette, he renames her Bertha (thus distancing her from her 'mad' mother) and then is unfaithful to her. Finally, he decides that she, too, is 'mad'--but I wondered if he actually pushed her over the edge.

The final part of the book deals with her life locked away from the world. The symbolism used throughout the book--fire, slavery, birds, alienation--come together here. When she finally burns the house and plunges to her death from a parapet, she has come full circle.

The book is one of those that you want to put down before you sink into the abyss of the characters' misery, but an odd fascination compels you to finish and try to understand. Only by reading several excellent online summaries and analyses did I gain some insight into the tale.

I think that now, whenever I watch one of the several versions of Jane Eyre that I own, I will look askance at Edward Rochester--and I'm sorry for that. What he tells Jane about his 'terrible secret' is not, after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, the absolute truth. Jane ends her story by intimating that they lived happily ever after. I have to wonder.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, 1966

FTC Disclaimer (and I am really tired of disclaiming to you!): I checked this book out of the library, read it, and reviewed it because I try to do a book review for my blog every week. Is that okay with you?


K9friend said...

Very interesting. Your observations remind me of the musical, "Wicked". After seeing it, my perspective on the "Wizard of Oz" changed forever.

And my opinion on the disclaimers...I don't use them. If some one wants to challenge me on my blog content and examine all the valuable perks I earn from it (which would be nothing of any material value), they can bring it on.

Skhye said...

Don't laugh, Judy. I can't find your email address. Can you shoot me an email?

Hywela Lyn said...

I have to agree with you Judy. I read 'Wide Sargasso Sea' some years ago but I remember thinking I'd never feel the same way about Edward Rochester again, which is a shame.