|Hurricane Fabian passing over the Sargasso Sea, 2003|
Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is a quite amazing book. It is in essence a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story of the early life of the first Mrs. Rochester, the girl who was to become the mad woman in the attic of Thornfield Hall, and who although appearing rarely in Bronte's novel wields an enormous influence on the plot. Sargasso Sea follows her life as the descendant of slave-owning Creoles and Europeans in Jamaica shortly after the slaves have been freed. The future Mrs. Rochester finds herself living in a plantation house but with no money and ostensibly no future. The former slaves are understandably hostile, but there is no refuge for the Creoles, born and bred on the island, and with nowhere else to call home. Her mother remarries, but after a series of violent incidents during which the family lose their home, the mother descends into madness.
The second section of the book is set on one of the Windward Islands (probably Dominica, where Jean Rhys spent her childhood), the un-named Mr. Rochester has arrived in Jamaica to marry Antoinetta Cosway-Mason (the Bertha Mason of Jane Eyre), they marry and honeymoon on Dominica. Rochester feels trapped - forced into marriage against his will by his father and Antoinetta's brother. The atmosphere of the island also poisons him against his new bride, he feels uncomfortable with the strange fauna and flora of the island, the odd beliefs of the islanders and their belief in obeah, a form of voodoo or magic. When he takes a mistress, Antoinetta's life again slides into tragedy....
This is only a short novel, about 120 pages, but it exerts a powerful influence. There is a nightmarish, garish, technicolor quality to Rhys's writing that leaps off the page. Everything feels larger than life, highly coloured and yet not exaggerated. It's a wonderful piece of writing. Obviously there is the Jane Eyre connection, but there are also definite influences from other novels and films, notably the 1940's B-movies I Walked With a Zombie and Dragonwyck. Both of which were excellent at setting up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, suspense and other-worldliness. The violent scenes at Antoinetta's home, Coulibri, also owe a lot to the scenes at Tara following the marching through of the Unionist army in Gone With The Wind. Although all these influences are present, the novel remains resolutely its own self, and it's an extraordinary gripping, moving, eerie work. One of the best short novels I think I've ever read. The only caveat I have is that I think to get the most out of the novel you should read Jane Eyre. Having said that, I think it probably doesn't matter whether you read JE before or after Wide Sargasso Sea. Fans of JE may be shocked by how Rochester is presented here, many I think will pity both him and his poor maddened bride.