“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.”
So begins Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ tale of a Creole heiress, Antoinette Cosway, stuck between two worlds she can never fully inhabit. Published to critical acclaim in 1966, the book was envisaged as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a way to reclaim the madwoman in the attic, Mr. Rochester’s first wife, by giving her a name and a voice, along with a tragic story.
The Creoles were people of European descent who lived in the Caribbean, often profiting from the enslavement of the native black population. Wide Sargasso Sea begins in the wake of the 1853 Emancipation Act that ended slavery in the British West Indies, leaving many of the Creoles, like Antoinette and her family, poor and despised, unwelcome among the white English people they aspired to be and detested by the blacks they once dominated.
In the haunting story, Rhys skillfully presents Antoinette’s tragedy, prompting the reader to pity her profound loneliness and alienation. But doing so is a complicated endeavor given the limited voice given to the native blacks in the book. As a reader, a sympathetic understanding of Antoinette comes easily but it’s essential to note that her family’s original wealth came from the brutal enslavement of the populace that Rhys portrays as cruel and retributive in the story.
Inspired by her own childhood in Dominica, Rhys deftly delves into her protagonist’s identity crisis, set against the lush but sinister backdrop of Antoinette’s once-luxurious home, the verdant and secluded Coulibri Estate. Among its wild flowers and trees, Antoinette spends her childhood alone, her father dead and her mother Annette preoccupied with the family’s loss of status and the apparent mental disability of her son, Antoinette’s younger brother.
Rhys skillfully presents Antoinette’s tragedy, prompting the reader to pity her profound loneliness and alienation. But doing so is a complicated endeavor given the limited voice given to the native blacks in the book.
To the black children her age, Antoinette is contemptible, a “white cockroach” to be tormented at every turn. But among the rich English people who become the family’s new neighbours, Antoinette only feels even more out of place.
“They were very beautiful I thought and they wore such beautiful clothes that I looked away down at the flagstones and when they laughed – the gentleman laughed the loudest – I ran into the house, into my bedroom,” Antoinette tells the reader, before her mother comes to find her and chide her for her “dirtier than usual” dress.
Antoinette’s only ally in the story is the mysterious Christophine, the family’s servant from Martinique who sings her sad songs and keeps the household running as Antoinette’s mother marries again, this time to the wealthy Mr. Mason. But in the end, even home provides no respite for Antoinette as tensions between the blacks and Creoles come to a head, forcing the family to leave Coulibri Estate behind, throwing her life into further disarray.
This is only the first part of her story, marked by the death of her brother and the madness that ensues in her mother. Antoinette spends the following years living in a convent school before being married off to an unnamed Englishman, undoubtedly allured by the significant inheritance Mr. Mason leaves her.
The couple returns to the estate once owned by Antoinette’s mother for their honeymoon and here Rhys allows the husband to take over the narration, clearly marking the beginning of the end of Antoinette’s control over her own story. The new narrator details the disconcerting wildness of the surroundings as he slowly unravels the complications of his wife’s position through rumors and stories and flashbacks to the time of their marriage. The effect is one of profound discomfort, distancing Antoinette and her life even further from reality.
“So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all,” Antoinette tells her husband but he is able to offer her no solace, poisoned as he is by the unkind tales he hears from Daniel Cosway, Antoinette’s alleged step-brother who appears in the middle of the book to blackmail her now-wealthy husband.
Rhys allows the husband to take over the narration, clearly marking the beginning of the end of Antoinette’s control over her own story.
Ultimately, he too comes to view her as an oddity, a woman who doesn’t belong in his ranks because of her convoluted racial identity. He renames her ‘Bertha’ to tame her apparent wildness but this has little effect other than further distancing Antoinette from herself. Eventually, he betrays her with one of their servants, driving his wife to the brink as she tries to make him love her again. Her resulting ‘madness’ relegates her to a locked room in a harrowing parallel to her mother’s own brush with madness.
Long before the book was published, Rhys was already the champion of alienated women, writing stories that echoed her own experiences as a poor, lonely girl living a nomadic life in Europe, misunderstood and then forgotten by the world around her. From 1928 to 1939, Rhys published four books that met with some success but spent the next twenty-seven years more or less in isolation, struggling to write Wide Sargasso Sea, the book that would eventually wrench her out of obscurity and establish her as a writer of immense talent.
Antoinette never truly finds her home in the book and her isolation mirrors Rhys’ own tortured life of exile, marked by alcoholism and alarming poverty, as well as the immense loneliness that resulted with the disintegration of each of her three marriages.
But though Rhys died bitter and unhappy in 1979, unconvinced of the merits of her writing, her lifelong sense of solitude gave her unparalleled insight into the world of the lonely, enabling her to write one of the most gripping novels of the 20th century.