‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys – A Book Review

Wide Sargasso Sea

Updated 30 January 2016

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Years ago my daughter Gina gave me this second hand book which  I have now read at least three times.

The author Jean Rhys is acknowledged as a technically brilliant writer.   As you read the book, which is set in the Caribbean,  you can almost feel the muggy heat intertwined with the intensity of suspicion and mistrust between the whites, creoles, and blacks.  It tells the story of the early years of the heroine Antoinette Cosway’s tragic life before she marries Mr Rochester  as depicted in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  The story, which exists in  its own right,  ends as she and her new husband set off for England where Antoinette becomes the mad woman in the attic.  I recently read the history of the Caribbean which is fascinating and brutal at the same time, and it inspired me to re-read Wide Sargasso Sea,  the history of the Caribbean adding yet another dimension to that story.

My present copy of  Sargasso Sea is now falling to pieces with pages constantly falling out so I  decided to buy a new copy through Amazon.com as I couldn’t find a copy  in any of the second- hand book shops  that I regularly haunt.  Jean Rhys  has written other novels that I’ve also included in the purchase from Amazon.  Can’t wait to read them.

From Jean Rhys’s personal knowledge of the West Indies, and perhaps her reading of their history, she would have known about the mad creole heiresses living in the early nineteenth century, whose dowries were only an additional burden to them. These unfortunate heiresses were products of an inbred, decadent, expatriate society, resented by the recently freed slaves whose superstitions they inevitably shared.

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Jean Rhys quote

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In her introduction of the book  Jean Rhys – The Complete Novels   Diana Athill, editor and friend of Rhys for the last fifteen years of her life, writes:

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre had always disturbed Jean. She may not be the only reader of that novel to dislike its heroine, but is probably the only one to identify with Mr Rochester’s mad wife from the West Indies. Ever since Jean had come to school in England she had felt that the English had misunderstood and despised West Indians, and here was a West Indian woman so totally misunderstood and despised that she was presented as a monster. Impoverished English gentlemen had, in fact, married West Indian heiresses from time to time during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Jean thought it likely that Charlotte Bronte had known of one such marriage and had based her novel on it. What had really happened to that unhappy bride onto whom Bronte had projected such a cruel – such (in Jean’s eyes) a typically English version of that story? 

From that question grew Wide Sargasso Sea, the novel created over so many years, against such heavy odds, with which [Jean Rhys] made her comeback in 1966.

portrait Jean Rhys

To wring out of herself things so painful, in circumstances so cruel [in her earlier novels] and finally to hand us a novel [Wide Sargasso Sea] so lovely and haunting, which seems to alight on the page as easily as a bird on a branch: if she had nothing else but this, Jean Rhys would still be one of the most remarkable writers of the twentieth century.

-Anne Frandi-Coory 30 January 2016

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For more information on Jean Rhys novels  Visit Amazon Here

See my review of other Rhys novels … Complete novels by Jean Rhys

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