Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every hugely successful work of fiction will spawn numerous official and unofficial sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. (Joey, Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, Private Practice, Mean Girls 2, Joseph Andrews and Shamela, etc.) Some, like Joseph Andrews and Shamela, are more enjoyable than the original, whilst others are just appalling (American Pie 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…). Some very few take on a life of their own, and can comfortably stand by themselves simply as work of art inspired by another. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys (1966) is one such.
Though Jane Eyre is the object of fewer terrible “re-imaginings” than, say Pride and Prejudice, there are nonetheless endless TV and movie adaptations (HOW dull was Mia Wasikowska as Jane? No chemistry with Michael Phoawrbender. What a pointless film). Wide Sargasso Sea is, thankfully, neither pointless or boring.
Telling the story of Antoinette “Bertha” Mason, Mr. Rochester’s fearful and insane first wife, locked up in a tower of lunacy (and the object of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar‘s groundbreaking feminist study The Madwoman in the Attic), Wide Sargasso Sea shows the part of the story Charlotte Brönte tactfully avoided for dramatic emphasis. If the wife in the attic is not only cunning and simultaneously an object sold by her even more cunning relatives, but also completely animalistic/dehumanised and with no back story and personality, it is so much easier to avoid the niggling discomfort at Jane Eyre’s treatment of her.
What Jean Rhys, the reclusive author of the thoroughly depressing Good Morning, Midnight (1939) does, is create an incredibly multi-faceted portrait of one of literature’s least multi-faceted characters. The “history of family insanity”, so scathingly hissed by the sex-starved and suppressed Mr. Rochester is recounted in vivid, tender and frequently painful detail. The “crazy mother” is given a reason of insanity, as is Bertha herself.
Set against a humid and highly political background of Bertha’s native colonial Jamaica, this novel has very little in common with the puritan classrooms of Lowood and the rainy moors of Thornfield Hall. The novel is filled with characters for whom the readers sympathy constantly sways, uncomfortably realistic in their flaws – this does not exclude Bertha or even the youthful Mr Rochester himself. Yes, he is to be pitied, but there is a lot more unease about him than in Jane Eyre.
This book is not a romp to read. There is no happy ending (although it is quite sexy, I have to say). Do not mistake it for a flippant “Happy ever after at Pemberley” or whatever they are called. But it is stunning for it’s concept, it’s portrayal of psychological trauma, and the fact that it is so independently good though it is, in effect, a really well written fan fic.
(Oh, and after writing about this book I realized there is a 2005 movie based on this book, with Rebecca Hall, who I love. She is way better than Scar-Jo in Vicki Cristina Barcelona. There is also a 2003 movie with Karina Lombard, who is in The L Word. Better and better.)