I recently read this book after it was bought for me as a leaving present by my A level English teachers. It was a relatively easy read and I finished it within a few hours. The edition I have (Penguin Modern Classics) has annotations, notes and a very detailed introduction which make for an interesting read before, during and after the main story.
Wide Sargasso Sea is inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and tells of a possible backstory for Bertha (Antoinette Cosway/Mason), Mr Rochester’s mad wife who is secretly locked away in his house. I was fascinated to start reading this book because Jane Eyre has been a favourite of mine since I first read it.
The narration flips between Antoinette and the unnamed husband (Mr Rochester) throughout as the events of the book unfold. This allows an opportunity to fully understand the mindset of both characters. For me, this made it very difficult to sympathise with one character over the other as both characters have severe flaws and hatred for each other. The descriptions of Jamaica allows Rhys to create a dreamy setting to contrast such a bitter tale of love and hate.
Wide Sargasso Sea explores themes of race, reputation and money as the husband is stuck between bettering his reputation by leaving Antoinette or keeping his money by staying with her. Their marriage was built purely on money and business deals organised between their fathers.
This book is a brilliant stand alone book as the themes and events do not have to relate to Jane Eyre for them to be important and rich. The way female mental health is viewed by the characters gives an important insight into how women were treated in the 19th century. However, with such an overlap with Bronte’s novel, it is hard not to think about the book as a strong prequel. The cataphoric reference to the events of Jane Eyre throughout is a real nod to Bronte fans and a way of connecting the two stories together. This for me created many new thoughts and opinions on Rochester and Bertha. I was so convinced that Mrs Rochester was the antagonist of the book, a character whose sole purpose was to complicate Jane’s happiness with Rochester. Now I see her as a more rich character. In fact, I now see her as a person not just a plot line.
Reading Wide Sargasso Sea was the reason why I reread Jane Eyre – which is probably my favourite book of all time.