Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

Paper Book, 2001





London [etc.] : Penguin Books, 2001.


Beautiful and wealthy Antoinette Cosway's passionate love for an English aristocrat threatens to destroy her idyllic West Indian island existence and her very life

User reviews

LibraryThing member Smiler69
This novel was conceived as a prequel to Jane Eyre; it fleshes out and gives voice to Rochester's first wife—here known as Antoinette Cosway—describing her earlier years, and shows us how she ended being the madwoman in the attic. The story begins in the Jamaica of the post-emancipation act, with young Antoinette describing the difficulties her mother, brother and herself experience as poor white Creoles. Antoinette's father, a former slave owner and skirt-chasing alcoholic, has passed away, leaving his beautiful young second wife the Colibri estate, which is slowly falling to pieces. Shunned by the rich white population and despised by the blacks who call them "white niggers" and "white cockroaches" the threat from their neighbours is very real, and Antoinette has every reason to feel her safety compromised as tensions are mounting. The estate's only horse has recently been poisoned and her mother retreats into mental breakdown, all but ignoring her daughter. Things briefly seem like they might improve when the rich Mr Mason marries her mother, but he ignores his wife's pleas to leave the island, believing her to exaggerate the danger of their situation, until the family is violently driven from Colibri by an angry mob.

The second part of the book is told by Antoinette's new husband, the un-named Mr Rochester. Their honeymoon starts off with great passion, but Rochester describes his contempt for the island, it's people and for his wife from the beginning. He retreats from her abruptly, even refusing to call her by her own name (he calls her Bertha instead) and Antoinette falls into despair. Rhys's Rochester is despicable man; clearly stating he's married the young woman for her money, he's quick to believe malicious gossip about her and then write her off as mad when she is distraught by his attitude. This is a short but very rich novel which brims with passion, exoticism, and despair of course, since we know all too well the terrible fate that awaits this sensitive young woman. The perfect follow-up to a reading of Jane Eyre, yet at the same time holds up very well as a great little novel in it's own right.
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LibraryThing member SandDune
75. Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys ***1/2

A prequel (of sorts) to Jane Eyre giving the story of the first Mrs Rochester. A very brief novel this one, more a novella really, which is very evocative of the tropical Caribbean setting, and is beautifully written.

On the island of Jamaica shortly after the abolition of slavery, the young Antoinette Cosway lives on the almost derelict but beautiful Coulibri Estate, with her widowed mother Annette and a physically and mentally disabled younger brother. As a Creole from the French island of Martinique Annette Cosway is an outsider in Jamaican society, and with her husband having drunk himself to death leaving nothing but debts, the family is virtually destitute. Annette's marriage to the rich Mr Mason from England means that financial worries are resolved but it is an uneasy compromise. Tensions between black and white run high but hewill not listen to her warnings that as the widow of a former slave-owner it is dangerous for her to stay at Coulibri, and in a period of unrest the house is burnt forcing the inhabitants to flee. When Antoinette's younger brother receives injuries that lead to his death her mother loses her mind, and blaming her husband for her son's death, tries to kill him.

Jump forward several years and Antoinette Crosby Mason marries the man that her family have arranged for her. Never named, this is the Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre fame and from the beginning of their marriage he starts to hear rumours about infidelity and madness. But can the rumours be trusted? With the story told from the perspective of both Antoinette and her husband in turn it is possible to understand and sympathise to a certain extent with the feelings of both parties. But as Antoinette must become the quintessential 'madwoman in the attic' of Jane Eyre, the tragic outcome is never in doubt, and the actions of both parties take them along the road that leads to its inevitable conclusion.

I would have enjoyed this much more had I not read it so soon after reading Jane Eyre. Rather than being a straightforward prequel, in Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys takes the characters from Jane Eyre and works them into a very different sort of book, and I had the details of Jane Eyre far too firmly ensconced in my head to allow me to appreciate it as much as I should. Probably best read as a stand-alone novel with a memory of Jane Eyre read ten or twenty years ago in the background. I may well read it again in a year or two's time and may well give it a higher rating when I do. But a word of warning: if Mr Rochester is your favourite ever romantic hero, probably best to give it a miss!
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LibraryThing member DebbieMcCauley
Jean Rhys (1890-1979), was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Roseau, on the Island of Dominica. Her mother, Minna Williams (née Lockhart), was a third generation Dominican Creole of Scottish ancestry. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh-born doctor. When she was sixteen Rhys was sent for schooling in England, returning only once, in 1936.

Antoinette’s isolation and loneliness are painfully apparent as she narrates Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea. Her widowed but distant mother, Annette, is not a satisfactory role model as having been ostracised by society she is lonely and remote, only reviving when a new dress and social life present themselves. Annette’s descent into madness starts when her horse, a symbol of her independence, is poisoned, ‘now we are marooned’ (Rhys, 192, p. 16), and culminates when Antoinette’s mentally retarded brother, Pierre, dies when Coulibri is burnt to the ground during a former slave uprising.

Antoinette finds her main support from black servant Christophine who, whilst she is a strong independent woman, also fits the stereotypical black female ‘mammy’ role. She turns to Christophine when Rochester betrays her with servant Amélie. In her surrogate mother and protector role, Christophine suggests she leave him, ‘A man don’t treat you good, pick up your skirt and walk out’ (Rhys, 1992, p. 100). Aunt Cora is another significant female role model. She opposes Antoinette’s marriage; ‘you are handing over everything the child owns to a perfect stranger’ (Rhys, 1992, p. 104) but as a white female in a Victorian patriarchal society wields little influence.

Prostitution is an undercurrent that has a profound effect on the female characters. Brontë, in casting Bertha as promiscuous, insane and violent, reinforces polite society’s repugnance for the prostitute stereotype, ‘Bertha Mason, the true daughter of an infamous mother, dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste’ (Brontë, 2006, p. 403).

In Part 2 of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Antoinette’s husband narrates the story. As a Victorian male, Rochester show signs of emotionally manipulating behaviour , but in a much more predatory way. He is a non-inheriting second son, has a difficult relationship with his father and has been exiled to Jamaica where fever has sapped his mental and physical abilities, ‘I was married a month after I arrived in Jamaica and for nearly three weeks of that time I was in bed with fever’ (Rhys, 1992. P. 61).

Antoinette has been chosen as a bride for him because of her inheritance. As he says, ‘I have sold my soul or you have sold it, and after all is it such a bad bargain?’ (Rhys, 1992, p. 64). Treating her like a chattel; stepbrother Richard Mason offered £30,000 for Rochester to marry Antoinette. Desperate for money and with little option he agrees to his father and Mason’s scheme, ‘It was all very brightly coloured, very strange, but it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry’ (Rhys, 1992, p. 69).

A Spanish Town wedding ceremony is followed by a honeymoon at Granbois, an estate that once belonged to Antoinette’s mother. Rochester’s character becomes tormented by Antoinette, ‘above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I had found it’ (Rhys, 1992, p. 156).

Shortly after their marriage rumours begin with a letter from Daniel Cosway who claims he is Antoinette’s illegitimate half brother and warns of the insanity in the family which prompts Rochester to actively look for signs of this in Antoinette. His misgivings about the marriage, hitherto kept under the surface, start to emerge. This culminates in his sleeping with the servant Amélie within Antoinette’s hearing. Soon afterwards both his father and elder brother die and he returns to England with Antoinette to claim his inheritance.

The text explores the female viewpoint in a society dominated by men where women are both ruled by men and dependent upon them. On marriage, under English law, a woman’s property used to pass straight to her husband. Womanhood was used as a commodity and as such could be traded, for example Antoinette’s marriage which resulted in financial security for Rochester. Antoinette, once she has married him, forfeits any legal right to her substantial inheritance, becoming a disenfranchised woman at the mercy of her husband.

This is different to the penniless and orphaned Jane Eyre who became an independent woman, earning her living first as a teacher and then a governess. The sheltered Antoinette has come from a protected convent school environment, ‘this convent was my refuge’ (Rhys, 1992, p. 51). Eliza’s independence is, however, somewhat overwhelmed when she becomes a rich man’s experiment. The turning point in the play comes in Act 4 though, when Eliza takes off the ring that Higgins has given her, thereby freeing herself metaphorically from his domination.

Like Higgins, Rochester tries to mould Antoinette to his expectations, especially when he starts calling her Bertha, which is not her given name, and serves to further dispossess her by stripping her sense of identity. She began as Antoinette Cosway, her mother remarried and so she became Antoinette Mason, on marriage she was Antoinette Rochester and then her husband begins calling her Bertha for no apparent reason, ‘Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name’ (Rhys, 1992, p. 133). This treatment has parallels to the capture of slaves, sale, renaming, transportation and imprisonment. Rochester affirms his Victorian patriarchal heritage when Christophine suggests that he and Antoinette separate. He quickly asserts his ownership over his wife and all her belongings.

Antoinette narrates Part 3 of Wide Sargasso Sea where she is imprisoned both physically and by marriage. Whilst locked in the attic she exists in a dreamlike state in the care of Grace Poole. Her stepbrother Richard Mason visits her there and she vents her confusion and hopelessness by stabbing him with a knife. The tragedy of Antoinette’s mad episode of pyromania and resulting suicide is the spectre that haunts the audience who is already familiar with Jane Eyre, serving as a tension filled undercurrent permeating the novel.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
This book came with a lot of hype for me, and I can see how its not complete success in living up to said hype is in ways a function of its historical moment and mine. Like, the Empire has been writing back for forty years, and the counterhegemonic shock of a subaltern challenge to Jane Eyre in 1966, when we were just getting into Enoch Powell and "send our coloured cousins home" territory, can't really be reduplicated in 2010. And in the sense that this is less insistent and more lovely than Things Fall Apart, or Fanon or whoever, it almost belongs to a later era of postcolonial literature--not the empire writing back a rebuke so much as a couple of confused kids, Antoinette Cosway and Edward Rochester, trying to figure out where they are and why they're implicated in one another and what it all means. There's your postcolonial situation, and Rochester's disorientation in luscious, fragrant Jamaica is as vivid and not less sympathetic (if certainly less terrible) than Antoinette's bewilderment in the "cardboard house" at Thornfield, unsure if she's reached England or not.
And Antionette gets her voice, even if she still burns for it.

Poco aside, this is of course an important postmodern novel in at least one other respect, the inverting of the canonical story. In that sense, again, I imagine the impact just had to be more in the sixties, when we hadn't been running every story we've got through the grinder since forever. And here, again, Rhys's light touch was probably the right touch (as opposed to, say, having a vicious harridan named Miss Eyre drive Antoinette off the battlements in the last scene). As I said once in another context, iconoclasts can't be visionaries--this is confusing steps one and two of the creation of new art--but visionaries, of whom Rhys is certainly one, also can't really be Apollonians (shall we call them?)--the postmodern reworlding of prepostmodern texts will of course step up to a whole new level of spohistication, but Wide Sargasso Sea is the radical breakthrough of getting it on the page.

And there is something humanely modernist about the book, as befits the aged ex-flapper who wrote it. In Antoinette and Edward and Grace Pool and even Christophine and Baptiste, we see sympathetic characters, powerfully alienated, with ugly, impossible demons, taking sides and looking out for themselves in a crumbling world (and the historical world of the crumbled slaver aristocracy in the Indies is one I haven't so much thought about in any serious way before). We see them hurt each other irremediably out of fear and spite, but also disorientation and fatigue and the feeling that none of this is really real. We like them, even when they're bad (and Rochester, let me be clear, is much worse than Antoinette ever ever is, and this is also a resolutely feminist text), and wonder how things could have been different. And that's writing. And Antoinette gets her voice, even if she still has to burn for it.
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LibraryThing member turtlesleap
Rhys' descriptions are lyrical, very evocative of place, time and mood. Hers is an interesting voice, especially given that the she was writing in the 1930's when much more florid styles were usual. In particular, she conveys a strong sense of emotionalism in every line. That said, I found the book unsatisfying. So much of the progression of the story was lost in a haze of madness and alcohol that I found mysef frequently checking to see whether I had somehow skipped pages. Too, the unbroken orgy of emotional excess simply became tiresome after awhile. The book is quite short and probably worth the hour or two it takes to read, particularly if you are a Jane Eyre fan. In truth, however, it adds no special insight or worthwhile commentary to that book.… (more)
LibraryThing member rainpebble
The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys; (4*)

I think that Jean Rhys did an excellent job of creating an interesting storyline as well as boggling our minds with the beauty of Colubri. Her images were so strong that I didn't have to try to imagine the characters or settings. I could see, smell & feel them.

This brilliant novel primarily deals with contradictions and ambiguity. Written as a prelude to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys creates an identity for the otherwise shadowy figure of Bertha Mason, Rochester's mad creole wife, through Antoinette a beautiful lonely Creole woman. Wide Sargasso Sea deals with contradictions and not just with feminist "rag issues" as other reviewers suggest, rather tending to deal with gender reversal. Christophine, the freed black slave from another Caribbean Island, is a strong female character who displays masculine traits standing up to the bullying unnamed Englishman (Rochester) who tries to use oppressive colonialist tactics to control the inhabitants of an exotic Island which cannot be controlled. Both are wild and unruly compared to his staid English persona and as such, something which he cannot relate to. Antoinette is the weak female figure who is finally destroyed by the Enlgishman, driven to madness through a combination of his desire for her and his distaste and hate for everything that she represents. An intriguing tale full of ambiguity Wide Sargasso Sea is a sad tale of dispossession and dislocation.

But please do not attempt to compare The Wide Sargasso Sea to Jane Eyre. To do that is to do yourself & Jean Rhys a great disservice.
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LibraryThing member fieldnotes
It is always a risky thing to create a narrative voice far below your own intelligence level. I find that authors less skillful than, say, Faulkner, end up producing poor quality, simple prose without managing to evoke youthfulness or naivety. The first portion of "Wide Sargasso Sea", suffers from the young teenage voice of Antoinette. I find it easy to scoff at passages like, "I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing" or "I prayed for a long time to be dead. Then remembered that this was a sin. It's presumption or despair, I forget which, but a mortal sin. So I prayed for a long time about that too, but the thought came, so many things are sins, why? Another sin, to think that." What's wrong with those passages (aside from their over-convenient simplifications)? They are sandwiched between passages like, "if we were never envious, they never seemed vain. Helene and Germain, a little disdainful, aloof perhaps, but Louise, not even that." and "This remark is made in a casual and perfunctory voice and she slides on to order and chastity, that flawless crystal that, once broken, can never be mended." It's unreasonable to expect readers to receive these four utterances as if they all occurred naturally to the same teenage girl. Narrative consistency matters.

The second part of the book is stronger and almost convinced me to forgive the first part of the novel (which had altogether lost my sympathy) on the basis of the strong contrast set up between them. We are all prepared to notice the shortcomings of Mr. Rochester's perspective. Rhys does not have to be terribly overt about his jealousy, his pride, his fear and his ignorance; these are clear to the reader because of how Mr. Rochester narrates and what he chooses to focus on. The second part is strong and entertaining and the show-down between Christophine (the book's most memorable character) and Mr. Rochester is very well done. While the Iago-like, lurking half-brother of Antoinette with his obnoxious letters, bribery and intrigue was a bit tedious and overdone, the second part of "Wide Sargasso Sea" still commands and rewards attention.

For better or for worse, I have not read "Jane Eyre"; so, the interplay between "Wide Sargasso Sea" and Bronte's novel is completely lost on me. As a result, I have no reason to forgive or accept the disappointing and forced third and final "part" of the novel. To make a novel so dependent on its relationship to another novel is also, somewhat of a risky decision. If I ever get around to "Jane Eyre", I may come back and give this review a second look. But, for now, I wouldn't recommend this particular take on wealthy-white-person-undone-by-tropics to anyone who is not a junky of this particular sub-genre.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
Published in 1966 by a native of the West Indies, this is a a prequel of a kind to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, telling the story of Rochester's first wife Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic: in other words, this is fan fiction. In fact, it's practically the ur-text, the book everyone mentions in defense of derivative works. It's also according to its introduction the "touchstone text of... modernism, feminism, and post-colonial theory." Not surprising really, because at the core of fan fiction--or good ones, and that's not an oxymoron--is subversion, allowing voices to which the privileged text does not give voice. And you can see that theme played out here in everything from who gets the point of view to how Rhys handles issues of identity, even names. For "Bertha Mason" of Jane Eyre here becomes "Antoinette Cosway" and in the journey from one identity to the other hangs much of the tale.

The prose style is exquisite, the telling atmospheric and the narrative hooked me at once. It passed almost too quickly. (The text is only 113 pages in the edition I read.) Rhys sets it just after emancipation came to Jamaica around 1839, and the description especially in Part One, narrated by the young Antoinette, depicting the poisoned relationship between the plantation owners and their former slaves is going to stay with me. So is the beauty of the landscape which despite the dark material Rhys doesn't stint on.

I don't necessarily accept Rhys' reinterpretation of Bronte's madwoman--nor of Rochester. Although Rochester (never named, and I think even that is significant) is more fairly and sympathetically presented than I expected given what I heard of the book, and I found his narrative voice in Part Two fascinating. This book can stand alone, though, it doesn't need to succeed as the "untold story" behind Jane Eyre. It's very much its own book. Forget all the ponderous and political agendas overlaid by critics on Wide Sargasso Sea: this is a powerful story.
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LibraryThing member Nandakishore_Varma
Every once in a while, I stop to think about the neglected characters in various novels who exist only as plot devices. What are their stories? If you saw the novel through their eyes, what would it be like?

Therefore, ever since I heard the premise of Jean Rhys's novel, I was eager to read it. Bertha, Mr. Rochester's first wife, must have had a life other than as the "madwoman in the attic". I do not know if Charlotte Bronte ever thought about it, but Ms. Rhys obviously did, and this compellingly readable novel is the product.

The language is beautifully evocative. I could see the West Indies, even though I have never been there. I could see, hear and smell the tropical countryside (very much like my homeland), at once breathtakingly beautiful, compellingly seductive and strangely frightening-like Antoinette. Especially to the eyes of an Englishman whose green meadows and rolling fields hold no secrets.

Yes, the countryside is beautiful... but dangerous, since you can get lost in it. It may suddenly cloud over and start to rain, and you may find yourself in the burnt-out ruins of a country house populated only by ghosts of dead slaves and murdered slave-owners.

The characterisation is perfect. Rhys draws each character, including the minor ones, with a few deft brush strokes. Rochester, for all his faults, comes across as sympathetic, a victim of his times and society: the "evils" he does are part of his social makeup. And Antoinette is a masterpiece-inseparable from the landscape she inhabits. As we progress through the novel and she slips more and more into madness, the narrative also matches her mental state. In fact, the third part is downright creepy.

However, I am still plagued by a niggling doubt... would this novel be effective for someone totally ignorant of Jane Eyre?

Oh well...maybe the question is irrelevant.
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LibraryThing member SweetbriarPoet
Many of my peers dislike this book because of their devotion to Jane Eyre. However, I find that it does more than analyze Jane Eyre, does more than extract basic themes.

This book has style: something I am always searching for in my reading. This book has a way about it that is hidden, almost a hidden agenda. I love the fact that not everything can possibly be caught (for example, the commmon themes in both books including fire, looking-glasses, self-reflection, and of course, despair in love).

I love this book because it is an outsider.
I love this book because it muddies Jane Eyre and becomes its own masterpiece.
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LibraryThing member miriamparker
Blech. This is the most hackneyed idea. And something about this book just really, really bothers me. It makes me angry. I hate, hate, hate literary "revisitings." They make me want to vomit. Think up your own idea for god's sake.
LibraryThing member nycbookgirl
I had no idea that this novel had anything to do with Jane Eyre. **If you've never read Jane Eyre and are planning to, you might want to stop reading here. **I happened to see it the other day at the library and picked it up. So here we go.

Wide Sargasso Sea imagines the background of "Bertha" the first wife of Rochester from Jane Eyre. It's supposed to clear up the mystery of why she ending up being the crazy lady in the attic.

And I say "supposed" because it didn't really clear up anything to me. At the end of the book, I still feel that "Bertha" a.k.a. Antoinette Cosway, the wealthy Creole girl from the Caribbean, is still such a mystery.

Let's be honest. I didn't really like this book. Classic literature it may be but here's why I had problems with it.

1) Rochester doesn't really seem like the Rochester from Jane Eyre. That said, if he's supposed to come off as an evil man who enslaves her in his attic....it kind of failed. You could see where he seemed just as stuck in having to marry her as she was to him. And there was no logical reason for him to start calling her "Bertha", it was out of character, and it just bugged me. (A large portion in the middle of the book is written from Rochester's perspective. I DID like that.)

2) The book jacket made it seem as if she had no choice in marrying him. As if against her will she was forced. But I didn't really see that in the book either. I couldn't really see WHY she had to marry him or why she did.

3) She remains a complete mystery. If she's supposed to be strong-willed, I don't see it. If she was supposed to be an innocent who was manipulated, I don't see it. I'm just not sure where the author was wanting to take this character.

4) The characters were confusing, the writing was confusing...I'll just leave it at that.

What I did like about this book:

1) The very beginning is very vivid. It's the part where Antoinette is a child, growing up as a Creole without a father, and the social changes that happen on the island where she lives. I'd tag this as "classic" just from that small section. Then the book just goes down-hill from there.

2) In a weird way, I could never get a picture of what Antoinette looked like. Maybe it was purposeful since Antoinette was caught between worlds, not fitting into either one. I thought that was a really powerful writing tool she used.

3) I did like the parallel between Jane's upbringing and Antoinette's. Lots of similarities.

4) Jean Rhys. I am kind of fascinated about the author herself. I'd love to read a book just on her.
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LibraryThing member Dunsh01
I read Jane Eyre during my early primary school years (aged 9 to be exact. Much to my mothers frustration my reading comprehensive age was about 13 years older than I was. I say frustration because I wanted to read books probably too old for me psychologically - I did NOT want to read Dick and Dora and was not interested in seeing Spot run!).

I LOVED it. Of all the classics it is in my top 3.

So it's surprising that it took me another 33 years to read Wide Sargasso Sea. And I kind of understand why it took Jean Rhys so long to write it. It just didn't quite gel as a prequel. I think fans of Jane Eyre fall in love with the premise - who was the madwoman in the attic and how did she get to that point in her life. It's a story we want to hear.

While the itself book was well written it is hard to view it in isolation from the original Jane Eyre story - especially where existing characters such as Rochester come in. Undoubtedly it would be difficult to write another's character when they are of such fame and well known and Rhys makes a fair effort - but for the most part he does not ring true. Of course, people (or characters) change over time - but the job of the author is to make that change feel authentic.

I felt that Antoinette's descent into madness seemed a little too quick - though in fact it did happen over years, the short narrative made it seem much quicker. But likewise I would not have wanted to book to drag out any longer.

Over all - it I liked the story well enough but I didn't LOVE it. It is on many "books to read before you die" lists and it's the type of book you read for school as opposed to pure enjoyment.

It hit the halfway mark for me - 2.5 stars but out of love and respect for my beloved Jane Eyre, I shall round up to 3.

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LibraryThing member citygirl
Rhys' Jamaica is lush and hypnotic, in stark contrast to Jane's bleak English countryside. Her young woman is sensual, beautiful and dreamy, far from Jane's pragmatic orphan. This is a beautiful novel, the descriptions of Jamaica and its denizens after slave emancipation are fascinating and would be a bit familiar to Americans from the South. Rhys had the freedom to portray Rochester's sexuality more clearly than Bronte, adding a new dimension to the man. This adds to the story. It is a worthy companion to Jane Eyre.… (more)
LibraryThing member sarah_rachael89
I loved this book but I would not have appreciated it as I did had I not previously read Jane Eyre. This book is a great read in itself but it certainly sparked more interest in me to find the is companionable with Jane Eyre. It gives a history to Rochester's estranged wife, Bertha, which is very interesting.
LibraryThing member mlbelize
This book first caught my eye last year and I immediately added it to my ridiculously long to-be-read list. The book synopsis was right up my alley, I just knew I’d love it, then I looked and saw that several of my friends that I’ve grown to trust their judgement on books rated it 4 and 5 stars. With growing excitement I set aside a couple of other books that I had started and dove into it.

In Part One our protagonist, Antoinette Cosway, describes her life as a child growing up on a run-down plantation in Jamaica shortly after the Emancipation Act was declared in the early 1800′s. As the daughter of former slave owners she and her mother were subjected to the pent-up hatred of the the black inhabitants which led to a lonely, friendless existence amid the lush, colorful beauty of the island where she found her only happiness. In an act of retaliation against the sins of slavery, they are attacked, their home set on fire and driven off the plantation to the physical safety of the town and later to a convent school until her step-father sells her off in a marriage to an “respectable” English man, the youngest son of a English nobleman who sees this marriage as his way of gaining financial security for himself despite his lack of love for his wife.

Part Two is told by Antoinette’s new husband as he journeys to her old home and succumbs to the hatred of the island residents towards her family and the innocent Antoinette. He even robs her of her rightful name and refuses to call her anything other than Bertha. Eager to leave Jamaica “he will make her pay for her ancestors’ sins of slave-holding, excessive drinking, and nihilistic despair by enslaving her as a prisoner in his bleak English home.”

Part Three is told by Bertha. Here we see her without friends in his grey cold dreary home in England and aching for the warm, rich in color place of her birth. With ownership of her money now given to her husband, Bertha finds herself with no means of escape other than in her tormented mind.

The book is too short to give much more about it without a lot of spoilers so I’ll simply say that while I enjoyed it I should have loved this book, I really wanted to, but found in the end that I just didn’t. While the writing was good I felt it wasn’t great. Rhys merely hinted at feelings and situations that left me confused at times why so much hatred was directed to this young girl whose only sin that I could see was being born in the wrong family at the wrong time. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had previously read Jane Eyre and may revisit it again after I do so.

My rating: 3.5
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LibraryThing member Ameise1
A great story about a young Kreolin, who lives in her dream world, so she can survive, because she lives all her life just against evil. She is growing up when slavery has been banned. She belongs nowhere, since she is neither a white nor a black one. She is a mixed-blood who is treated like a dog. Her mother was crazy by all these happenings and now everyone believes that this is happening to her too. She never gets a real chance. Only once did she feel safe, when she was at the monastery school.
I like how Rhys writes this story with great sensitivity. The narrative is in the form I times out of the view of the young girl, then again from the view of her husband. This style of writing makes the story so lively.
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LibraryThing member seekingflight
There was a lot that I liked in this book – the well-drawn natural and political environment (Jamaica and Dominica during the 1830s, after the emancipation of slaves), the perhaps deliberate ambiguity about characters’ actions and motivations, and most of all, the attempt to give a voice and a history to the ‘mad woman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre. She comes across somewhat more sympathetically to me than the unnamed husband (Rochester) in this telling of her story, and I particularly liked the fragmented and confused way in which the last (short) third of the book was told; the events of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Antoinette/ Bertha. Could Rochester have done differently, in the hostile environment in which he found himself, when still so very young, for both his own self and his first wife? This was the insistent question I was left to ponder after finishing this novel, which provides no easy answers.… (more)
LibraryThing member barnaby
A lush and rich "prequel" to Charlotte Bronte's classic Jane Eyre. This book tells the story of the mad woman in the attic. She is married to a handsom young man (Rochester) but something is spreading unease. A very well written short novel, almost a novella, but definitely not to be ignored.
LibraryThing member mephit
Fantastic response to 'Jane Eyre' with the fleshing out and full realisation of the figure embodying fear and insanity, the literal madwoman in the attic, of that novel. It also is a turn-around of colonial attitudes. Atmospheric, you can almost feel the humid heat roiling out of the pages.

Bertha Mason/Rochester is revealed as Antoinette Cosway. One of the primary themes of the novel is loss of identity and this is basically what happens to the main character, slowly everything that makes her who she is, removed piece by piece. In this Mr Rochester is the main offender and might be said to represent the Empire. He succeeds in symbolically erasing her by denying her name and replacing it with Bertha, just as original place names and slaves' names would have been anglicised or re-named. She puts this into words, telling him he is trying to make her into another person, but he has no pity for her: his own powerlessness in having to marry an heiress and her very happiness & self- assurance in their honeymoon surroundings make him jealous & ruthless.

Rochester's cruelty to Antoinette seems born out of resentment about having been pressured into marrying for money by his own family and social expectations. Discovering an apparent history of mental illness in his new wife's family seems to suggest to him the path of ridding himself of his unwanted wife by deciding she is also mad.

It's a fascinating take on the first Mrs Rochester. Good stuff.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
”They say when trouble comes close ranks…” So begins Jean Rhys’ Gothic novel which explores the back story of the fictional character, the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It’s fan fiction, Shades of Gray without the blatant eroticism, but fan fiction just the same.

Like the author, Antoinette Cosway, grew up in the lush tropical forests of the Caribbean where the natural world and the harsh world of black and white exist, side by side. Highlighted by hatred among the classes, alcoholism, greed, loneliness, isolation, and lust, Rhys tells the story of Antoinette’s life, at a time when emancipation had just freed the black slaves in the island held by the British Empire. The tension between blacks and whites on the islands is palpable. You quickly pick up on the fact that Antoinette’s mental capacity is a family trait. Her mother is spiraling into the depths of mental illness when she marries her second husband who takes a special liking to Antoinette. In spite of that, he sells her off to Mr. Rochester who takes her off to Great Britain and…..well, you know the rest of the story.

Although Rhyss did an exceptional job of evoking place and time, this book did not work well for me. For one thing, she chose to use two narrative voices, Rochester and Antoinette, but I was confused as to who was talking. I didn’t like having to try and figure that out. But most egregious was the denigration of Mr. Rochester, who comes off as an absolute brute and a cad of unbelievable proportions. Not the impression I’ve had of him in the past. Sure he was rough around the edges when I met him in Jane Eyre but the picture that Rhys paints of him is that of a real monster.

For those reasons and because I just did not find this to be a compelling read I can’t really recommend it.
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LibraryThing member Ambrosia4
Overall this was a very interesting idea for a novel: take one of the most mysterious characters from classical literature and expand upon her backstory. And Rhys does not disappoint, she brings such a rich and detailed viewpoint of Antoinette (later dubbed "Bertha", as she is called in Jane Eyre) that one cannot help but sympathize with the girl who becomes the crazy woman in Thornfield Hall's attic room.

In particular, her identity crisis due to racial ambiguity spoke to me as a biracial woman. Using this as the basis of her illness at a time when race was deemed vitally important to a person's standing was a great take off point for her insanity. While racial differences have become more accepted, the relatively subtle (compared to more obvious displays in other novels) superiority complex of full-blooded whites to coloured and black people in this novel is still very much present in today's culture, despite the obliviousness of many.

Antoinette's insanity is very understandable as well. She is literally pushed to the brink and finally cannot bring herself back. No one offers her help and instead of being an evil woman who broke up Jane and Mr. Rochester, tried to kill her husband, and set his house ablaze, she becomes a sad woman who just needed a hug and some therapy. She was just genuinely a product of the times and her environment. Rhys draws this portrait of a woman harmed by society and her surroundings well and develops the Caribbean influences (drawn from her own background) pitch perfect.

This was not an easy read with a shifting point-of-view that is often hard to get used to or even identify. As Antoinette slips further into insanity her perspective in particular becomes unstable and difficult to comprehend. There are many motifs and some symbolism that is not obvious, but needs to be understood to get the full impact of Rhys' story.

In conclusion though, I definitely recommend it. It's a short book that on the surface can be easily comprehended.
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LibraryThing member pj77
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is written as a prequel to Jane Eyre and tells the story of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s “mad” wife. The story is set in the West Indies and is divided into 3 parts. The first is about her childhood, written from her perspective, the second details her marriage to an English man (who is never named, but who is assumed to be Mr Rochester) during which she begins her descent into madness, told from the perspective of Mr Rochester and the third is during her time locked up in the heights of Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre with her carer Grace Poole from whose perspective this section is told. It was a great read, short, but very well written. Jean Rhys certainly had a talent for beautiful and sensory descriptive language and this was definitely what I loved most about this novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
Jane Eyre is my all-time favorite book, so I was excited to finally pick up this short novel which fleshes out the life of Bertha, the madwoman in the attic. I really liked the Caribbean setting, which helped to build the character of Antoinette Cosway. I liked how sympathetic a character Antoinette was, even as her world began to fracture and her grip on reality started to fade. The traditional culture of the Caribbean and the supernatural beliefs of those Antoinette grew up with certainly muddied the water as the young woman struggled with her sanity and adapted to her marriage. This is a must-read for Jane Eyre fans and a fascinating short novel in its own right.… (more)
LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
This compelling short novel creates a very plausible back story for Bertha Mason Rochester, the "mad woman in the attic" of Jane Eyre's Thornfield Hall. Born Antoinette Cosway, and re-named "Bertha" by her disillusioned husband, this woman should be a sympathetic figure, but I found I could not take her part, as I could not quite get a grip on the true cause of her madness. Did she break up (as her West Indian servant and confidant Christophine refers to her mental disturbances) because of unrequited love for Mr. Rochester, or because her own mother drifted into insanity and rejected her when she was a young girl, or because she witnessed her mother being sexually exploited and was therefore predisposed to sexual dysfunction herself? Christophine blames Mr. Rochester for "(making) love to her till she drunk with it...till she can't do without it. It's she can't see the sun any more. Only you she see." Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Rhys's story is the suggestion that Antoinette has been driven mad by lust. If your romantic soul has shared Jane's love and compassion for Mr. R since you first read the classic, you will hate what Rhys has done to him. Because if it's hard to warm up to Antoinette, even after knowing what all happened to her in her childhood, it's impossible not to see Rochester as heartless, cruel and vindictive here. Even though he does not put his wife away from him, but takes her to England and has her cared for in what was probably viewed as a benevolent fashion at the time, his automatic rejection of her based on a letter filled with accusations of congenital madness, interracial affairs and incest; his inability to accept her culture and concepts of beauty as equal to his own; and his blatant act of infidelity within her hearing make him one reprehensible SOB. A tragic fire in Antoinette's childhood foreshadows the ultimate "bad end" she eventually visits on herself. Brilliantly done, and mightily unsettling.… (more)



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