In her prelude to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys offers the backstory of the first Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic who destroys Thornfield Hall and herself by fire. Although the book was published fifty years ago, Rhys’s story is a good reminder the classics have hidden secrets: critical analysts sometimes refer to Bertha as Jane’s alter ego. After seeing the book on a list of favorites by a fellow reader, I decided to reread this short book and found myself quickly caught up in its fervor.
In Part One, set in Jamaica, Antoinette, the Creole daughter of a white slave owner, later called Bertha by her English husband, tells the story of her sad childhood. Lonely and rejected by her mother, and running wild after her father dies, she lives in poverty until her mother remarries. She survives the fire set by an angry mob of locals, destroying her childhood plantation home and driving her mother to madness, and is sent off to a convent. When she is seventeen, her fortune attracts a tall, second son of an Englishman, with no inheritance of his own. Antoinette has a sense of foreboding and imagines she cannot escape her fate.
Part Two begins with Antoinette’s husband narrating the honeymoon, soon to be interrupted by a strange letter revealing the horrors of Antoinette’s background. Never feeling comfortable in the tropical surroundings of his wife’s home, Rochester now becomes cold and distant. In a sad and pathetic moment, Rhys has Antoinette enlisting the voodoo magic of her childhood caregiver to remedy her situation. But her fortune now belongs to her husband, who wants to return to England.
In Part Three, Antoinette’s perspective returns, though she is now living as the quarantined Bertha in Thornfield’s drafty attic. This section is the shortest, cleverly connecting to Bronte’s book. Nowhere in the text of her novel does Rhys mention Rochester by name, but she clearly connects to him in the end, as Bertha dreams of setting fire to Thornfield and ending her miserable life.
In Jane Eyre, Bertha raves and screams, but in The Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives her a voice. In Rhys’s novel, she is the victim of oppression, treated as if she were a ‘white cockroach’ by her family’s black servants, and rejected by Rochester. Like Jane, she had her own dreams.
The Wide Sargasso Sea won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006. The Cheltenham Prize, created as a companion to the Man Booker, identifies who might have won the Prize if it had existed a century earlier. For a list of the winning books, click on Book Awards: Cheltenham Booker Prize. You might find another old book worth a second read.