By Freya Turner, guest edited by Dafydd Jenkins
I was first introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea in my second year at University. I didn’t spend much time reading it before I became aware that something different was happening within this book, and something was demanding my attention. What also struck me was that if there was any time in the year to read this book, it would be summer. What is summer but a period of stretched-out days set in a shimmering daze from the heat, where we feel increased pressure to do more, where work and study breaks often feel intimidating and difficult to navigate? For me, these qualities of summer align with the ideas in this cult feminist prequel that re-thinks Jane Eyre.
The novel is set in 1830s Jamaica, and narrates the back-story of Jane Eyre that was never told; the story of Antoinette Cosway (Jane Eyre’s Bertha), Mr Rochester’s first wife. It threads together the oppressive and scarring structures of imperialism, in regards to masculinity, femininity, race, mental illness, and storytelling itself, through the eyes of Antoinette and Rochester. Written by Jean Rhys in 1966, the novel is a noted work of post-colonial fiction, and experimental in its writing style and creation of character. The novel has a breadth and depth that very few much longer novels are able to master, through writing which does not blame people, but structures in society, with a style that is at once lucid yet dream-like. Rhys makes the political a dream-space, where the narratives of lives are lost, interrelated, snowballed, and positioned in relation to ‘truth’ – whatever that may mean. Even feminism itself inhabits a new space where its purpose and discourse is called into question. For a short novel, it’s a mighty one, consistently cut through with the oppressive heat of the sun.
Antoinette is the daughter of ex-slave owners in Jamaica, and is a victim of the intolerance of both the freed black slaves and the white, imperialist aristocracy laying in tatters. She is undoubtedly liminal, much like Jane Eyre, but not in any positive sense. Early on in the novel she becomes an orphan, due to her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s mental illness, and her aunt moving to England for a year. An unnamed English man, who has connections with Antoinette’s mother’s recent and distant husband, Mr Mason, comes to Jamaica to marry Antoinette because he is bribed to by Mr Mason’s son. He is the victim of patrilineal inheritance as – being the younger son – his older brother inherits his father’s estate, meaning that he must quickly find his own financial security.
When the couple move into Antoinette’s inherited estate, the heat quickly feels more oppressive as things grow intolerable for the unnamed man (Rochester), Antoinette, and their servants. The couple are the victims of an imperialist system that prescribes roles and strips autonomy. Rochester and Antoinette’s misconnection goes far beyond communication difficulties, and their cultural victimisation is played out through anger towards one another, to the extent where the head servant, Christophine, rather ironically tries to be the mediator of this imperialist marriage. The system appears to be eating itself. It is in this part of the novel that Rhys’ writing is acutely sensitive and explosive, where it feels like each minute of their dizzying experiences hit you with a sense of loss so severe that you struggle to label what it is you are feeling or mourning.
All the novel’s perspectives create a static, with different stories harshly rubbing against each other, created not only through the first-person narrative from both Antoinette and Rochester, but through the disjointed and impassioned stories from the servants Christophine and Baptiste, and distant family members. We struggle to put our trust in anyone, and here’s where feminism is put on trial. I began asking myself whether different truths are inherent in the feminist discourse, and why this is necessary. I asked myself whether Christophine is the most plausible character, simply because she is the most threatening to the imperialist white male discourse. I also asked myself how much free choice men have in modern society, when their choice is constrained by archaic masculinity. These are interrelated thoughts that very few other novels open up so well.
It’s through the novel’s dream-like narrative that this becomes so effective, particularly in regards to Antoinette’s perspective. It is said that our dreams are a way for our brain to process the masses of tangled information that we are faced with every day, and Rhys proves that this is so. She even takes this further by touching on the uncanny of Freud, through Antoinette’s increasingly doll-like state. Rhys is continually exploring new structures, in form, character development, writing style, and even emotion, which further stresses her argument that it is the structures of imperialism and gender roles, rather than the individuals of patriarchy, that are the most important and powerful things to focus on and take action upon.
Why is the novel so relevant for our times? Jane’s ‘gilded cage’ is shown for what it really is; namely, a focus on one woman’s story, instead of other sides of the story, such as those of non-Westerners, non-whites, and poorer women. It draws comparison to the glass ceiling today, which, by focusing on it, demands us to ask whether it allows the exploitation of the majority of female labour and, if so, whether this mirrors the imperialism in the novel? We can go even further and mention other products of capitalism such as the #likeagirl campaign, and artists who use a movement to make a quick profit (I hate to say it, but Beyoncé’s Lemonade). You’ve got to give it to Jean Rhys for warning us about capitalism stunting the growth of feminism.
The other thing that rings so true to our moment now is the extent to which truth is fought over. Truth is fragmented, certain events are ignored, and jumping to conclusions and not listening are tools that are ironically used for self-protection from a societal structure that is reductive and exploitative. Our society is infiltrated with ‘fake news’, leaders and peoples who refuse to listen, believing what they want to believe, because their neo-liberal ideology tells them that’s what they’re entitled to. In this novel, you get a vision of what effect this has on gender and race, and it’s powerful.
Lastly, and most importantly, we are wrapped up in the devastating emotional effects of the imperialistic, gendered world which makes everyone suffer. Antoinette becomes increasingly hollowed out, lifeless, her mental health deteriorates, and Rochester is plagued with lifelessness, lack of empathy and passion, and dangerous anger. Both genders become bereft of the emotional range that they deserve, and this resonates strongly with the way that we are bringing up children today. Young girls very often have shockingly little self-confidence or ambition, and boys struggle to express any emotion other than anger – for just a few examples, read Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism or watch BBC’s recent documentary, No More Boys and Girls. Funnily enough, those children eventually grow up to not fulfil their potentials.
And despite all of this, the richness of Rhys’ language somehow points us towards a glimmer of hope. As if, through all of this, there is a contemporary discourse that is shouting out, encouraging us to do more and express ourselves in better ways which could eliminate the shackles of imperialism and gender roles for good.
If you’re worried about the state of the world right now, read this 124-page beauty; it’ll tell you a lot.
About the Author
Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.