I’m sure you have read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but have you read its ‘prequel’, the 1996 novel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which describes the background to Mr Rochester’s marriage? Bertha Mason wasn’t always the madwoman in the attic. Meet her in Jamaica when she was sane and attractive, and be encouraged to think about Charlotte Bronte’s classic in a new way.
Come with me on a fabulous reading journey through 2020. Together we will explore a thought-provoking selection of 19th and 20th Century classics. For each novel you will receive an illustrated monograph packed full of intriguing stories about the author behind the book, explaining its themes, tempting you with film versions to watch, and challenging you with discussion questions.
I love to share my passion for great literature. Please consider joining me in this literary exploration.
I think my introduction to this novel would have intrigued Jean Rhys. I was a student at Edinburgh University in 1980 and met an American girl who was doing a PhD thesis on the novels of Jean Rhys. Her name was Katherine and we got on well – I often had dinner with her and her husband. I’d never even heard of Jean Rhys before this and she encouraged me to read Wide Sargasso Sea since I loved Jane Eyre. We had some interesting discussions about the book and its portrayal of Mr Rochester, not entirely agreeing, but always interested in each other’s views. However, as the year went by, I saw less of Katherine, and then heard she was ill. She was no longer to be seen in the university library or the English department. I made enquiries, as I was concerned, and heard she was suffering from serious depression and was spending some weeks in what was in those days called a ‘mental hospital’.
I went to visit her there – my first and only visit to such an institution, and all because of Jean Rhys! Poor Katherine was in a bad way. I was twenty and had no experience whatsoever of mental illness, so felt uncomfortable and uncertain what to say or do. I heard that soon after my visit Katherine returned to the USA, her marriage over, her thesis unfinished, and I never saw her again.
“Have all beautiful things sad destinies?” ― Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
Having re-read Wide Sargasso Sea has made me think about my friend again. Was she already depressed when she went to Edinburgh and did her depression draw her to Jean Rhys, who also suffered depression? Did reading the works of someone who was going through what she herself was suffering help her at all? I’ll never know the answers, but I look back and hope that my friend gained some comfort from her reading. I wonder what has happened to Katherine and if she recovered? I wonder if she is still reading, and enjoying, the novels of Jean Rhys?
For me, the major fascination of this book comes from its relationship to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a novel I love. Have you just read Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time? I hope you find it helpful to learn more about the very strange woman who wrote it, its connections with Brontë’s classic, and its depiction of an exotic Caribbean island and its problems.
Time magazine named Wide Sargasso Sea as one of the “100 Best English-language Novels since 1923’, and Modern Library’s ‘100 Best Novels’ ranks it at 94. GoodReads called it “a masterpiece of modern fiction” and the New York Times book review pronounced it a “tour de force”. Do you agree? I find it a troubling, controversial novel – it makes me think about fiction, about Jane Eyre, about the position of women and about colonialism and integration of different races, but I don’t LOVE it. I’d be interested to know how you respond to this thought-provoking book.