Jean Rhys’s late, literary masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and is set in the lush, beguiling landscape of Jamaica in the 1830s. Born into an oppressive, colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. After their marriage the rumours begin, poisoning her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is driven towards madness.
Jane Eyre is the passionate story of an orphan sent as a young child to live with her cruel aunt and bullying cousins, and then to a harsh boarding school that is nevertheless an escape of sorts. The heart of the book is in Jane’s love for the brooding Mr Rochester, her employer at Thornfield where she takes the role of governess.
Eilleen: The Wide Sargasso Sea, what a fascinating story, the fact that some of the stately homes in the Borders had plantations: it sort of brought it home to me. What a wonderful writer: it’s in the top 100.
Pru: It seemed so modern to me, the style and the look at colonialism and the sort of leaving things uncertain, the ability to get into another person’s mind.
Eilleen: It’s hard to believe it was written in the 1950s-1960s.
Jean: I was a little disappointed: I thought the first part was fascinating, but I couldn’t make the connection between that child and the mad woman later.
Pru: But did she go mad, or was that the western perception of her?
Eilleen: She was a free spirit: thus custom of the time deemed her mad.
Pam: I’d never thought of Jane Eyre in terms of race, and it was only after this that I began to see it that way.
Pru: I thought she [Jean Rhys] was deliberately leaving it open.
Val: I couldn’t wait to get back to Jane Eyre.
Greta: I thought Mr Rochester was much crueller in The Wide Sargasso Sea, it was his rejection of Antoinette that made her mind fragment. She was born into this family of slave owners, she was surrounded by half siblings: the atmosphere was so intense, everything was very exotic and flamboyant, it was rather like a paradise overdone: too much pungency.
Pru: Can I get back to Mr Rochester: I felt there was a disparity between him in the two books. He seemed rather a weak character in the prequel, missing the acerbic edge of his Jane Eyre character. The way he interviews Jane: all that sharp intellect is missing in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Greta: There is huge sympathy from the author for the heroine of Wide Sargasso Sea.
Greta: Yes, her name is Antoinette, but Mr Rochester keeps renaming her Bertha.
Pru: He’s trying to mould her to what he wants.
Jean: If it’s his treatment that sends her mad, why was her family so keen to marry her off with lots of money.
Pam: They don’t tell Rochester the whole story, the money is the incentive.
Carole: That’s what is so interesting in Jane Eyre: you never really see Bertha properly: except throwing herself off the battlements. The fact that we don’t know what she looks like is part of the power.
Greta: Do you think one of the things about The Wide Sargasso Sea is that we see her as a whole person, that’s a hugely powerful thing. Unlike in Jane Eyre, when you don’t really know until much later that there is even a real woman in the room.
Sandra: Both women, Jane and Bertha, had terrible childhoods, but very different outcomes.
Maureen: The Christian ethic is there in Jane Eyre, she’s able to develop and encouraged to do so. She also understands the background of giving a Christian understanding.
Pru: I would say that’s a Christian reading of the book.
Sandra: Jane Eyre was the daughter of a vicar: interesting then that she portrayed St John the missionary as she did.
Pam: Can I be devil’s advocate: would you say there were times when Jane was feeling too sorry for herself? She seemed to whinge...
Pru: I don’t agree, at all the stages in her life, she took positive action. She was determined to become a school teacher.
Rosamund: Yes, she was prepared to launch herself from the relative safety of the school in order to find a new life in a world she knew little about.
Greta: The bit about Lowood was shorter than I’d remembered. The section when she was on the moor, I was more interested in now, as a child I just wanted to get back to Mr Rochester. I thought St John was so cruel: the virtuous man, then we have Mr Rochester, a rake, but redeemable.
Pru: Mr Rochester has to be in a fire and be blinded before he’s allowed to earn Jane.
Sandra: Isn’t it astonishing that Charlotte Bronte could write as she did, the vivid descriptions of the passions. This book remains one of the best novels I have ever read.
z The Book Group meets at The Mainstreet Trading Company, in St Boswells, contact Rosamund on firstname.lastname@example.org to join the mailing list. Our next book meeting is at 11am on January 11 and we are reading Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson.