Book Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
When reading a classic novel, it is always interesting to think about the backgrounds and histories of the supporting characters who may not receive as much time on the page as we would like. One such character for some, including Jean Rhys, is Bertha, or the "mad woman in the attic" from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. There has always been a curiosity about how she came to be the "mad" woman who needed to be hidden away from the world. Rhys attempts to answer this question in her short novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Bertha (real name Antoinette)'s story begins in Jamaica where she is living with her mother, siblings and her step-father, Mr. Mason. Residing on a sugar plantation, Bertha sees how, with the end of slavery, her world is changing at a rate no one expected. The freed slaves rebel against their former masters, set their house on fire, and kill Bertha's younger brother Pierre. Her mother, Annette, is mentally unstable and the loss of her son and her home sends her over the edge. Her husband sends her away to "convalesce." Bertha eventually marries the man we come to know as Rochester in Jane Eyre. Neither of them are happy about the marriage and, with the added stress of an illegitimate half-brother attempting to blackmail Rochester, the marriage falls apart quickly. Rochester is also not a good husband; he sleeps around and verbally abuses Bertha to the point that her psyche cannot take anymore. She begs her old nurse, Christophine, for a love potion to make her husband faithful, but instead it has the opposite affect and nearly kills Rochester. This is the final straw for Rochester and he takes his wife to his home in England. THe last section of the novel details Bertha's seclusion at Thornfield and ends in her finally gaining freedom, both physically and emotionally (by setting the house afire).
Rhys' take on Bertha's story is interesting. It's nice to get this history on Bertha, and now it makes more sense as to why she became the character we recognize from Jane Eyre. However, it begs the question: when an author writes a book such as this, did the author of the original text, in this case Charlotte Bronte, want this character explored in such a manner? Perhaps she wanted her to remain a mystery, that she did not give this character a background because she simply did not feel it was necessary; by giving her such a backstory, she is no longer the mysterious woman in the attic.
On the other hand, I appreciate the Rhys is taking this nearly one-dimensional character and creating a multi-layered, dynamic character. I am glad Bertha is given a voice and that Rhys' backstory of Bertha explains the relationship between her and Rochester more clearly. I like her interesting and fleshed out characters, from the manic mother to the dastardly half-brother. For such a short novel, the character development is great. The plot could have used a bit more fleshing out, as we only get snippets into Bertha's life rather than a fully developed life story. It's easy to see that Rhys wants women to take center stage in the book, with the men playing minor but important roles, and most of them portrayed as not so good guys.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. However, I question whether it was truly necessary to continue the legacy that Bronte created. It's one of those novels you can say you have checked off your list, but I wouldn't necessarily read it again. I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about Bertha and wants to learn more about her story.