Before She Was The Mad Woman In The Attic: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Alternative histories hypothesize world-changing cataclysms– the South winning the Civil War  (If The South Had Won The Civil War) or the Axis Powers prevailing in World War II (The Man In The High Castle). When I read, this old lawyer conjures alternative law. Every time I read a novel about a bad marriage, I can’t resist wondering whether there’d have been a novel at all if present day no-fault divorce laws, equitable distribution statutes, and custody laws had been on the books. Forget all the Henry VIII literature, the King would have gotten his divorces sans a beheading.  Farewell A Man For All Seasons and Wolf Hall. Anna Karenina and Vronsky would have happily headed off into the sunset sharing custody with Karenin of Anna’s son. Unloving marriages in Middlemarch are dissolved, shrinking the novel to a novella.  They say bad facts make bad law.  But bad law makes great literature.

One novel that owes a lot to bad matrimonial law is Jane Eyre.  Rochester locks his mad wife in the attic, where she’s an obstacle to his marrying Jane Eyre–not that Rochester is a charmer either.  The mad woman, Bertha Mason, takes matters into her own hands, and perishes in a self-set fire that also destroys Rochester’s home, Thornfield, and Rochester’s eyesight.  At the time in Britain, divorce was available only through act of Parliament.  Absent an arrangement otherwise, a husband controlled his wife’s property after the marriage and had custody of the kids if his wife took off. Nowadays, a court would appoint a guardian to represent Bertha, and she and Rochester would go their separate ways.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a prelude to Jane Eyre.  It’s about Bertha before she became mad and even before she became Bertha. Bertha was born Antoinette Cosway, and Wide Sargasso Sea opens with Antoinette, her mother, and  delayed brother living in a decaying Jamaican plantation, Coulibri,  in the wake of  emancipation.  The former slaves don’t want to work for the Cosways.  Mr. Cosway embodied some of the worst attributes of slave holders.  He was a lush and a lech, more successful at planting bastards than cane sugar.  Antoinette’s mother, Annette, is distant.  She’s had a bad time of it with her dissolute first husband and is barely coping with her disabled son and  the family’s destitution. With their Creole background and Annette’s French descent, the family is disdained by the remaining Brits.  When white ranks close, the Cosways are not part of the circle. Flexing their power, the former slaves poison Annette’s horse.

Growing up in this unstable  and loveless environment, Antoinette becomes fragile and insecure. She encounters rejection not just from her remote mother but from her only friend, Tia, a former slave girl.  Tia betrays Antoinette by stealing one of her two dresses and derides her as a “white n___.”  As a Creole, Antoinette is between worlds. As Antoinette remarks, “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why I was born at all.”  She’s a white n ___ and cockroach to the blacks and an object of disgust to those whites who had never dirtied their hands with slave-holding.   Only the ministrations of Christophine, the servant who accompanied Annette from Martinique, keeps the family fed.  The former slaves are afraid of Christophine and believe that she practices obeah or voodoo.

The Cosways catch what first appears to be a break when a new wave of colonists arrives, and Annette marries Mr. Mason, who adopts the children.  Mr. Mason, with imperial naivete believes he can coax the blacks to work the plantation by implementing a new system of labor or by importing less “lazy” workers from the East Indies.  Although Annette and her friend Aunt Cora demand that Mr. Mason move the family away from Coulibri because they understand that Mr. Mason’s changes have endangered them, Mr. Mason  stubbornly refuses.  The events that follow foreshadow the fate of Antoinette and Thornfield.

The servants torch Coulibri.  Pierre perishes in the flames, and Annette attacks her husband hysterically.  Antoinette appeals to her old friend Tia, who throws a rock and strikes Antoinette in the head.  Antoinette wakes in Spanish Town at her Aunt Cora’s. She finds that Mr. Mason has had her mother confined believing her outbursts after Pierre’s death signal lunacy, an easy solution to marital friction.  Antoinette is to reside in a convent school.  She’s terrorized by blacks on her first trip to school, who chide her about Annette’s insanity and dub her equally insane.  Sandi, the son of one of old Mr. Cosway’s illegitimate offspring, saves her.

After the death of Mr. Mason, Richard Mason, Antoinette’s stepbrother, arranges for Antoinette’s wedding to Rochester.  Antoinette first rejects Rochester’s proposal but he beguiles her with talk of love and promises protection.  The newlyweds leave Jamaica for a honeymoon on another island where Antoinette has a small estate, Granbois, that she inherited from her mother.

Rochester is a second son, who has married Antoinette for her money.  He doesn’t love her, although he lusts after her. He believes she is beautiful but is disturbed by her eyes that don’t look European.  He’s fearful of the exotic landscape whose unfamiliar and wild flora and fauna he regards as malevolent,  a landscape in which Antoinette thrives.   Rochester hates the black servants and doesn’t understand why Antoinette can treat them with familiarity and generosity albeit with the occasional violence of a former slaveholder. Rochester is all too ready to believe a slanderous letter that he receives from a black neighbor who calls himself Daniel Cosway. Daniel has an ax to grind because he believes that he is an unacknowledged son of Mr. Cosway.  Daniel writes that Antoinette and her mother are insane.  At the same time he preemptively discredits anyone who might speak for Antoinette–Aunt Cora, Christophine, and Sandi.  Daniel goes so far as to assert that Antoinette has been intimate with Sandi, an assertion that plays into two Victorian taboos–miscegenation and unchaste women.  It never ceases to amaze how frightened people can so easily accept malicious lies, especially when Daniel undercuts his own credibility by demanding money from Rochester.

It doesn’t take much more than a poison pen for Rochester to distance himself from his wife and then sleep with her black servant.  It also takes very little to unsettle Antoinette’s delicate balance–another rejection followed by another betrayal.  She desperately begs Christophine for a love potion that Rochester confuses with poison. Christophine confronts Rochester. She tells him that he is a harsh man who only cares about Antoinette’s money.  Turning Jane Eyre on its head, Christophine notes that Rochester duped Antoinette into marriage by lying about loving her.  Christophine demands that Rochester return half of Antoinette’s money to Antoinette and that the two separate. Called to account, Rochester surrenders to his insecurities and punishes Antoinette, accelerating her decline.  His dominance challenged by  a black woman, Rochester refuses to relinquish control over Antoinette, dehumanizing her by calling her a marionette and a doll and perversely referring to her as “my lunatic.” He strips Antoinette’s identity by renaming her Bertha, an Anglicized name,  removes her from the Caribbean, far from the sun and landscape that she craves, and then imprisons her in a windowless and mirrorless attic under the care of a drunken attendant, robbing her of the remaining shreds of attachment to reality . As we know, Bertha sets fire to Thornfield. But in Wide Sargasso Sea, like the burning of Coulibris, the fire at Thornfield is an act of resistance rather than a feat of lunacy.

Wide Sargasso Sea ranks 94 on Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels. It also made Time’s list of 100 best novels since 1923. It won a Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006.  The Cheltenham Booker Prize is awarded to novels that would have won the award had the prize existed at the time.  I was not as impressed, finding the writing at times to be beautiful but at other times impenetrable.  What was fascinating was how arrogance, brutality, racism, and close-mindedness rendered Antoinette’s white male protectors, Mr. Cosway, Mr. Mason, Richard Mason, and Rochester, at best ineffectual and at worst brutal. Her truest protectors were Sandi, a mulatto, and Christophine, a fearless black woman who overcomes being uprooted from her home in Martinique and ostracism by her fellow servants.  Sandi and Christophine are arguments against the environmental determinism that pervades Wide Sargasso Sea.  At the same time, Wide Sargasso Sea teaches the importance of understanding.  As Antoinette tells Rochester, there’s always another side to a story.

Wide Sargasso Sea gives a voice to the woman in the attic and argues that she got there with a big assist from a lifetime of indifference and unkindness and possibly some poor genes. No second chances to imperialism or marital inequity, but I’m on the fence about Wide Sargasso Sea.  But a big second chance to understanding.


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