I woke the next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing.
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea has been on my list for a long time. The story gives new voice to Bertha, the boogeywoman from one of my favourite novels, Jane Eyre. Reimagined as Antoinette Cosway in Rhys’ beautiful, ripe world of ‘Jamaica’ (a hybrid of Jamaica and her homeland of Dominica) is a character I’ve been looking for in the canon of British literature for years. The novel is carnival dizzy with lush bush and the struggle for identity as the woman who was known only as the mad, secret wife of Mr. Rochester is given new voice.
There is no heroine in Rhys’ book. It is a true look at the complexities of what it means to be Creole, a child of the colonizer and the colonized. How that compromises identity both in theory as well as physically is ever present. Antoinette, whose body is on constant trial, with gossip about her assumed sexual history based on the colour of her skin. Her presence in society is also always held in contention. She is declared a white cockroach, worse than the British colonialists, and her half-brother Daniel, one of her father’s children out of wedlock. Lost in the changing political landscape of the island she ends up married off to Rochester.
“So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all,” she says to her husband. Shortly afterwards we descend into the perspective of Rochester, nameless in this world, and equally lost in his identity. Yet, he has the advantages of being a white man, and simultaneously cannot fathom why his wife condescends to her island home and notes all of the ways she is different from an English lady with repulsion. He is dizzy from the recovery of a fever when they are married and, like Antoinette, lost in a world where he feels displaced. But even when told from his perspective, you see how Rochester aims to colonize his marriage for himself. From renaming his wife to Bertha, and English name with meaning to him to his constant exoticization and distrust of her world which he calls, “wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness.” He, like the rest of the island, finds himself engrossed in Antoinette’s sexual history, quick to judge her as loose and then mad because of her family tree.
Madness is a real question throughout the novel. What causes a person to go mad and what does madness really look like? Magic plays a major part with obeah and ghosts (which are but a veneer in Brontë’s novel) present throughout. Antoinette describes her mother as dying the death which takes you when you are still alive — the death of all hopes and dreams, the death of identity — which makes her a ‘zombi’. A death which claims Antoinette too, eventually. A metaphor for the ultimate wound, colonization inflicts by othering bodies and displacing them.
Rhys presents a feminist post-colonial perspective on how Antoinette is torn up by society. As someone who has had to put “Other” for race on government forms, I feel for Antoinette the way I feel for my grandmother and my great grandmother. A distended love for a soul I do not really know but share more similarities to than I ever can explain. The feeling of never being enough of one or the other. As someone who loves Jane, I love Antoinette with a bleeding heart. Everyone who has read Brontë must read Rhys.