Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 07/30/15 2:27 PM

Book review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Penguin Publishers)

Sometimes one comes to an absolute classic late in the day. And sometimes, that is quite the best way to come to a classic. You start to read, you settle into a deep absorbed quiet as the story takes you by the head, heart, the very bones. And very soon you know you are in the presence of a Master. There is no describing the spurt of pleasure that comes with that sort of recognition.

Wild Sargasso Sea is set in Jamaica and tells the story of a Creole woman of uncommon beauty, Antoinette Cosway, fatherless and for all intents and purposes, motherless too. Her mother another Creole from Martinique, another woman of uncommon beauty is cold, distant and yes, more than a little unbalanced. Neglected for a large part of her life, the light of attention, wholly unwelcome, is suddenly shone upon Antoinette when her mother marries again, to a planter Mr Mason.

Slavery has only just been abolished and all too soon, the blacks burn down the homestead, Mrs Mason goes mad and is locked away in an asylum, and Antoinette is sent to a convent. Only to be brought out when she turns seventeen, and wed hastily to an impoverished young Englishman.

We never learn the Englishman`s name. He weds her for her money, and disillusionment soon sets in. He is quite unsettled by her moody manners, her dependence on her local caretakers, her otherness, her strangeness.

Worse, he hears that she is as prone to mad fits as her mother was. Put under that kind of unforgiving microscope, sure enough Antoinette now named Bertha by her husband for quite inexplicable reasons, slowly starts to slide into insecurity, misery, instability.

And in the end, the Englishman takes her to England, to the old country house he has inherited, a pile called Thornfield Hall. There she is locked up in the attic, quite insane now.

And as the heartbreaking story draws to a close, you realise Antoinette is soon going to escape the clutches of her less than attentive keeper /nurse Grace Poole, and run free, setting Thornfield Hall on fire.

Why it`s the first Mrs Rochester, you think, with a deep sense of shock. And you would be right, for Jean Rhys has made this powerful tale a sort of freestanding prequel to Charlotte Bronte`s Jane Eyre.

Written in 1966, the book shows you how the Bronte book`s `madwoman in the attic` was not always mad; how a combination of genes, life and circumstances made her mind slip its moroings. And of course, there is the overriding suspicion in the reader`s mind, put there by one of the most skilful novelists of all time, that Antoinette/Bertha`s Creole heritage is the main reason for the disintegration of her marriage.

And for those who are wondering at the title, the Sargasso Sea has no shores, is covered with dense seaweed on its surface, …and yes, is the heart of the Bermuda triangle. When ships are wrecked here all too often, what to speak of the frail human heart.

A heartbreaker of a novel.

classicJane EyreJean RhysprequelWide Sargasso Sea

Sheila Kumar • July 30, 2015

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