When I first read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys I was just twenty years old. At school I had read Dickens, Shakespeare, Yeats, Fitzgerald, but in the years before I went to university, I read little, beyond a few Australian authors and no writers from other former colonies. Literature, as I understood it, was produced by a select few. So my introduction to postcolonial literature, especially that written by women, opened my eyes.
Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Bertha Rochester, the mad woman in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Rhys disagreed with the way Brontë drew Bertha, saying, ‘She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I’d try to write her a life.’ In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives her her own name – Antoinette Cosway – and has her declare: ‘There is always the other side’. This, for me, is the heart of the novel’s greatness. Rhys exposes complicated relationships between gender, race and class. She captures the ugly essence of a whole colonial history through Antoinette’s vulnerability. And by giving her a voice, Rhys creates a context for her madness.
On first reading, I was struck by the presence of the physical landscape, and by its familiarity. I’d never been to the West Indies, but this subtropical setting I knew: the frangipani and the cicadas. That monster crab by the pool in the second part of the novel? Well, I’d swum in rivers shivering at the thought of the bullrouts that might be hiding in the rocks beneath me. I’d grown up turning over logs and checking for spiders and snakes, shaking insects out of my clothes. I’d walked into nights that seemed warm and welcoming, knowing that something might be waiting in the soft darkness. It hadn’t occurred to me that what I knew was an ‘other side’. Here, in Wide Sargasso Sea, the ‘other side’ was at the centre of a powerful, poetic narrative.
The story unfolds in colonial Jamaica and Dominica. I’ve always been fascinated by how Rhys puts the landscape at the heart of the action, like a character – witnessing and concealing, provoking and foretelling – woven into the emotional terrain of the story, as in this description of the garden of Antoinette’s home, Coulibri:
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the — the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered — then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.
Every time I read this I stop and catch my breath. This garden is alluring and monstrous, intoxicating and overbearing. That it is beautiful is without doubt, but its beauty is dangerous too.
When I returned to Wide Sargasso Sea as a writer in my thirties, I read it differently. Now living in Scotland, I could see the strangeness of the novel’s landscape from Rochester’s European perspective, the ‘wrongness’ of it: razor grass, flowers that open at night, huge moths and the deafening noise of the darkness. And I understood how the tropical beauty of the landscape – its barely concealed terrors, its sinister threat – is absolutely in keeping with a Gothic aesthetic.
The terror and despair that are the hallmarks of Gothic fiction are a natural fit for Wide Sargasso Sea with its themes of otherness and the divided self, unfolding in a story about sex, death, and madness. But on first reading, I had not seen this. That common trope of the English tradition, the castle, or the ancient house with its secret chamber, in which a vulnerable heroine is trapped or endangered, this belonged to the world of Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea, the landscape itself occupies this role, differently haunted in its Caribbean setting by poisonous social and race relations intensified by the recently ended system of slavery. The secrets of the past are always lurking, as in the village called Massacre that Antoinette visits with her new husband. When she tells him the name of this village he says, ‘And who was massacred here? Slaves?’ ‘Oh no,’ she says, and then: ‘Something must have happened a long time ago. Nobody remembers now.’
Rhys imagines the landscape in such a way that it reflects the complex inner lives of her characters. For Rochester (never named in the novel), how he feels about the forest, the pools, the flora, reflects how he feels about Antoinette. This is complex and nuanced and eventually rather brutal. Early in the relationship, already the heat of the Caribbean, the colour and light, overwhelm him: ‘Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.’ At first he finds this intoxicating. It is as if he is drunk with desire. When he visits the bathing pool, Rochester describes ‘a beautiful place — wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret … I want what it hides…’ he says.
Antoinette is everything that this alien landscape is, exotic and unknowable. But her allure seems excessive and soon Rochester loses interest. He says, ‘I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.’ Every time I read this I find it utterly heartbreaking, because Antoinette’s fate is sealed even before Rochester receives that damning letter from her half-brother, Daniel Cosway, after which he walks into the forest (‘that green menace’) and becomes lost.
For Antoinette, a Creole girl, Rhys creates a much more complicated relationship with the landscape. Antoinette belongs to that place in the straightforward way people do when they know nothing else, and her bond with it, its ugly colonial history and its complex social relationships, is one of intimacy and uncertainty. This is reflected in the dangerous beauty of the flora and fauna. Antoinette seems aware of these dangers but can’t, or won’t, elucidate what they are. For example, she describes the lily in the Coulibri garden in great detail but doesn’t explain why she never touches it. When visiting the bathing pool with Rochester, they encounter the native crabs about which Antoinette is disarmingly vague. ‘The land crabs are harmless. People say they are harmless. I couldn’t like to —’. While she seems certain about the danger of the monster crab, she says it won’t bother them if they stay away from its stone. But then she says it’s another sort of crab.
As well as this relationship of ambiguous intimacy, Antoinette is a kind of embodiment of the landscape, making the story infinitely more complex because her bond with Rochester represents that of the colonized with the colonizer. He gives her a name that is not her own (Bertha) and over the course of the story she is pawned, exploited for pleasure and for her wealth and then enslaved. Little wonder then that her mind, its wildness with a logic of its own, descends into madness. But even her madness isn’t a straightforward matter. For Antoinette’s mother is a lunatic and there is the suggestion that this condition is familial, its excesses the consequence of being descended from morally lax slave owners. So Antoinette’s body and her mind are mapped, her fate already determined.
All this in such a slender novel. So detailed. So layered. This is what can be done, I think, every time I read it. I return to Wide Sargasso Sea frequently, often when I set something in Australia, my birthplace. I had begun to write when I first re-read it, in my thirties. I knew about the blankness of a clear blue sky, and the sharp edges those shadows could cast in the middle of a hot bright day. Wide Sargasso Sea made me think about all the ways these things were worth knowing, and how a story might be more than the sum of its parts. There are pages I read over and over, like a poem. I keep returning to it because it reminds me of what it is possible to achieve in fiction.