Why Wide Sargasso Sea is on my must read list

Remember Jane Eyre?

It’s very well written. Charlotte Bronte was a woman of great intelligence who wrote sincerely; her one flaw was that she frightened of controversy- so Jane Eyre ends as a conventional love story, and poor old Lucy doesn’t marry Emanuel, likely because their intense attraction towards one another didn’t have anything acceptable to temper it. Emanuel is awful, but Bronte goes to great lengths to humanise him; Lucy is by turns vulnerable and manipulative, so Lucy ends up alone. She doesn’t even get to tell John to fuck off, which is sort of sad. I always figured they’d marry other people and end up having an affair in their forties, but anyhow.

In Eyre, we get this sense of another world hovering just behind the page, but we never get to see it because Jane doesn’t want to. Incidentally, Wide Sargasso Sea is weirdly neutral about Jane, I guess because the text recognizes it isn’t her fault.

Jane Eyre is about time, and Wide Sargasso Sea is Before Time. What I mean by this is that Antoinette (later Bertha, more on that below) loves it so much that she can’t contemplate there being any other place. Antoinette Cosway belongs to Jamaica as much as Rochester belongs to England and Fairfax, although when he meets Antoinette he is only a young son, left out of the family inheritance unless he marries money, which he does. Antoinette doesn’t seem to understand her privileged position in the hierarchy of Colonial Society, and ironically, despite marrying her because she is an heiress, neither does Rochester. Rochester seems to suspect she has black ancestry:

‘Long, sad, dark, alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.’

They are both appallingly racist. Antoinette freely uses racist slurs but is more open to Jamaicans in general. One of the book’s most pointed criticisms is of Rochester’s hypocrisy. At his wedding his thinks:

‘All benevolent. All Slave-Owners. All resting in peace.’

Lest we let Rochester off the hook for his hatred of slavery, he is more than willing to marry a woman whose family fortune comes, at least in part, from Slavery and Antoinette rightly calls him out on this:

‘You abused the planters and made up stories about them, but you do the same thing. You send the girl away quicker…’

We see even in Jane Eyre that Rochester is a happiness ruiner. It would certainly make for a more pleasant life at Thornfield Hall if he treated Adele more like a daughter, since he is lonely, or if he was honest with Jane rather than playing a cruel game with her and Blanche. Likewise in Sargasso Rochester is almost seduced by Jamaica and Antoinette, but his fear and suspicion soon manifest. Part of the problem is that Antoinette is too fragile too change Rochester’s stuffy Englishness, which of course isn’t her fault. Rochester doesn’t even like her, apart from when they’re having sex, with which he assigns an association with death that goes beyond the playful french saying. He doesn’t seem to think of the marriage as real in a permanent sense, which fits in with his characterisation in Eyre. Jane will be his proper, real English wife, and the Jamaican one is discarded, to the extent of a name change which effectively erases Antoinette’s past.

Sargasso has the unique quality of causing a posthumous discomfort about re-reading Jane Eyre. I think Ibsen’s Doll House probably does the same thing with a lot of Victoriana Romantic fiction. How can we enjoy a romance centered around Edward Rochester when we know about his propensity for casual cruelty? ironically Sargasso’s ending implies Rochester had a bit of feeling for Antoinette after all, maybe; she hears him calling. But Rochester still calls her Bertha; I suspect he’s trying to assuage his own guilt. That guilt does nothing whatsoever for Antoinette, and before they are married it doesn’t do anything for Jane, either.

I think an important aspect of Postcolonial Literature is that it doesn’t follow traditional narrative convention. Wide Sargasso Sea respects Antoinette’s right to privacy in that private and precious moments in her life are only alluded to. She never talks about her relationship with the likely love of her life, Sandi, which makes Rochester’s revelations about their sex life all the more rank. Antoinette’s tiny brief snippet of happiness is all the more painful for its scarcity, and maddening because it is clear her refusal to run away with him is in part due to her own internalized racism. Antoinette’s complexity comes in large part due to how awful she can be. Her racism is her most disgusting trait, and like in real life it is destructive and cataclysmic. She and Rochester have this in common. He seems to be repulsed and attracted by Antoinette’s ethnicity largely because she is his wife, like so many Slave-Owners who would have divorced their white wives if they had African-American heritage but were perfectly content to sexually assault Slaves. His encounter with Amelie is off-putting for this and a few other reasons. There is the implication that perhaps Antoinette and Amelie are sisters, and Rochester’s acknowledgement of this:

‘For a moment she looked very much like Amelie. Perhaps they are related, I thought.

So his ‘seduction’* of Amelie seems calculated to cause Antoinette as much pain as possible. Secondly, the next morning he speaks disparagingly of her features, feeling they are more ethnic than he thought. He seems incapable of grasping why the encounter was so devastating, and so culturally and socially loaded; just as Antoinette points out, he can’t make the connection between slave owners behavior and his own.

The likely familial connection between Antoinette, Esau and Amelie is an interesting subtext which because of narrative constraints cannot be fully explored. There’s the question of why Antoinette and Christophine employ Amelie in the first place. Christophine’s addresses to her are full of familiarity and clearly Amelie knows Christophine well enough to fear them. I doubt Amelie is related to Christophine; but her ‘intimate’ glances at Antoinette only raise more questions than they answer. Slavery based Colonies were genuinely full of this ambiguity. One questions, for instance, whether Thomas Jefferson acknowledged his children by Sally Hemmings outside the context of a plantation which would have known regardless. Only DNA evidence could definitively answer the question, and it’s not fully clear whether Rochester’s theories are born of suspicion or have genuine grounding.

What happens to Antoinette?

Well, she dies. She’s neither as mad as Rochester believes nor as sane as thinks. She’s a complex person full of institutionalized racism who refuses to acknowledge her brother Esau because he is black and gives up the chance of happiness with her love for the same reason. But she’s sympathetic because she’s easily manipulated; because Rochester’s hatred for her is grounded in racism and misogyny. Because she, like her Mother, has too much money and not enough people to protect it from unscrupulous men. Because she’s doomed to become ‘Bertha’ because her husband hates her and wants to erase her real identity. She’s a bit like Cersei Lannister in that her culture (patriarchal, racist) fucked her over from the beginning* but it still doesn’t mean she can’t be truly awful.

It’s likely the most famous Postcolonial novel written in this particular genre; it sometimes lacks the punchy power of Things Fall Apart. As a starting point (and I emphasize that carefully) to a reading list dedicated to Postcolonial Literature, you could do a lot worse.

 

*Rochester does not seduce Amelie. Amelie is a pragmatist. She needs money and Rochester has it. She’s well aware of the overtones of the sex but needs to get out so she has the chance of a future. In other words, she does what Antoinette doesn’t do. Amelie is one of the most sympathetic characters in the book, from my perspective.

*Cersei Lannister is only valued for her beauty despite being pretty intelligent, at least more so than her Brother. She’s repeatedly raped by her disgusting husband who is in love with a dead girl he was going to buy in marriage. Yet she’s still awful, and in every sense a Villain.

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