Sunday, 11 December 2011

Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)

Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Originally Published: 1966
This Edition Publication Date: 1997
Publisher: Penguin Books 
Pages: 192
Source: Book club borrowed
Genre: Classics, Literary Fiction
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Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress who is married off to an Englishman with terrible consequences. It is Rhys' response to Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) in which Rhys believed the story of Mrs Rochester needed to be told. Wide Sargasso Sea provides the prequel to her story as she grows up in the West Indies and is married to a man who becomes distant and suspicious.

Interestingly it is a book that tries to stand on it's own. The Englishman is never named and only as he starts to refer to Antoinette as "Bertha", a name he prefers for her, does it start to connect with Jane Eyre.

The book is split into three parts. The first is narrated by Antoinette and touches on her childhood in a dilapidated plantation in Jamaica sometime in the 1830s after the Emancipation Act. In the second part, a young Mr Rochester describes his arrival in the West Indies, his marriage and its disastrous journey. The final part is once again narrated by his wife but the scene has switched to England and she writes from her attic room in Thornfield Hall. The third and final part is where the story intersects with that told in Jane Eyre.

Jean Rhys' writing is almost poetic and incredibly beautiful however it is also very disjointed and it can sometimes be hard to follow a particular stream of thought. Interestingly I actually found Wide Sargasso Sea more difficult to read from a writing style and literary sense than Jane Eyre! I was very glad to have my annotated version in the end that could help explain a lot of the text and themes that I missed on the first pass. My edition is heavily annotated with 8 footnote references in the first page of text alone! This edition also contains an Introduction, A Note on the Text, General Notes, followed by the footnote references I just mentioned. Also the Introduction written by Francis Wyndham in the first edition published in 1966  is also included. As always if you do end up with an edition like this ensure you read the introduction after you read the story as it gives away significant plot details.

When I first started reading part two I found it very disconcerting to switch over to a narration by Rochester (even if he isn't ever named as such). I think because he was such a predominant character in Jane Eyre I found it difficult to feel comfortable with hearing his narration by a different author. Somehow I had a bigger issue with it than the narration by Antoinette, maybe because she doesn't appear much as a character in Jane Eyre but more as an idea, you know sort of touched on bit by bit. But I did slowly get into the narration and was able to relax into the reading style a bit more.

Overall it's actually a very short novel and so didn't take very long to get through. In fact i think it took me as much time to read all the additional notes and introductions as the actual story. However I found them to be invaluable as they helped me to understand a lot of the story that sadly went over my head a little bit. I have to admit as a classic this is a little harder to follow than others I have read but overall I still enjoyed it. Having said that I still think you'd want to read Jane Eyre first before you read this one. It can stand on it's own but I think reading it with the knowledge of the plot of Jane Eyre does enhance the story and makes it a little easier to understand.

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