In honor of International Women’s Day, and in light of Jane Eyre being named the most powerful female character in literature, I wanted to bring you my favorite book by a female author about a female protagonist: Wide Sargasso Sea.
Written by Dominican-born Jean Rhys and published in 1966, Wide Sargasso Sea is a post-colonialist, post-modernist “Caribbean Gothic” prequel to Jane Eyre, which centers on the young life of Bertha Masonnée Antoinette Cosway—Mr. Rochester’s “mad” wife in the attic.
Antoinette Cosway is the daughter of a post-Emancipation, ex-slaveholding French Creole family that has suffered financial ruin. Her mother is “insane,” and Antoinette grows up being told that she, too, inevitably will become mad. Shunned by both white Europeans and black Jamaicans, Antoinette endures convent life before being married off to the cold Mr. Rochester, who, against her will, brings her to England and forces her to change her name. Following is an excerpt:
I learnt to say very quickly as the others did, ‘offer up all the prayers, works and sufferings of this day.’ But what about happiness, I thought at first, is there no happiness? There must be. Oh happiness of course, happiness, well. (…) Everything was brightness, or dark. The walls, the blazing colours of the flowers in the garden, the nuns’ habits were bright, but their veils, the Crucifix hanging from their waists, the shadow of the trees, were black. That was how it was, light and dark, sun and shadow, Heaven and Hell, for one of the nuns knew all about Hell and who does not?
The prose is spare and eerie, and Rhys writes with a desolation informed by both her young life in the Caribbean and her own struggle with mental illness. Moved by the problematic, patriarchal ideology of Jane Eyre, Rhys said the following when asked why she was inspired by Bertha Mason: “She seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I’d like to write her a life.”