In the spirit of everyone who may feel ill at the sight of candy hearts, those who roll their eyes as the music swells and the lovers reunite, and everyone who wants to skip over 14 Feb all together, Sarah Odedina has recommended the perfect literary remedy to the Valentine’s Day mania.
Wide Sargasso Sea is one of my all-time-top favourite books. I have read and re-read it often. My daughters tease me that I can shoehorn it in to almost any conversation. It is the ultimate anti-romantic novel. It makes me cry every time I read it. The sadness and disappointment and eventual total disintegration of Antoinette Cosway’s mental state all brought about because of a marriage that goes horribly wrong.
When Antoinette marries Rochester in Jamaica there is so much hope and excitement and passion, but soon Rochester begins to realise that Antoinette is no placid creature but instead exotic and foreign, and consequently frightening. His feelings towards her turn bitter and mean and soon she is utterly subject to his emotional bullying. By the time the novel ends Antoinette has been taken to cold grey England, her name changed to Bertha Mason, and locked in an attic in Thornfield Hall, planning ways to end her life. Her past, her identity and her future all rubbed out by the abusive Rochester who is so clearly out of his emotional, sexual and intellectual depth with this wonderful character that his only means of managing her is to silence her and remove her from the West Indies and the places and people she feels most secure.
Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea to give context and background to the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, the first wife of Rochester who is locked in the attic and who dies so tragically in the fire that destroys Thornfield Hall. Having read Jane Eyre as a teenager I took it for granted that the woman in the attic was a threatening and malevolent force, keeping two lovers apart. Once I read Wide Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre became a different novel for me. Rochester no longer represented the misunderstood dark and brooding hero but became a secretive and vengeful force. No longer was it a book about a struggle of two lovers overcoming barriers to their union. It became a story about a controlling man whose past made him ashamed and whose response to that past was to imprison it, and who also represents a threat to Jane Eyre in his repressive and abusive behaviour. Suddenly I became scared for Jane Eyre and wanted to warn her rather than root for her eventual romantic union with Rochester.
Honestly, I do know both books are novels. I know that they are not real. But the power of the stories to enthral and mesmerise me is such that I feel sure that these are real people that I now know. Antoinette remains one of my favourite literary heroines. As her lavish and completely passionate belief in romantic love begins to unwind and descend into chaotic anxiety and fear, we are privy to one of the most potent explorations of disappointment it is possible to read.
Jean Rhys created a condensed work of perfection in Wide Sargasso Sea and one that uses romantic love to explore the dynamics of sexual and racial politics in a brilliant and timeless way. It is a sobering read that viscerally explores the power of love – gone wrong!