‘Have you read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea? You’ll love it if you liked Jane Eyre. It’s about….’
Well thanks for recommending it and ruining it at the same time. This was my frustrated internal response every time someone told me to read Sargasso Sea, as I calmly nodded that I’d give it a go before they could reveal any more whodunits.
(I’m determined not to make the same infuriating blunder. Read on in good faith, no risk of spoilers.)
Forgive my eccentricity, but I prefer to discover a book’s key, clever premise myself, by reading said book, and thereby gaining all the sweet pleasure and self-satisfaction of a trickling illumination. But I appear to be at odds here with a host of eager Brontë fans, and the ‘Notes to Text’ in Penguin’s annotated edition. Though occasionally helpful in giving some social or historical context, they often made the reading experience rather more a test of dexterity in flicking between pages than a means of escapism. I abandoned them after the first chapter, choosing rather to try my chances figuring it out from the context than take the risk each time of a casual spoiler from an editor whose au fait-ness with the text and fervour for sharing their own insights often lead them to forget that they’re dealing with a first-time reader who might like to be given a chance to form their own thoughts before having self-indulgent analysis forced upon them unwittingly when they go in search of contextual information.
And, I’m sorry to the handful of people who have recommended this book to me with the best intentions, who are probably receiving harsher treatment than they deserve now that I’m in rant-mode, but it does not logically follow that a lover of Jane Eyre will find equal comfort and food for idolisation in Sargasso Sea.
There is nowhere to be found a heroine of Jane’s order, though Antoinette has an enchanting spirit and mystery about her which gives her a very different appeal. Genteel Thornfield Hall, even with its Gothic elements, is nowhere paralleled in the dazing heat, scorching sun and superstitions of West Indian estates. Clear, consistent first-person narration, distant and reliable, though peppered with the intimacy of ‘Reader, I married him’, is replaced by fragmented narrative, shifting perspectives, and highly-strung, invested, unreliable narrators.
Its beauty is that it is diverting, intriguing, frustrating and absorbing in its own right. Though its relationship with Jane Eyre (which, I promise, shall remain undefined) is bold, striking, clever, imaginative, and well-executed, this is by no means the merit which ought to define it. The content and style of Jane Eyre become irrelevant, so vastly different are the two novels in their approach, focus, storyline, and message. Sargasso Sea explores power, control, superstition, identity, oppression in every sense, the swimming line between love and hate, rage and passion, madness and sanity. Masterfully atmospheric, disturbing, dizzying, and sensuous, it leaves the reader with a sense of indefinite unease, and something like the feeling of having woken up from a drug-induced dreamy haze.
Let’s appreciate it firstly in its own right, and then explore its intimate relationship with Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece. And please, for the love of God, let’s at least allow first-time readers to do so, and zip it.