WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys

Wide-Sargasso-Sea-Jean-RhysI KNOW I read this book a long time ago.  It came out in 1966, which was the year I had my first child, so maybe I read it then or in the following couple of years.  But I have so little recollection of anything about this book.   My mind is like Ozymandias:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
So, this seemed like a good time to take a break from all the mysteries and crime fiction I have been reading and try to erect some substance around the colossal wreck of my mind, and revisit Wide Sargasso Sea.
This is one of those books they teach in lit courses, so of course I was totally intimidated and nervous to start it, thinking that with my smarta$$ attitude, I would probably miss all the good stuff and the nuances and  would just embarrass myself if I tried to talk about it to anyone with a third of a brain and any education at all.  But surprise!  It wasn’t really like that at all. Whew.
You will never guess what.  This is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  I kid you not.  It’s FANFIC!   But the timeline is pushed up about 30 years so she can use the historical events in the West Indies as part of the driving forces of the story.  It is set in the West Indies, mostly in Jamaica, in the late 1830’s.   This was after slavery was abolished, so there is a lot of tension between the former slaves and their relatives and the former slave owner families, the creoles.  The main character is Antoinette, the young daughter of a French creole woman and a former slave owning father.  His entire family were slaveholders, and their fortune was built on this.   When we meet her, however, her father is dead, and her mother now has no money and they are very poor, looked down on by the former slave population for being white creole, and being terribly poor.  Her younger brother has something developmentally wrong with him, not specified, and they have a couple of servants.
Mounting antipathy from the native community culminates in the mother’s horse being poisoned. The mother is dropping further and further into despair, but finally gets herself together enough to attract a wealthy planter, and they marry.  He loves the rundown house and property where she lives, but eventually things come to a head when the house is set on fire by the natives, and they have to move into town.  The younger brother dies from the fire, and the mother goes insane.
Antoinette comes of marriageable age, and her step father arranges for a marriage with a young man from England, a second son, with no prospects because the estate of course will go in its entirety to his older brother.  The stepfather arranges a substantial settlement on the young man as an inducement for the marriage, and  off the young couple go to another windward island, remote and spooky, where there is a ramshackle house and property belonging to the mother, and where they plan to live.
Antoinette’s father was quite the womanizer, and the region is littered with his mixed race progeny, most of whom he declines to acknowledge.  And into the idyllic honeymoon comes the snake in the form of a half brother, poisoned with hate for his involvement in the family.  He sends a letter to the young husband telling all and insinuating that Antoinette was as mad as her mother, and promiscuous to boot.  This turns the young husband against his wife, and he begins to what we nowadays would call ‘gaslight’ her, until she does in fact become nutty as the proverbial.
He learns his family has died, first his father and then his brother, and he has come into a great inheritance, so he goes back to England taking his now totally mad wife with him, where he installs her……. are you sitting down?  in an attic in his great estate under the care of ……. Grace Poole.  And that’s where the two tales mesh.
So, now a few notes.   First, the Sargasso Sea.  Knowing zipity do dah about the Sargasso Sea, this is what I learned:  The Sargasso Sea is a region in the gyre in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is the only sea on Earth which has no coastline.  It is bounded on the west by the Gulf Stream; on the north, by the North Atlantic Current; on the east, by the Canary Current; and on the south, by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current. This system of ocean currents forms the North Atlantic Gyre. All the currents deposit the marine plants and plastic garbage they carry into this sea.  It is about 2,000 miles long.  Its name is from the seaweed that has tended to collect there from long before there was plastic garbage.  It has a mystical reputation, thought to be a ship graveyard, and to be a dark and mysterious place.
Second, a brief history of the West Indies.   The history of the West Indies was not taught in school back in the days of antiquity when I went to school.  And I now know why.  It is a history of slavery. That’s it.  The end.   Before European settlement on the islands of the West Indies, they were inhabited by three different peoples: the Arawaks, the Caribs, and the Ciboney. These indigenous tribes each in their turn pushed the preceding peoples up and out, using them for slaves.   They were effectively wiped out by European colonists, because of the diseases they brought, and because they were captured and used as slaves under harsh treatment. Christopher Columbus was the first European to visit several of the islands (in 1492). In 1496 the first permanent European settlement was made by the Spanish on Hispaniola.   When they ran out of indigenous slaves, they began importing slaves from the African continent.  Yeah, as I keep saying, we really suck as a species.
Finally, Jane Eyre.  That’s the one where the orphan Jane Eyre ends up as a governess for Mr. Rochester who is hiding the crazy wife in the attic.
You don’t have to have read Jane Eyre first to enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea, but probably if you haven’t read it, a quick glance at the Spark Notes plot summary will improve your reading experience.  I, personally, am not fond of the Bronte sisters, considering them dour and gloomy.  I preferred Villette to Jane Eyre, but not by much.  But then, that’s me.
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