Friday 28 October 2016

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a visceral riposte to Charlotte Bronte’s treatment of Mr Rochester’s ‘mad’ first wife, Bertha, in her classic Victorian novel Jane Eyre. Rhys reveals the horrifying reality that might lie behind a man’s claim that a woman is mad and humanises Bronte’s grotesquely caricatured invention, the now-archetypal and heavily symbolic ‘madwoman in the attic’. The novel is a vindicatory howl of rage and injustice that leaves the reader thrilled yet rattled. It is a scathing indictment of Rochester, a skin-flaying revelation of sadism that is all the more horrifying for its intricacy and realism.

Wide Sargasso Sea is also a valuable historical work, written in the 1960s but set in the 1800s, which explores Victorian paternalism, sexualised racism and the complex social and political history of the West Indies. Rhys vividly imagines Rochester’s time there when he met Bertha, who is a Creole – a naturalised West Indian of European descent. The Emancipation Act freeing slaves but compensating slave owners for their ‘loss’ has been passed, England and France are the dominating and competing colonisers while Spanish colonial exploration is a past influence and many formerly profitable estates are in decline because of the absence of exploited labour and a slump in the sugar market.

The novel is alternately narrated by Antoinette (Bertha’s much more elegant real name) and Rochester, with scalding frankness. The novel has three settings: Antoinette’s crumbling family estate, Coulibri; an unnamed honeymoon house on an estate called Granbois on a different island; and finally the attic room in which Antoinette is imprisoned in Thornfield Hall in England. In the West Indian settings Rhys skilfully evokes the seething impulses of anger, trauma, fear, mockery and suspicion between, amongst, towards and from former slaves originally from Africa, black West Indian servants who are the children of slaves, mixed race illegitimate children of white plantation owners who impregnated female slaves, non-white naturalised Creoles, former slave-owners, house masters, newly impoverished plantation owners, colonial interlopers and prospecting entrepreneurs wanting to buy derelict estates.

Within the home, Antoinette is horribly aware of her mother Annette’s aversion to her and of the danger her formerly rich family are in, on an isolated estate whose ex slaves have fled although they still surround it, seeking justice. Annette feels “marooned”, an image which evokes isolation, peril, the loss of possessions and the erasure of public identity and social context. Sneered at as a poor, rough “white nigger” by black, mixed race and white English and French people alike, very early on the young Antoinette “got used to a solitary life”.

Antoinette is a lonely, intelligent, brooding individual. Yet she is also a product of a racist society and historically one of its beneficiaries, saying carelessly that she doesn’t always understand the “patois songs” of her beloved maid, ex-slave Christophine. She has absorbed the cultural values of white colonisers, loading her shelves with Englishmen’s books, by Byron, Thomas de Quincy and Walter Scott. When ex slaves burn down her family home, the Coulibri estate, she thinks they “all looked the same” and likens them to animals, “brute beasts”. She characterises “the blacker folk” as being so superstitious that they can only be controlled by religious threats of “eternal fire”. She finds the smell of a black girl’s “daubed” hair oil “sickening”, yet her own hair isn’t smooth and her prettier schoolmate is “too polite to say the obvious thing”. The hierarchy of racial difference is finely demarcated and noticed by everyone. In a place where race is such a battleground and also so hard to ascertain, those who have the most to gain from exploiting doubts will cause the most damage.

Antoinette’s feelings of unworthiness affect her at both a personal and a cultural level. She yearns for a mother figure (and finds one in the straight-talking Christophine), yet the reasons for Annette’s rejection of her are never made clear; throughout the novel, slanderous lies fill the space of ignorance and doubt. Antoinette is desperate for affection but is “pushed…away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word”. Her fear and self-questioning as a daughter are exacerbated by being surrounded by hatred outside the home, leading to an obsession with being “safe from strangers”. Antoinette is uncomfortable with her own identity as a person who is physically white, European by racial heredity yet culturally West Indian, a Creole whose parents owned slaves but are now stripped of their status: “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong…” This anxiety goes beyond race and touches upon mortality itself: “…and why was I ever born at all.”

There is a morbid death drive throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, which is thickly planted with intimations of Antoinette’s fate: her childhood fear of not being “safe from strangers” comes true and she is ultimately destroyed by a stranger. Death is represented as liberation from torment and worry, “to die and be forgotten and at peace”. Yet 20th and 21st century readers know that after her death, as described in Jane Eyre, she is neither forgotten nor at peace. Antoinette-as-Bertha goes on to become a legend just like the suffering women martyrs she is taught about at her convent school: a complex symbol of man’s inhumanity to woman; of repressed sexuality in the Victorian age; of women’s unvoiced but powerful anger; of the ugly truth about colonialism; and of a family secret which is hidden away to preserve the appearance of decorum.

Wide Sargasso Sea has an unnerving atmosphere of decay and perpetual danger, as if Antoinette’s longed-for sensation of “feeling safe in bed” is either irrevocably gone or never existed. We learn that “road repairing is a thing of the past”, the water wheel at the sugar works has “not turned for years” and the estate has “gone to bush.” Antoinette’s mother Annette Cosway is “beautiful” and “ferocious” in the Scarlett O’Hara mould, but as a widowed former slave owner who has lost her standing, she is in an endangered position. For Antoinette, poverty and fear are all she has ever known: “I did not remember the place when it was prosperous.” Physical and social structures have gone to seed and what is left is a formless, vigilante society. Despite the ending of slavery, the story is far from over: violent justice, a raw fight for survival and the possibility of yet more waves of exploitation are still to come.

Rhys is excellent at conveying the idea that certain things – like slavery – are so traumatic that they are unsayable and that deliberate forgetting is a trauma response but also a survival mechanism. When Rochester asks about a place called Massacre – a rare instance when the violence of local history is conveyed explicitly – he is told vaguely, “Something must have happened a long time ago. Nobody remembers now.” When he finds the remains of a road he is told, “No road.”

Willed forgetfulness, feigned deafness, self-censorship, denial and obfuscation are both a means of avoiding painful realities and a form of resistance in an unequal situation. Annette is frustrated knowing that an intransigent servant “isn’t deaf – he doesn’t want to hear.” When Annette’s horse is poisoned by ex slaves, Antoinette says, “I thought if I told no-one it might not be true.” Later, “I forgot, or told myself I had forgotten.” Annette wants “not to know that one is abandoned, lied about, helpless.” Discarded, slandered and vulnerable: Antoinette’s experience is exactly the same as her mother’s experience. She learns young that something is considered true if one says it is true, and this seals her fate. She is accepted as mad because Rochester says she’s mad; he ‘believes’ she is mad because he tells himself so. The novel traces a repetitive, incestuous history with concise intensity, as if laying down a curse.

In Annette the reader sees immediately where Antoinette’s depth of feeling comes from. Annette is agonised when taunted by local people, feeling so wounded that her frown is as deep as if it was “cut with a knife.” Emotional wounds damage as deeply as physical wounds. Throughout this novel, Annette’s experiences and feelings are a terrible indication of what her daughter will go through, and the type of abuse (emotional and psychological, rather than physical), she will be subjected to and ultimately destroyed by.

Wide Sargasso Sea describes a heavily patriarchal society. Annette is subject to judgemental gossip by other white women, who somehow hold her responsible for her first husband Mr Cosway’s failings and abuses. Cosway is a drunk, his sugar estate has suffered because of the economic slump and the freeing of his slaves, described carelessly by the gossips as “Emancipation troubles”. The rape of slave women by their white male owners like Cosway and the women’s forced pregnancy and child-bearing are written off indulgently as “old customs” while judgement falls on “all those women” and “the bastards” they bore. Cosway attracts tacit excusal, his powerless female victims are pilloried and Annette is slandered because she “encouraged” him. In this unsubstantiated speculation by background characters we find many of the themes of the novel overall: the insidious power of slanderous gossip; men’s sexual exploitation of women; a community’s collusion in protecting perpetrators; a horror of racial mixing and an ever-present anxiety about race, colour, status and legitimacy.

Women’s beauty appears to rival men’s financial power and offer a way out of their oppression, but this is an illusion. As with the beauty of the island itself, surface allure conceals the brutal power plays of a numbingly repetitive society in which properties and wedding rings are swiftly exchanged, always to women’s detriment. Annette is her first husband Mr Cosway’s second wife; Mr Mason is her second husband; Mr Mason has another marriage which gives Antoinette her half-brother Richard Mason; later in the novel a man appears calling himself Daniel Cosway and claiming to be Antoinette’s illegitimate half-brother on her father’s side. Women’s names and identities – not to mention their fates – change with the men they are married by: Antoinette’s surname is “Mason, née Cosway” according to her mother’s marital status, as if she and her mother (who have the same first name too, Antoinette and Annette) are one and the same. Indeed, they are treated exactly the same by their respective husbands. The reader also knows what lies in the future: Antoinette is the legendary first Mrs Rochester, of two, in Jane Eyre; her husband also changes her first name.

Annette’s second husband Mr Mason is a cliché of pure English, Victorian, male arrogance and colonial greed, physically white like Annette and Antoinette but culturally alien, “so sure of himself, so without a doubt English.” He marries Annette for her property which is “going cheap”. By contrast, and in markedly similar language, Annette is “so without a doubt not English, but no white nigger either”. Despite looking like Mason, she is “without a doubt” nothing like him in outlook and culture.

Mr Mason and later Mr Rochester are exploiters wanting “to make money as they all do”, in the maid Christophine’s words. Mr Mason (and then Rochester) does not just take his wife’s money and land, he also aggressively imposes his own values, including the ludicrous convention of bringing English recipes to this tropical landscape, so as a child Antoinette has to eat “beef and mutton, pies and puddings” in the raging heat. Mr Mason also colonises the family’s attitudes, making Antoinette ashamed about her “coloured” (mixed race) relatives on Cosway’s side, illegitimate or otherwise. When she encounters the nice and attractive Sandi Cosway, she deliberately stops herself from referring to him as her cousin. Even as a child, Antoinette has learned to pull racial rank. Linguistically, the theme of mixing and miscegenation is compounded by phrases containing opposite or contrasting factors: a sky is “hot and blue” and simultaneously “has a very black look”; of people who could harm the estate, says Annette, the ones who laugh will be the worst. Early on, in this novel full of premonitions and portents, we are introduced to the idea that malicious people can arrive laughing or wearing a mask of civility; during Mr Mason’s first visit to Annette there is “loud laughter” from his male friends.

Annette is used by Mr Mason for her money and referred to as “a clever man’s gain”, a thing to be skilfully exploited to enrich men. In Mr Mason the outright violence and exploitation of Mr Cosway’s slave-using has mutated into a blind derision which is no less inhumane. For Mr Mason, black people are “like children” and yet also pathetically slothful, “too lazy to be dangerous.” Just like Cosway before him and Rochester after him, Mr Mason does not see black people as human beings of equal complexity and worth to himself; Rhys is giving us a tri-generational portrait of intractable, basic racism. Annette warns Mr Mason that the black people on the island are “dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand”, hinting that trauma and pain will always be expressed in some way. Mr Mason agrees that he doesn’t understand but makes no attempt to challenge his own ignorance and clings even more aggressively to his self-righteousness.

The story of Mr Mason and Annette gives a quick and nasty preview of what is about to happen with Rochester and Antoinette. From the earliest days of their marriage Mr Mason dismisses everything Annette says, including her correct assertion that Coulibri is not safe and that the family should leave. Exactly as she warned, ex slaves set fire to Coulibri, Annette’s son Pierre dies in the attack and Annette is traumatised by this and angered by the fact that her warnings were ignored. She shouts that Mason “sneered” at her like a “grinning hypocrite” when she warned him. Mason takes the opportunity to call her mad and have her locked away and treated “as though she were dead, though she is living”. As any reader of Jane Eyre knows, this is exactly what is done to her daughter too.

The fire that destroys Coulibri and kills Antoinette’s brother Pierre is itself a foreshadowing of the fire that destroys Rochester’s home at Thornfield Hall at the end of Jane Eyre – a fire started by Bertha/Antoinette, in which she herself dies. Both fires are expressions of the pain, anger, revenge and despair of the people who started them. Wide Sargasso Sea is chock full of fire images which give the reader an unpleasant frisson. In a heavily symbolic act which foreshadows what Rochester will do to Antoinette, Mr Mason clips Annette’s pet parrot’s wings and it dies in the fire at Coulibri, unable to fly away. When Annette carries Pierre’s body out of the blaze, she has “loose hair”, just as her daughter does when she holds a candle at the end of this novel and in the fatal fire towards the end of Jane Eyre. In the convent Antoinette embroiders her name in “fire red”; on the way home from an evening out the sky and sea are “on fire”, an image which repeats twice in the book, just as so many other experiences repeat or mirror each other.

When Coulibri burns down, Antoinette’s black friend Tia (whom she has already called a “nigger”) throws a stone at her and Antoinette says looking at her is “as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass.” Symbolically and prophetically this is true: Antoinette will become the disenfranchised female outsider, racially abused and sexually used, powerless and invisible, feeling vengeful against the owner of a great house who is her ex master. Literally this is not the case: Annette is white, Tia is black, “blood on my face, tears on hers.” Yet like the verbal mockery by traumatised locals which leaves a knife-deep frown on her mother’s face, words and wounds, blood and tears are one and the same. Anger, sorrow, hatred, fear, desire and pain are mixed together and melted down to form the scalding ore of this novel.

The lives of the women in Wide Sargasso Sea are undone through men’s slander. Mr Mason’s misogyny is no different from Mr Rochester’s. Yet there is an additional racial and cultural element in which hypocritical English propriety (which is nothing but a sham) sets itself against what it sees as wanton, untrustworthily beautiful West Indian licentiousness and blunt expression. Annette’s sister Aunt Cora, the other straight-talking woman of good sense in the novel, is slandered by Mr Mason, who maliciously interrogates Antoinette about her. Aunt Cora’s English husband “hated the West Indies” just as Mr Mason and Rochester do (and all of them express their hatred by exploiting something rather than leaving it alone) and so won’t send any money to help her and Annette. When he dies, Aunt Cora returns to the West Indies because, as Antoinette bluntly points out, “She wasn’t rich.” Under English law, all the money was considered to be her husband’s. Yet Mr Mason doesn’t believe what she says. He doesn’t “approve” of Aunt Cora says Aunt Cora’s “story” is “nonsense”, a word repeatedly used by the male characters to invalidate what the women say, and that she is “a frivolous woman.” In short, she’s a liar and a bimbo. Early in the novel, the themes of English racism, gender inequality written into law and male slander of women are alive and dangerous.

There is an increasing tension as Antoinette comes of age. She senses, and the reader knows, that her life is going to take a permanent turn for the worse. When Mr Mason visits her at the convent and says “You can’t be hidden away all your life”, she thinks, “Why not?” and the reader feels terrible dread on her behalf. Just like her mother, Antoinette has accurate intimations of what is about to happen, experiencing an immediate “dismay, sadness, loss” which make her feel “choked”. Mr Mason says, deceitfully, that he wants her to be “happy…secure” and we know that Rochester will make her unhappy and insecure both financially and emotionally. Annette’s money and property have passed into male hands already and the next wave of selling-off of women has begun: Mr Mason is going to sell Antoinette to Mr Rochester.

Antoinette’s intuition is even more heightened than her mother’s, her premonitions conveying a depth of malice in Rochester which undercuts Charlotte Bronte’s presentation of him as a caring husband saddled with a crazy ex. As a child, Antoinette dreams repeatedly that “someone who hated me was with me”, who acts “slyly” and whose face is “black with hatred”. Jean Rhys strips away the trite excuses which are used to condone men’s abuse of women and white colonials’ exploitation of ‘natives’. Her presentation of the men’s motives is unambiguous and goes well beyond questions of politics, culture or greed; Mason and Rochester are propelled by sadism, misogynist and racist malice and a desire to exploit, control and destroy the women they use, then collude to excuse their own abusiveness.

As she grows older, Antoinette’s dreams begin directly to reference the events of Jane Eyre, as if Charlotte Bronte’s novel has already set down, like an immovable curse upon a living creature, what is to happen. Antoinette sees her own living death in Thornfield Hall where she is imprisoned “when I go up these steps. At the top.” She is “sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen.” She is propelled towards her conclusion, tormented by the repeating Freudian (and Dantean) dream images of leaving Coulibri and walking into a dark forest wearing a white dress which symbolises innocence and sacrifice yet also sounds an echoing note when we recall that Antoinette’s “mad” mother also liked to wear white. When she imagines being “cold and not belonging” in England, she has finally met her literary destiny: “I have slept there many times before, long ago”. This is one of many poignant references to Bronte’s novel, in which the monstrous Bertha was read about, feared and hated as an obstacle to Jane Eyre’s happiness, long before Rhys filled in the rest of the story a century later.

Wide Sargasso Sea is incredibly brave in refusing to console the reader. The novel psychologically vindicates Antoinette and Annette, demonstrating their intelligence, powerful emotions, seriousness and correct instincts. But these traits are not enough to save them. Antoinette describes one of her premonitive dreams to a nun at her convent as like being “in Hell” and this, like everything she and her mother say, is not an exaggeration but a correct prediction of emotional reality. The nun accepts it at face value; she is one of two women in the novel, the other being Christophine, who is not subject to the patriarchal marriage market and can look on it with cynicism and jaundiced humour. The nun remarks that she doesn’t know “why the devil must have his little day.” That is a warning of the kind of novelistic context we are in: one in which evil, not good, is triumphant and even a bride of Christ does not think that virtue, faith and justice will prevail.

In Wide Sargasso Sea the devil does indeed have his day. Rochester exploits Antoinette financially, uses her physically, manipulates her emotionally, betrays her sexually, tortures her psychologically and incarcerates her bodily until she commits violent suicide. Then he enjoys the sympathetic ministrations of his dear devoted servant-wife Jane Eyre for the rest of his life.

Rochester arrives as part of the latest wave of white exploiters. He is not a slave master but a prospector who regards the exploitation of slaves with flippant mockery and parodic faux respect as he pretends to watch his language: “not nigger, not even negro, black people I must say.” He is infected by a sense of sexual and cultural superiority, insular ignorance and visceral racism, revolting against his new surroundings as if against a food he isn’t familiar with and so doesn’t like. Indeed, he does literally find the local food “too highly seasoned”, that is, too intense.

While the newly married Antoinette proclaims happily, “This is my place and everything is on our side”, Rochester self-pityingly perceives the landscape as malevolent, although this is an expression of his own bigotry. He projects his own slyness onto nature: the sea moves “stealthily”, the rain increases his “discomfort and melancholy”, the place is “not only wild but menacing”, the green is not lush but “extreme”, birdsong is “a very lonely sound”, rain sounds “inexorable”, the smell of flowers is “overpoweringly strong” and the trees are a “green menace.”

Whatever Rochester doesn’t understand, he dismisses as meaningless or ridiculous. He has particular derision for older non-white women, whom he describes in horrific terms. A former servant is “a gaudy old creature” and her patois is a “debased” form of language. Christophine has a “savage appearance” and is an “elderly woman” who “seemed insignificant” and “looks so lazy” – the same insult Mr Mason used. Of the older women at his wedding, “Thin or fat they all looked alike.” He jokes nastily, “Do their eyes get smaller as they grow older? Smaller, beadier, more inquisitive?” When Antoinette says that she loves Christophine and the other servant women and finds their smell “so warm and comforting”, Rochester “does not like it.” If he cannot imagine himself sexually or financially exploiting a woman, he hates her with an intense physical loathing.

Yet it is the non-white characters who see through him. Christophine’s songs are cunning predictions about what is going to happen in the novel: they describe flowers that bloom for one day only, romantic desertion and family abandonment. She tells Rochester to his face, “you marry her for her money and you take it all. And then you want to break her up.” He dismisses this as “nonsense”, just as everything any woman in the novel says is dismissed as nonsense by the man they are talking to.

At no point in the novel is Rochester the alluring, mercurial man he is in Jane Eyre. Rhys’s Rochester is a baiting abuser who looks for every opportunity to justify his sadistic treatment of his wife. The tenderness and solicitude Antoinette shows are not mutual but actually increase his desire to hurt her: “Her pleasing expression annoys me.” Hatred of women, uncomprehending mistrust of the West Indies, miserable physical discomfort, racism, class paranoia, horror of miscegenation and an obsession with his status in the eyes of other men combine into a single sadistic personality which takes pleasure in torturing Antoinette. From the beginning he “watched her critically” and gives full reign to his racial bigotry, deciding that “Creole of pure English descent she may be, but [her eyes] are not English or European either” but “long, sad, dark, alien”. To underline how absolutely ‘other’ it all seems – and unwittingly revealing his own superiority complex and lack of empathy – “alien” is the word he repeatedly uses to describe the landscape as well as the people.

Despite Antoinette’s correct intuition about Rochester, she is bullied into marrying by him and Mr Mason’s son, her half-brother Richard Mason, who collude to pressure her with “arguments, threats…half-serious blandishments and promises.” She gives in “unwillingly” and Rochester gloats over her powerlessness: her “poor weapons” are only “silence and a blank face”. Rochester receives thirty thousand pounds for marrying Antoinette “without question or condition”, with no provision made for her, and she becomes wholly economically dependent on him. The joke is on women, and the sound of men’s mocking laughter at women arises again, like it did when Mr Mason married Annette; when Richard Mason steps in a generation later to pressure Antoinette, he and Rochester laugh together.

Despite being a perpetrator, Rochester sees himself as a cornered victim who is in danger of being humiliated like “a fool” as a “rejected suitor jilted by this Creole girl.” As Antoinette says, “he hates scandal”, even when his own behaviour constitutes the scandal, and his greatest fear is of being laughed at by the only people he respects: English men. In an unsent letter to his father he vows “never to be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love.” Just like Antoinette – could Rochester but see it – he is the less-favoured sibling yearning for a parent’s affections. He promises to behave nobly towards these men, with no “furtive shabby manoeuvres” against them, although this is how he treats Antoinette. He accuses his father, “You have no love at all for me. Nor had my brother. Your plan succeeded because I was young…foolish, trusting…you were able to do this to me.” Antoinette could write exactly the same letter to Rochester about what he and Richard Mason have done to her, with equal truthfulness. Yet despite suffering under the patriarchal cosh just like Antoinette, Rochester doesn’t feel any human commonality with her. Because of her racial and sexual difference from him, he can’t see her as being in the same position, having the same human feelings as him, feeling an equally harsh grievance or deserving the same rights.

Even though he is made rich by Antoinette he goads himself into malice against her, telling himself that she and the other islanders gloat at how she has “bought” him. This is a lie and Antoinette has no idea of his hostility. Sexual satisfaction has woken her from the loneliness and fear she grew up with, yet it also makes her vulnerable. Introduced to intimacy and physical abandon, she has let down her guard and is now open to being hurt. That is the risk we all take when we fall in love, but Antoinette has been tricked and Rochester is only pretending to be in love. She asks him, “Why did you make me want to live?” He revels in his power over her, replying, “Because I wished it.” In a loving couple, this would be playful pillow talk. In Rochester, it is a terrifying hint and a statement of intent.

Antoinette’s doubts about marrying Rochester, and his own attempts to persuade her, are represented by him with sing-song mockery, “advance and retreat… doubts and hesitations. Everything finished, for better or of worse.” With a sickening mixture of sadism and self-pity he relishes thinking about how he “bowed, smiled, kissed her hand, danced with her” and “played the part I was expected to play” to get her to agree to marry him. He congratulates himself on his “faultless performance” and yet sees himself, petulantly, as deserving sympathy because deceiving Antoinette was “an effort of will” which “no one noticed.”

Antoinette imagines England as a “cold dark dream” and, as always, she is correct. Her nightmares are true predictions of what will happen to her there. Rochester counters that her island is equally “unreal and like a dream” to him. He dismisses the island’s beauty as “nothing” and wants to violate it to uncover some secret which he thinks it’s cunningly concealing: “I want what it hides.” This is exactly what he attempts to do to Antoinette, too, and malicious men prey on his suspicions. Ultimately, what gets hidden is the truth of what Rochester, Mr Mason and Richard Mason have done to women. Rochester gloats that “those who know it cannot tell it”, the women are powerless to speak and be believed, and he will hold the secret, in the form of the traumatised Antoinette, “in a hidden place…hold it fast”. Rhys undercuts his confidence as the entire novel is a telling of the ugly truth.

Rochester gaslights and manipulates Antoinette, whose instincts are correctly warning her off him. He says tauntingly, “I’ll trust you if you’ll trust me” even though she is trustworthy and he is not. He guilts, baits and emotionally blackmails her, saying, “You will make me very unhappy if you send me away without telling me what I have done to displease you.” When she tries to explain her foreboding, however, he dismisses it. His desire to destroy her is made explicit when, lying next to her, he “wonder[s] if she ever guessed how near she came to dying.”

Throughout, women’s statements of reality are said by men to be the products of raving madness as the Cosway, Mason and Rochester men work together to exploit, abuse, destroy and dispose of Annette and Antoinette. Antoinette goes to Christophine for help and says correctly, “he does not love me, I think he hates me.” While characters like Aunt Cora and Christophine talk good sense, they cannot act against the men’s sadism because in this society men have power and women do not.

The men protect and defend each other’s abuse, swearing blind in one another’s favour. When Aunt Cora intercedes on behalf of Antoinette, Richard Mason describes Rochester to her as “an honourable gentleman, not a rascal” whom he “would trust …with my life” and whom Antoinette is “damn lucky to get”. Antoinette’s interests are not protected by any lawyer’s settlement, but the men’s interests are protected by a gentlemen’s agreement in their own favour. When Cora tries to answer back, Richard Mason resorts to ageist sexism, macho aggression and accusations of madness or stupidity, shouting, “for God’s sake shut up you old fool.”

The same thing happens when Christophine tries to talk to Rochester, suggesting that he let go of Antoinette so that she can marry someone else. “A pang of rage and jealousy” makes Rochester refuse, out of sadism. He laughs in Christophine’s face and calls her a “ridiculous old woman” who is “as mad as the other,” meaning Antoinette. Christophine is reputed to be an ‘obeah woman’: at worst a witch who can raise the dead and control the living; or alternatively a healer who can provide sagacity and solace. She has been jailed for her practices in the past and towards the end of the novel, local men revive their slander of her. Rochester threatens her with a specifically male violence, male authority and male allies who will cooperate to work against the women: “I’ll get the men to put you out…I will have the police up…. consult the Spanish Town doctors and her brother [Richard Mason].”

All the male characters in the novel use underhand methods to encourage each other to hurt women. A sly letter from a local mixed race man calling himself Daniel Cosway alleges to Rochester that not only was Antoinette’s mother mad, her husband Mr Cosway was also “raving”, Antoinette has inherited both doses and Daniel Cosway is himself one of Mr Cosway’s many illegitimate mixed-race children. Just as Mr Mason slanders Aunt Cora as frivolous, Daniel Cosway slanders Annette as “worthless and spoilt”. Just like Rochester, Daniel Cosway is angry at his father; yet it is only the women who are hurt with these heated allegations of race and class intermixing, illegitimacy, madness, female slatternliness and female deceitfulness.

Daniel Cosway plays on abusive men’s classic defence of their own sadism and sexual immorality, which is that they have been tricked by devious women: Rochester was “bewitch” by Antoinette the same way Mr Mason was “bewitch with her mother.” For Rochester, who is suspicious of the black islanders’ ‘obeah’ practices, this accusation of witchery has a fearful double impact. Daniel Cosway further inflates Rochester’s fears of racial and cultural otherness by hinting that madness is in “all these white Creoles” and not just confined to Antoinette’s family. He extends his slander to Christophine who is “a bad woman and she will lie to you worse than your wife” and presses on Rochester’s sensitivity about race and class with the suspicion that Antoinette is herself mixed race and simply another of Mr Cosway’s illegitimate slave-class children. At the same time, the men work together to uphold each other’s self image: Daniel Cosway tells Rochester his reputation is as a man with “a kind word for all, black, white, also coloured”, which is as far from the truth as could be possible.

Rhys looks closely at the bitter mélange of racism, sexism, classism and personal sadism which drives Rochester. Rochester says openly that although he may lust after Antoinette – he is “thirsty” for her, a telling image of casual consumption – “that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her”. Because of her race and sex, he feels no connection to her as a human being: she is “a stranger” who “did not think or feel as I did”. For all its historical depth, the novel is at the same time a terrifying close portrait of intimate, day by day abusiveness. Rochester’s desire for Antoinette is “breathless and savage” but when he has “exhausted” himself upon her, “I turned away from her and slept…without a word or a caress”.

At the end of the novel Rochester tortures his wife by sexually using a young maid called Amélie on the other side of a thin partition from Antoinette’s room. Just as with Antoinette, Rochester wants Amélie sexually while loathing her race (“little half-caste”), her class (“servant”) and personality (“lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps”). His sexual usage of her, as with his usage of Antoinette, is his revenge against imagined provocations: he thinks Amélie is sneering at him, “full of delighted malice, so intelligent, above all so intimate.” Yet this intimate, delighted malice is all his own. Just as with Antoinette, Rochester’s usage of Amélie only increases his racism; when he has finished with her “her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought”.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a horror novel, one where the source of horror lies in common ‘domestic’ cruelty. Rochester mentally torments Antoinette, telling her “I am most distressed about you, I am distraught” when in truth, “I was calm”. Antoinette says she is happy to answer any questions about her family and he says, “Only if you promise to be reasonable.” In his psychopathic self-pity, everything he has deliberately done to Antoinette, he pretends to believe she has done to him: “You deceived me, betrayed me.”

Rochester’s malice makes him accept every lie he is told by men and dismiss every truth his is told by women. After finding out that Antoinette has the same name as her mother and conveniently believing that both women are mad and bad, he renames his wife just like a slave-owner, to assert his dominance, to distance himself from the taint of her (alleged) family madness and to distance her from herself. He has taken her money, her property, her sense of security, her emotional happiness, her sexual dignity and now, finally, her name. There is to be nothing left. Antoinette is not mad at all, in fact she is completely sane, and says “You are trying to make me into something else, calling me by another name” The more aggrieved she is, the colder he becomes, which understandably infuriates her. When she laughs disdainfully he calls it “a crazy laugh” which justifies, in his own delusion, his abuse of her.

Despite his renaming of her at the end of the book it is interesting to note how rarely he has referred to her by name at all. Instead he calls her “my wife” and then “the woman”, “the girl”, steadily diminishing her until she is “a child…an obstinate one.” The more Antoinette suffers with the human pain he has caused, the less human he sees her as, until she is like “a doll… a marionette”, a plaything and object to be manipulated. It seems like her destruction is complete, but Antoinette can be reduced still further. Rochester sketches an English house where he will incarcerate her, rendering her as “a child’s scribble, a dot of a head, a larger one for the body.” From Antoinette to wife to woman to girl to child to doll to drawing, Rochester has steadily destroyed her. Then he goes one further. At the very end of the novel he describes her, with skin-crawling patronage, as if he were not the perpetrator of her destruction, as “only a ghost…nothing left but hopelessness.”

In brief, jagged, sizzlingly frank and memorable flashes the novel shows nakedly and finally what Rochester really thinks of Antoinette, his cruelty, his twisted self-pity and his hysterical, self-serving lies: she is a “drunken lying lunatic – gone her mother’s way” who he is “tied to” for life unless he does something to her. The final third of the novel is breathtakingly disturbing. Everything Rochester has experienced of Antoinette, her love, kindness and sexuality, he uses against her: she is a slut who’ll “not care who she’s loving”; she behaves sexually “as no sane woman would – or could”; her joy, confidence and beauty are “so pleased, so satisfied.” Rochester gives himself permission to take “revenge” now that Antoinette has “played her games so often that the lowest shrug and jeer at her”. In reality, it is Rochester who has been game-playing and deceiving and the servants shrug and jeer at him, not her. At long last his true sadism is plainly revealed: “She said she loved this place. This is the last she’ll see of it.” And since, like all sadists, he enjoys torturing his victim, having pretended she is mad and done everything he can to mistreat her until she feels like she is indeed going mad, he makes sure she can never get away from him: “She’s mad but mine, mine…my lunatic. My mad girl.”

This brief, brooding and unforgettable novel is a damning indictment of slavery and colonialism, the centuries of trauma and inequality they create and the racism that underpins them; and also of the most intricate womanhating abuse, sexist slander and patriarchal laws which make women dependent. Any woman on the planet who has survived an abusive ‘relationship’ in the 21st Century, let alone in the 20th Century when the book was written, or the 19th Century when the book is set, will recognise the sociopathic two-facedness of Mr Mason, Richard Mason, Daniel Cosway and Rochester and the way that their male cronies and even male strangers like lawyers and doctors collude to support their financial, sexual and emotional abuse of women.

It is also an eerie ghost story in which the main character is haunted by her mother, her mother is haunted by the memory of what she has lost and the locality is haunted by the violence of slavery. Yet Antoinette is afraid of ghost stories herself, stopping Christophine, again with accurate foreboding, when she sings about something coming “tap tap tapping” at night. Antoinette feels an instinctive aversion to the image of an unseen thing making minute noises, which is exactly what she will become. Later, Rochester patronises her by rocking her “like a child” and singing a song in which she is “queen of the silent night” who “shine[s] bright…as [she] die[s].” This is exactly what happens at the end of Jane Eyre. Incarcerated in Thornfield Hall, Antoinette, now Bertha, hears rumours that the house is haunted. She is afraid of the ghost, yet of course she herself is the ghost of Thornfield Hall.

That is where Wide Sargasso Sea ends. For a reader of this blistering masterpiece, it is devastating to know that with all this, the worst is still to come.

This is a much extended version of a piece commissioned for the British Library's Discovering Literature archive of works on 20th Century literature in English. View the original here.