Wide Sargasso Sea is a story of a feminist and anti-colonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, and perfectly encapsulates Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. The novel, initially set in Jamaica, takes place a short while after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 which ended slavery in the British Empire. The act which gave black slaves their freedom led to the demise of many white slave owners. The protagonist, Antoinette, is the white daughter of ex-slave owners, and she lives on a run-down plantation called Coulibri Estate. Her father reportedly drank himself to death, leaving her and her mother in a difficult financial situation. Antoinette’s story is one filled with loneliness and hostility, with the setting of a crumbling white aristocracy that leaves them vulnerable.
The life that Antoinette leads is not an easy one. Because of her father’s position, she lives the first part of her life well-off and a member of the elite. But when that all crumbles down she finds herself displaced, not fitting in with the freed slaves nor with the white elite in the town. Even her marriage, hurriedly arranged by her step-father, is one met with heartache and problems. The novel takes place in three parts, in the first she is just a lonely young girl living on the estate. The second part talks of her marriage, whilst the third part is set in England. I think that this is where Rhys was trying to incorporate the response to Jane Eyre. Antoinette spends most of the time in the attic, shut off from the entire world. A real ‘madwoman in the attic’. One of the gentler symbols that runs throughout the book is this garden that Antoinette nurtures. She compares the garden at the Coulibri Estate to the biblical Garden of Eden. Throughout the book, the garden plays a significant role in providing the hope the Antoinette needs.
Having written about slavery in this period for my dissertation, I found this book fascinating. Though a work of fiction and not based on a real person, the experience that Antoinette felt when living in Creole is probably not far from reality. The economy, by the time that the Slavery Abolition Act came into play, wasn’t as reliant on slavery in Britain as it had been previously. The 1772 Mansfield Case had found that slavery was unsupported in English law, and therefore any slave who entered England or Scotland became free. This fueled the abolition movement as if people were free here, why should they be enslaved anywhere else? In 1807 slave trade was abolished, but not slavery itself. In 1831 there was also a slave revolt in Jamaica, known as the ‘The Baptists War’. What started as a peaceful general strike, soon escalated after the Baptist preachers received news that no emancipation had been granted to them by the British King. Violence then erupted, with the burning of crops and plantations. The rebellion was eventually crushed by the slave-owning establishment, but had resulted in many deaths and later on even more executions. It also left the island’s economy and plantation finances damaged. Though the book is set after the abolition act, there is still clearly a racial divide which plays an important role in the development of the novel’s main themes.
Rhys has written a beautifully narrated novel that encapsulates what it was like to be a woman whose life has become a tumultuous existence because of the men around her. Rhys does a fantastic job at touching on the importance of feminism for women, without overshadowing the overall theme of the racial divide that runs in the novel. She manages to pack in a lot to a book that is only 124 pages long. I highly recommend to anyone that they read this!
Until next time,