Novels often inspire as do characters in those novels. However, it was an inspired artist in this case that lead to the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys took up the challenge to lend a voice to the 'lunatic' woman in Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel "Jane Eyre", and in the process brought alive the 'crazy' first wife of Mr. Rochester. A vivid and passionate portrayal no doubt, but one that made me wonder about Ms. Rhys's motive for targeting this character. My findings lead me to the Creole identity issue, especially as it related to women, specifically to Ms. Rhys who was born to a Creole mother and a Welsh doctor in Dominicana. In an interview, Rhys admitted being angry about the way in which Bertha, the first wife of Rochester, is portrayed in Bronte's novel, and the Creole in Rhys rose to the challenge of writing a 'rich novel about a poor woman' to present Bertha's case. Rhys in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea lent charisma and motive to the mysterious, hated, and feared Bertha of Jane Eyre. However, how the free spirited Antoinette Bertha Cosway with 'the sun in her hair' ends up becoming the violent and crazy Bertha Mason of Bronte's novel is for the reader to fathom.
Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, published over a hundred years after Bronte's Jane Eyre, explores the complex identity of the female Creole through the travails of Antoniette, Rhys' main protagonist. Antoniette, like Rhys, is the offspring of a West Indian mother and a white father, and is sensual, passionate, and beautiful, but she is also extremely secretive and insecure; quite the enigma to the young Edward Rochester who is completely taken by her when he first meets her on her island. Antoinette has grown up in a community where she is often referred to as the 'white nigger', and after being abandoned by her 'crazy' mother, is a lonely child who has a desperate need to belong. Her plight is quite like the sargassum weed that latches onto any support it can find in the lifeless and shore less Sargasso Sea. Like the weed, Antoinette too is basically a floater, a live but homeless organism in search of anchor. Antoinette's quest for an anchor / home is the adventure that Rhys takes the reader on, and the ride is quite the emotional roller coaster because the reader, who, though sorry for Antoinette, is perplexed by her querulous behaviour in her relationship with Edward, who after their marriage, carefully avoids any kind of contact with her and yet claims that Antoinette, " had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I had found it."
Wide Sargasso Sea proved an intriguing read, one that not only forced me to revisit and rethink Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, but also got me thinking about the Creole identity and has compelled me to look for writings that would help me better understand the Creole psyche. Any suggestions?