The Reading Room
Considering The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
“It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, ‘What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.” Edward Fairfax Rochester, The Wide Sargasso Sea
Novels of the early 19th century don’t always have a lot to say about slavery in the British colonies, at least, not openly. Wuthering Heights (1847) and Mansfield Park (1814) certainly touch upon abolition but don’t moralize directly. They seem to say “certainly slavery is barbaric, but also the source of great wealth. It’s an ugly fact of life.” Many novels of the era were more apt to paint British colonies like Jamaica or the West Indies as exotic, mysterious places full of the unknown with warm oceans and gracious plantations (all powered by slave labor, of course.)
But 150 years later, 20th century novels were able to tackle the topic more directly. Jean Rhys’s 1967 classic The Wide Sargasso Sea gives us a look at post-emancipation Jamaica while telling the backstory of Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester, the protagonist of Jane Eyre (1847), his marriage, and his eventually-mad wife, Bertha.
England had been home to a growing abolitionist movement since the since the 1780s, and in 1807 Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act barring any slave trade in the British Empire. British ships had been responsible for transporting nearly 750,000 slaves from Africa by 1807. But halting the import or trade of new slaves didn’t end slavery. That came with passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. This act freed over 800,000 African slaves in British colonies including the Caribbean and West Indies. It still didn’t end slavery, but it took strides forward. (Hence Prince Albert’s famous and controversial speech in 1840 to The Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa.)
Jamaican slaves had been responsible for many of the most violent colonial slave revolts in the few years prior to passage of the abolition act. After emancipation, during an uncertain apprenticeship period, many white landowners were burned out or driven off their lands, and Creole former slaveholders found themselves in a precarious racial no-man’s-land. British landowners could sell or go home, but the colonial Creole families were merely British by association. Not white, not black, and not of the islands either, Creole former slaveholders found themselves embroiled in a complex situation.
So it is that we meet Antoinette Cosway, the Creole wife of a notoriously cruel plantation owner killed shortly after emancipation. Her lifestyle and husband are gone, her home burned, her son dead, and her daughter forgotten. As she goes mad from loss and grief, her new husband, a wealthy Englishman, marries her for her money. And when she dies, he arranges for his son, Richard Mason, to find a suitor for Antoinette’s daughter, Bertha. Richard Mason (whom we meet again in Jane Eyre) finds just the right mark: a young Englishman looking to make his fortune as a second son, Edward Fairfax Rochester. With Bertha’s 30,000 pounds, Rochester easily overlooks her naiveté and connections to the island’s obeah mysteries.
While Rochester is seduced by his new wife and the islands themselves, he never seems to question the racial realities of former slaves in Jamaica. As a Creole, Bertha, on the other hand, is acutely aware of them, unable to forget the night former slaves burned her home while her family fled. Rochester, used to respectful English servants, is surprised by how poorly former slaves treat Bertha. Hoping for her own emancipation, Bertha knows she will always be Creole and “othered” by former slaves and white English planters alike.
We can assume the marriage between Rochester and Bertha took place in the late 1830s, which makes the timing work for their return to England. Despite Bertha’s uncontrollable outbursts (fuelled by alcohol), Rochester refuses to abandon her, taking her to England for care. (We can’t imagine that he would have considered an asylum when he had the means to hire staff to oversee her.)
We can imagine that the next 10 years account for Rochester’s travels, his illegitimate French daughter, and his arrival at Thornfield to meet Jane. It also explains his reaction to the disastrous unannounced visit from Richard Mason demanding to see his step-sister. In Rhys’s account of Bertha’s recollection of seeing her brother again, the blur of past and present lie at the heart of her madness.
Ultimately, Bertha’s memories of the islands and their open spiritual boundaries lead her to the fateful jump from the battlements of Thornfield with flames behind her. It’s fitting that she imagines this suicidal leap as jumping into the cool Jamaican water of her childhood given the intensity and savagery of the Caribbean where the spirit world and madness blended with the Creole experience.