Jane Eyre Prequel

The most prominent fictional extension of the Jane Eyre story is Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966. Serving mainly as a prequel to Bronte's story, it tells of Antoinette "Bertha" Mason's life before and after her marriage to Edward Rochester.

Rhys was familiar with the West Indies, where nearly all of Wide Sargasso Sea is set. She spent her first 16 years on the island of Dominica; her mother was a Creole (an islander with European ancestry), her father a Welsh physician. In this book, she offers a viewpoint that is generally sympathetic to native islanders and disdainful of their colonial masters (who had controlled them formerly through slavery, more recently through money).

Wide Sargasso Sea has been filmed twice. An NC-17 version was released in 1993; a made-for-TV version appeared in 2006. Reviews of both versions appear farther down this page.

Different viewpoints. Whereas Jane Eyre is told completely from Jane's perspective, Wide Sargasso Sea offers the viewpoints of two other main characters. Part one depicts Antoinette's childhood through her own eyes.

Her mother, a native of Martinique, marries a certain Mr. Mason after her first husband has died. Antoinette has a younger brother with unspecified mental challenges. After a traumatic encounter with local residents, the family flees its house. Antoinette is soon sent to a convent school.

This brings us to part two, which switches to Rochester's narration. After a quick arranged marriage to Antoinette, he has begun to have doubts, and his relations with both his wife and their servants are strained. He is especially troubled by Christophine, a woman who has known Antoinette since her childhood — and who is reputed to dabble in obeah [voodoo]. Meanwhile, hints of Antoinette's mental infirmities start to surface.

Rhys then alternates between Rochester's and Antoinette's perspectives, enabling readers to follow the marriage's troubles from both sides. Eventually, matters come to a head, and Rochester makes the fateful move to England, where he puts Antoinette under watch in a secluded room at Thornfield Hall. The book ends with her dreaming about setting fires at the Hall — and with her then consciously setting out to do so.

Possible failings. Wide Sargasso Sea is a work of great ambition and considerable literary skill, full of intricate depictions of people and nature. However, I found it wanting in several ways.

Rhys often uses imagery and abstruse dialogue, rather than direct statements, to inform the reader of plot developments. I had to reread many passages and was still sometimes unsure of what was happening.

Also, much of the secondary characters' dialogue is in a patois [local dialect] that feels strained and unnatural. Though she'd probably heard such language a lot in her early years, I didn't get the impression that Rhys was accurately depicting islanders' speech patterns.

Finally, Antoinette/Bertha and Rochester don't match the characters we encounter in Jane Eyre. Bronte quotes Rochester as saying that he was "bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste" whose "vices sprang up fast and rank". We don't see her behave that way at all (other than a bit of drinking); she mostly seems like a reasonable if quirky young woman. And while Bronte describes a hideous attic-dwelling creature that "growled like some wild animal," Wide Sargasso Sea claims that Antoinette engaged in meaningful conversations with her attendant, Grace Poole (or at least imagined that she did?). Meanwhile, Rochester comes across very unsympathetically, as more a cause than a victim of Antoinette's problems.

This book is not an easy nor fully compelling read. The unfamiliar landscapes it depicts, along with the new spin on old characters, put me more in mind of fan fiction than of a worthy extension of the Jane Eyre story. Curious Bronte fans will find interesting morsels of exotic flavor here, but perhaps not a satisfying meal.

 

1993 Film

The first film adaptation of Wide Sargasso Sea was released in 1993. It made barely a ripple at the box office; its potential audience, surely small to start with, was doubtless reduced still further by the film's NC-17 rating. This rating meant that no one under 17 could be admitted, and it implied that the film would be unsuitable for anyone put off by graphic sexual or violent scenes.

On DVD, this film can be watched in its NC-17 form or one that was edited down to a softer R rating. I watched the NC-17 version and found it surprisingly tame. There is occasional female nudity (mainly by Antoinette) and a bit of male frontal nudity (by Rochester), but the sex is not strikingly graphic. Meanwhile, the only real violence affects some animals — images that will disturb some viewers but leave others unfazed.

While this film has garnered generally poor user reviews at sites such as IMDB and Netflix, it impresses me. The lush island scenery, the rhythms of West Indies life, and the steamy and stormy personal interactions create an atmosphere both sensual and sensuous. I think all the main actors portray Rhys's characters well: Rochester as masterful yet in over his head; Antoinette as passionate but mercurial; the servant girl Amelie as wide-eyed and irresistible; and especially the spooky Christophine as intensely self-possessed and a formidable defender of those she holds dear.

Running just 1 hour 38 minutes, the film skips over some less important parts of the plot. Still, it captures the spirit of this intricate tale of the seismic ruptures that can occur when societies or social strata collide. I can see how it would be unpopular among viewers who are unfamiliar with, or dislike, the book; as a depiction of Rhys's vision, though, I find it gratifyingly true.

 

2006 Film

A British film version of Wide Sargasso Sea was first broadcast on the BBC in 2006.

Running 1:24, about 15 minutes shorter than the 1993 film, this one cut out much more of the plot, apparently by design as much as necessity. We never see Antoinette's traumatic childhood experiences or her convent-school education; she mentions them briefly later.

After a lead-in scene previewing her time at Thornfield, the movie begins with Antoinette meeting Rochester for the first time. Some of its main drawbacks are immediately apparent. Antoinette, despite her West Indies upbringing, is portrayed as speaking with a native English accent (with occasional hints of Scots); she also comes across as more cheery and self-assured than in the book. Meanwhile, Rochester's brusque, rapid mumbling is often hard to understand.

This production focuses almost exclusively on the one main relationship, with far less effort devoted to adding island "flavor" or other atmospheric components. Scenes of Antoinette and Rochester dominate the screenplay: their excitement at meeting and marrying each other, their passionate physical encounters, their later conflicts as Rochester grows uncertain about her background and his situation. We see a bit less of the scheming Christophine and the seductive Amelie and only the tiniest evidence of other servants. Daniel Cosway, bearer of secrets about Antoinette's past, appears suddenly, rather than making himself known to Rochester through letters. It all feels a bit rushed.

Labeled NR [Not Rated], the film contains a few bits of female frontal nudity, some naked bodies placed strategically so nothing much shows, and lots of shadowy groping and panting.

This film features some beautiful scenery and nice production values (film angles, lighting, costumes, etc.). Due to its questionable portrayals and abbreviated plotlines, though, I wouldn't recommend it as highly as the 1993 version.