Wide Sargasso Sea turned Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel inside out. As the book celebrates its 50th anniversary, Hephzibah Anderson explains its enduring power.
In other respects, Rhys’s novel shows how timeless Jane Eyre is. Wide Sargasso Sea’s symbolism, at first glance so modernist – the dreams and visions, the magic and incantation – turns out to echo Brontë’s. And while it’s a feminist rewriting, linking madness and entrapment with womanhood, such themes remind us that Brontë’s classic is also, in its way, a feminist text. Though Rhys holds Antoinette up as a marginalised character, Jane, as a spinster governess, is similarly disenfranchised. Just as Creole Antoinette is mocked by her black neighbours and looked down on by white Europeans like Rochester, so Jane belongs neither upstairs nor downstairs at Thornfield Hall.
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