Sargasso Sea

by May-lee Chai

29 July 2008

The BBC-Wales version of this classic has Chai yelling, ‘Enough with the tragic mulattoes, already!’

That grinding sound I’ve been hearing lately. It was driving me crazy trying to figure out what was causing it. Then I watched the DVD of the new BBC-Wales production of Wide Sargasso Sea, and suddenly I knew. That sound was none other than novelist Jean Rhys spinning in her grave.

Yes, the latest film version of Rhys’ brilliant and pathbreaking novel is that bad. It’s not just bad in terms of its tepid production values, low-budget locations, and strange performances, it’s horrifically bad in its very conception. Like some kind of B-movie horror film, Jean Rhys’ baby has now become an apologia for British imperialism instead of an exorcism of the denial about its lingering tendrils.

cover art

Wide Sargasso Sea

US DVD: 24 Jun 2008

cover art

Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys

(W. W. Norton)

For those new to the brilliance of Wide Sargasso Sea, the novel’s plot is a re-imagining of the Jane Eyre classic, this time told from the point of view of the crazy woman in the attic. No longer a neurotic, lying French dancer whom Mr. Rochester has locked in his attic to protect her from herself—as though any of us believed that self-serving hogwash in the first place—the first Mrs. Rochester is now revealed to be a Jamaican Creole heiress and the source of Rochester’s wealth. How she came to be locked into Rochester’s attic is the story’s beating heart.

The book begins with the childhood of Antoinette Cosway, a white English native of Jamaica, called a Creole because she is considered neither truly English (as she has never been there) and certainly not Jamaican (as she is not black). It is a childhood destroyed by the hangover of Empire—slavery has been abolished, but not inequality. Her slave-owning father has died, leaving her mother, her younger brother and herself impoverished, called ‘white cockroaches’ and ‘white niggers’ by the black Jamaicans and shunned by the so-called high society of the remaining English Creole community.

Her mother remarries a wealthy English immigrant to restore the family’s status, but he does not heed her warnings about the racial tensions on the island. After the family estate is burned down in a race riot, leading to the death of Antoinette’s brother, her step-father handily dispatches his distraught wife to a makeshift asylum and Antoinette to a convent school while he hightails it back to Mother England.

The book resumes from the point of view of a young, impoverished Edward Rochester, who has agreed to marry this now grown, beautiful, but unknown Creole woman for her fortune left to her by her stepfather. As a second son under British law, he cannot inherit his father’s mansion or wealth. Apparently not interested in finding a profession, he decides to marry the rich Creole orphan, instead.

Unfortunately for them both, Rochester does not understand Jamaica, the seething racial tensions, the sadness of his wife’s past, the climate, the color, the culture. In an interesting reversal, it is he who seems drawn to madness and fevers in the Jamaican heat, and he ultimately succumbs to rumors spread by an alleged half-brother of Antoinette about her mother’s supposed madness.

Rochester falls out of love with his new bride (if he was ever in love in the first place), but according to British law, he is now the owner of all her lands and inheritance. Thus, when his own father and older brother die, he quickly sails back to England to take his place at the helm of his now considerable fortune, thanking God to be able to flee Jamaica.

Alas, for both of them, out of spite, he insists upon taking his wife with him, as is his right. Her dearest friend, Christophine, a black woman from Martinique who was her nurse as a child, uses Obeah (the Jamaican form of voodoo) to put Antoinette into a kind of waking sleep, so that she will never have to feel the full brunt of Rochester—and England’s—coldness.

The fire in the attic becomes a metaphor for all that has been burnt before, as Antoinette tries desperately to warm her soul anew.

Unfortunately, in the latest BBC production which was filmed in 2006 but released in the US by Acorn Media only this past June, Rochester is presented as a kind-hearted Englishman misguidedly trying to bring some good English starch into the limp lives of the Jamaicans, including his Creole bride. The film completely eliminates the back story of Antoinette—there is no race riot, no dead brother, no distraught mother just a mad one.

And in an interesting artistic choice indeed, actress Rebecca Hall plays Antoinette as a weeping, neurotic clinging vine (always so attractive to men worldwide), whining about wanting happiness even as her crying makes it absolutely impossible for anyone to be happy. Worse, the black characters have been reduced to spineless, tragic shadows, morosely wandering the landscape, and the actor playing Antoinette’s mixed-race half-brother must face the added indignity of wearing the world’s worst wig—and it’s orange to boot. Oh, my.

What can be said of a film that subscribes so heartily to the notion that mixed cultures are inferior cultures doomed to unhappiness? Antoinette sobs in this new version, “I am Creole, but I’m not English like you.” Boo hoo hoo. White skin notwithstanding, she is, of course, the ultimate Tragic Mulatto, that convenient historical trope that was meant to erase the dignity of mixed-race peoples because they rather inconveniently for the ruling—and white—classes mixed up the notions of racial purity, us v. them, and the Otherness that lay at the very heart of the justification of Empire.

When Rochester sails back to England with his mentally ill wife in this film, who wouldn’t sigh with relief?

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age, what the filmmakers hoped to achieve with this version of Wide Sargasso Sea. Perhaps it’s part of a generational spasm of fear, the collective, subconscious recognition that ‘Oh my god, we’ve entered the 21st century’ and the old order of things just won’t work anymore.

What else can explain the completely un-ironic musical adaptation of Gone with the Wind as a straightforward love story that debuted on the London stage this past spring? Or for that matter, the revival of 1949’s South Pacific, which swept up at the Tony’s this summer, taking in seven awards, more than any other Broadway show? These productions aren’t just retro; they creak with a terrifying nostalgia for a bygone era of racial exclusion that even John McCain’s ‘100 Years in Iraq/ Never Surrender’ campaign could never fully satisfy.

For a much more complex cinematic experience, watch the 1993 film directed by John Duigan and starring Karina Lombard as Antoinette. In Lombard’s fiercely intelligent performance, Antoinette is a heroine for all ages. You can almost smell the smoke the moment she appears on screen. Burn Thornfield Hall down, Antoinette! Burn it for Jean!

Or better yet, let’s all read the novel, which is still in print and as fresh and vibrant today as when it was when first published – way back in 1966.

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