'Wide Sargasso Sea'
(Martine Beswicke, Dorothy Cunningham, et al / DVD / NR / (2006) 2008 / Acorn Media)
Overview: As imagined by Jean Rhys, the villainous madwoman in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre becomes an innocent, born into two cultures but belonging to none. The exotic Caribbean confounds young Englishman Edward Rochester when he arrives in 1830s Jamaica to pursue his fortune. Nevertheless, he finds nothing to fear in beautiful Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway. She eagerly succumbs to his courtship, entrusting him with her dowry and her destiny. In the intoxicating surroundings of their honeymoon house, ecstatic lust turns to suspicion and betrayal as her world and his disastrously collide.
DVD Verdict: Surely, in the history of Western literature, there can have been few more inspired ideas than that of Rhys's; to develop the tragic kernel at the heart of "Jane Eyre," and few writers better equipped to do it. Rhys, a twentieth century novelist, was herself born in Domenica, a British colony in the West Indies; she was the daughter of a Welsh doctor, and a third-generation Creole woman of Scottish descent. She knew the snobbish, repressive, patriarchal culture very well; and also the uneasy social position of the Creole woman - generally understood to be not necessarily entirely of white ancestry, but accepted as such for necessary social reasons.
This dichotomy, of course, creates a tension that will be very difficult for such a woman to handle, and can be seen as a major cause of Mason's madness; in addition to the fact that she fails to understand England, or the English, properly: she just cannot see that Rochester is a typical proper Englishman of his time.
Rhys, born in 1890, led a wandering, alcoholic, bohemian life all over 20th century Europe. She is widely esteemed as a feminist author these days, as are all her works, but most particularly "Sargasso," and its heartbreaking tale of a woman at sea in an alien culture. She had an affair with noted novelist Ford Madox Ford, reputedly had a threesome with him and his Australian wife, published the novel "Quartet" about it all, and certainly benefited from his literary advice. She also had a relationship with omnisexual British jazz singer/author George Melly; she and his bandleader John Chilton wrote a sardonic song about it: "Living with You."
Most of her books utilized modernist techniques and West Indian sensibilities, to deal with wandering penniless women, no longer as young and pretty as once they were, seeking one more generous man. As a writer, Rhys fell silent for many years mid-career, until she published "Sargasso" in 1966. The novel won the prestigious W.H. Smith Literary Award, also the Royal Society Literary Award. She said about it, "It has come too late." She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966, and a Commander of the British Empire in 1978, a year before her death.
Mind you, this is not to take anything away from Bronte, herself, also a deservedly feminist icon these days, as is her Jane. Both remind us that it was possible for women to snatch achievement from even the most patriarchal culture. Furthermore, Bronte may have written a great romance; but she was realist enough to recognize that it was built on the misery and misfortune of the shadowy madwoman in the attic.
We have here a great, fresh story, well-told, that was filmed alongside a new version of "Jane Eyre;" and adds a lot to it. You should see them together if you can manage (and, thank goodness, it's got subtitles!). This is a Full Screen Presentation (1.33:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Features of:
Biography of Jean Rhys