Antoinette's story begins when she is a young girl in early nineteenth- century Jamaica. The
white daughter of ex-slave owners, she lives on a run-down plantation called Coulibri Estate.
Five years have passed since her father, Mr. Cosway, reportedly drunk himself to death, his
finances in ruins after the passage of the Emancipation Act of 1833, which freed black slaves and
led to the demise of many white slave owners. Throughout Antoinette's childhood, hostility
flares between the crumbling white aristocracy and the impoverished servants they employ.
As a young girl, Antoinette lives at Coulibri Estate with her widowed mother, Annette, her sickly
younger brother, Pierre, and gossiping servants who seem particularly attuned to their employers'
misfortune and social disrepute. Antoinette spends her days in isolation. Her mother, a beautiful
young woman who is ostracized by the Jamaican elite, spends little time with her, choosing to
pace listlessly on the house's
(the covered balcony) instead of nurturing her child.
Antoinette's only companion, Tia, the daughter of a servant, turns against her unexpectedly.
One day, Antoinette is surprised to find a group of elegant visitors calling on her mother from
Spanish Town, the island's version of a sophisticated metropolis. Among them is an English man
named Mr. Mason who, after a short courtship, asks for Annette's hand in marriage. When Mr.
Mason and Annette honeymoon in Trinidad, Antoinette and Pierre stay with their Aunt Cora in
In the interim, Mr. Mason has had the estate repaired and restored to it to its former grandeur,
and has bought new servants. Discontent, however, is rising among the freed blacks, who protest
one night outside the house. Bearing torches, they accidentally set the house on fire, and Pierre is
badly hurt. As the family flees the house, Antoinette runs desperately towards Tia and her
mother. Tia throws a jagged rock at Antoinette, cutting her forehead and drawing blood.
The events of the night leave Antoinette dangerously ill for six weeks. She wakes to find herself
in Aunt Cora's care. Pierre has died. Annette's madness, which has revealed itself gradually over
the years, has fully surfaced after the trauma of the fire. When Antoinette visits her mother, who
has been placed in the care of a black couple, she hardly recognizes the ghostlike figure she
encounters. When Antoinette approaches, Annette violently flings her away.
Antoinette then enrolls in convent school along with other young Creole girls. For several years,
she lives at the school with the nuns, learning everything from proper ladylike deportment to the
tortured histories of female saints. Antoinette's family has all but deserted her: Aunt Cora has
moved to England for a year, while Mr. Mason travels for months away from Jamaica, visiting
When Antoinette is seventeen, Mr. Mason announces on his visit that friends from England will