This year, Jean Rhys’s most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, turns fifty. But what is Rhys’s literary legacy and how has the author been remembered?
Some malarial angel
Whose grave still cowers
Under a fury of bush,
a mania of wild yams
wrangling to hide her from ancestral churchyards.
Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Jean Rhys’ was published in the New Yorker a year after the author’s death in 1979. It conjures, by ekphrasis, the fin-de-siècle formality of a Creole family portrait taken one afternoon, against the backdrop of Dominican mountains and a pale, ‘pharmaceutical’ moon.
Like the imagined photograph, the poem is a corridor in time, sepia rich, evoking silences embroidered with words, where the soul is doubled by shadow and where black is contrasted with white. A young Rhys is depicted among spaniels, bay horses and bone-collared gentleman; a feverish child, ‘her right hand married to Jane Eyre’.
Walcott, the Caribbean’s most eminent poet, pays tribute to Rhys through his discernment into her creative process. Childhood is a portal, a psycho-geography from where her stories germinated, transforming the trauma of their broken time and spatiality.
Critics such as Francis Wyndham and Diana Athill have argued that the imaginative rendering in Wide Sargasso Sea was Jean’s lifelong purpose, for which she held an uncanny foresight. Psychologically brilliant, Wide Sargasso Sea is a vivid prequel to Jane Eyre, the cult fiction of Victorian feminism. It recovers for readers the unwritten story of the mad white Creole wife, locked up by Mr Rochester in the attic at Thornfield Hall, nursed by Grace Poole.
The novel’s hypnotic texture does suggest that even as a child Rhys was sensitive to her accountability as witness to racial distinctions, their brutal disturbances on people’s lives. She was an insider to the predicament of the Creole, the hybrid who is born of miscegenation, as well as to the vulnerability women experience under domestic circumstances. Rhys brought to bear this gendered and racialised contingency in Wide Sargasso Sea. ‘Her wedding dress is white paper’ writes Walcott, hinting that her life’s most binding relationship was to perfectly realise her own marginalised narrative.
Jean Rhys was born as Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. She lived in Dominica until she was sixteen, and then moved to England where she attended Perse school in Cambridge. Here she was teased for her accent and her difference.
After two terms at drama school in London and her father’s death in 1910 she drifted, travelling to Europe, seemingly enervated. She found work as a chorus girl and an artist’s model. She endured failed relationships in Paris, the first of three marriages, an affair with Ford Madox Ford who published her short stories and launched her career, and she suffered the loss of an infant child. At times she spiralled into spells of prostitution and alcoholism, all of which provided material for the characters of Marya, Julia, Anna, and Sasha in her lesser novels Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning Midnight.
Rhys had always intuited a fully embodied heroine, Antoinette Cosway.
Rhys had always intuited a fully embodied heroine, Antoinette Cosway. Her notes and letters are paratexts that attest to the persistence of her resolve to complete the intrepid, complex yet impressionistic novel.
In the degraded persona of Bertha Mason, Rhys recognised the reductive racist shadow of a colonial imaginary with all its moral implications that the ‘Other’ is dangerous, seductive and threatening to civilisation. Her mesmeric dramatisation of beauty, strangeness, authority and danger is wholly unique in the literary canon.
As early as 1958, six years before the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys wrote this in a letter to Selma Vas Dias, who adapted her novel Good Morning Midnight for radio production:
I will not disappoint you. Come with me and you will see. Take a look at Jane Eyre. That unfortunate death of a Creole! I’m fighting mad to write her story.
The collected Jean Rhys Letters, 1931–1966 (1984) illuminate the extent of her decade-long negotiations with editors and agents in what became her most ambitious and tenacious project: to revise and perfect Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys broke the golden rule of discussing a manuscript-in-progress with publishers, risking the ideal writer’s pitch for the chance to secure the narrative’s ideological foundations.
What concerned her most was how to formalise the ambivalence within Caribbean identity and how to account for Bertha’s madness. She relentlessly drew editors into dialogue on her thematic and structural quandaries. An attempt was undertaken (at Selma’s insistence) to write the book as a monologue voiced by the first Mrs Rochester. But this limited its complexity, so Rhys abandoned the proposal and embarked on several handwritten drafts which she stubbornly brought to the attention of literary colleagues, though not without exercising her characteristically self- deprecating charm. In 1959 she wrote:
One stupid thing I did was to read Jane Eyre too much. Then I found it was creeping into my writing. A bad imitation – quite dreadful… I also read Wuthering Heights. So magnificent in parts. But none of this probability nonsense.
Recognising the Brontës’ genius, Rhys had the objectivity required to be critical of Charlotte’s social vision, and the good sense to not dare reach for those imaginative heights (which, ironically, she herself unequivocally surpassed).
Having abandoned the previous monological structure, it is a reasonable supposition that Rhys adapted the Wuthering Height’s technique of layering the novel’s focalisation through different narrators. From the first paragraph, the black nurse and Obeah woman Christophine infuses Antoinette’s voice as a surrogate matriarch: ‘because she pretty like pretty self’, and Rochester’s narration is interspersed with letters from Antoinette’s malicious cousin, whose crude confession implicates the Cosway’s family legacy of inbreeding and madness.
This vocal multiplicity complicates and creolises the story, assembling a dramatic course, at every turn of which the reader is both uneasy and absorbed.
It is this vocal multiplicity that complicates and creolises the story, assembling a dramatic course, at every turn of which the reader is both uneasy and absorbed. Sympathetic to Antoinette’s untenable circumstances, the reader is compelled to question the operations of race, sex, empire and the post-emancipation plantation economy, establishments that are subversively undermined in the novel by ridicule and rumour-mongering.
Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966 after numerous drafts, painful rejections and editorial mediations. The novel was critically acclaimed: Rhys received the prestigious
WH Smith Literary Award, the critic A. Alvarez described her as ‘one of the finest British writers of this century’ and Francis Wyndham’s introduction deservedly praises her style for its ‘quivering immediacy and glassy objectivity’.
If the youthful Jane Eyre navigates hostile social barriers and prescribed domestic spaces to become Rochester’s second wife, her access to this progression depends entirely on Bertha’s destruction, both materially and ideologically. Wide Sargasso Sea returns to Bertha a feminine subjectivity and a cultural history that Brontë had effaced.
Narrated in the first person, the novel is structured in three parts. The first recounts Antoinette’s troubled childhood in Spanish Town, Jamaica, at the time of emancipation, when social harmony is splintered by native rebellion against the once-privileged comprador class of white Creole slaveholders.
Antoinette’s recollections infuse sensuality with terror and disintegration: she is teased and bullied by her coloured friends, animals are poisoned, old-time settlers drown in sublime seas, the family estate is incinerated, her younger brother dies and her beautiful, generously spirited mother is driven insane.
The second part, narrated by Rochester, describes his arrival in Jamaica, the strange, intoxicating beauty he encounters, his strategic and flawed marriage to Antoinette, the mockery of her servants, his infidelity under the influence of Obeah, the treachery of Antoinette’s half-caste brother and her deteriorating mental state as she fails to salvage the role of Creole heiress and wife to an Englishman.
The third and final part is set in Thornfield Hall in the attic where Grace Poole watches the ghostlike Antoinette. Rhys gives Bertha a dignity wholly denied to her by Brontë. Collapsing the categories that border human and beast, Brontë’s Bertha is ungendered and abject, ‘intemperate and unchaste’. Jane Eyre tells us that she ‘snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’
Rhys restores Bertha’s subjectivity, subtly contradicting Brontë’s feminist politics, which devalued the Creole woman.
After the Jamaican slave rebellion of 1760, and the brutal Haitian slave rebellion, the Carribean was widely perceived in Europe as ungovernable, a place of terror and moral depravity. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys restores Bertha’s subjectivity, subtly contradicting Brontë’s feminist politics, which devalued the Creole woman. The act of arson no longer symbolises moral transcendence. Instead it becomes a calming hallucination, a passage towards deliverance from captivity, connecting Antoinette to her past. She hears Coco, her parrot calling her; she sees her childhood friend Tia, who had twice betrayed her; she sees the ferns and velvet of her garden and the glistening pool at Coulibri. There is beauty, tenderness and immense sympathy in the writing.
Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, narrative detail is meticulous, so surely intoned that one incident follows from the next with inevitable causality. For the reader, this dramatises the conflicting logics apprised by colonial history, its morality and economics. Antoinette’s memory of the past is pitched against Rochester’s account in a violent struggle for meaning. Narrative and authenticity are constantly placed under strain. Rochester notes that Antoinette is reckless with money and inconsistent in recalling facts.
This ambivalence runs deep to the core. Not truly native nor English, Antoinette cannot speak on equal terms with the black Jamaicans. When the half-caste servant Amelie taunts her, she summarises her identity crisis in a powerful passage redolent of Emily Brontë’s ‘I am Heathcliff’:
It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.
Both Antoinette as a Creole and Daniel, her coloured half-brother, are indirectly or transparently despised, in turn, both by the native Jamaicans and by Rochester. Cultural belonging pivots on acceptance or disapproval, determined or undermined by imitation.
Few other novels convey the ambivalence that complicates marginal identities as brilliantly as Wide Sargasso Sea. England and Europe are supremely privileged; they foster the civilising narrative that Rhys demystifies. Though Antoinette argues with Rochester that St Pierre, Martinique is ‘the Paris of the West Indies’, the Caribbean remains a distant and remote landscape for Rochester, a place he ends up hating as he comes to hate his wife.
Rhys’s talent was first announced to the world by Ford Madox Ford in the preface to her first book The Left Bank, a collection of stories published in 1927. Rhys lived with Madox Ford and his partner, the Australian artist Stella Bowen, in a ménage-a-trois that informed two novels in part, as well as Bowen’s memoir Drawn From Life (1940).
It is worth noting that, in evaluating the autobiographical content of her writing, many critics have conflated Rhys with her desperate characters in such a way as to undermine her skills as a novelist. Reviewers, and biographers such as Carole Angier and Lilian Pizzichini, and even the Australian author Drusilla Modjeska, have adversely interpreted her fiction while generously crediting Stella Bowen’s autobiography to overstate flaws in Rhys’s character. Her psychopathology has been described as masochistic, disorderly and addictive.
Theories that her Paris novels (Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Good Morning Midnight) are purely factual overlook Rhys’s modernist experimentations in hybrid writing. Her techniques of repetition, fragmentation and ellipsis were tutored not simply by Madox Ford as some critics suggest but influenced experientially by her life and her peers, including Mansfield, Woolf, Hemingway, Joyce and Stein.
In recent years a spate of sensational and demeaning reviews have surfaced. Such criticism forecloses the intersectionality of race, gender and class that placed limitations on Rhys’s personal negotiations with regard to agency. Like so many women of colour, her narrative had been heavily mediated; her career mentored dangerously from the margins by a white male whose cultural entitlement was utterly assured. Madox Ford used the language of colonial stereotypes to suggest primitivism in her prose, praising its ‘singular instinct for form’; he describes her ‘passion’ and her ‘passionate’ writing repeatedly in his preface to The Left Bank. From the outset, it seems, Jean Rhys fell victim to European assumptions that a hybrid female from the colonies sullied the standards implicit in cultural propriety.
Despite the ad hominems that have targeted the Rhys persona and her fraught position in society, Wide Sargasso Sea remains one of the seminal works in postcolonial fiction.
Yet despite the ad hominems that have targeted the Rhys persona and her fraught position in society, Wide Sargasso Sea remains one of the seminal works in postcolonial fiction. It is no surprise that the novel has been twice adapted for film as well as for BBC TV serialisation. Rhys’s prose has an uncanny cinematic appeal: the Paris-based novel Quartet was also adapted for screenplay – by Ruth Prawer Jhabvaler in 1981.
But perhaps the quality of Rhys’s prose which is most arresting in Wide Sargasso Sea is recalled by the Walcott poem: the sense of its long gestation, its arduous and magnificent novelisation of distinct, dramatic voices, their racial differences mapping an unspeakable story of abjection, madness, misogyny and love. These themes are manifest in the struggles Rhys experienced during her life, struggles which enhanced rather than reduced her skill as a novelist.
Jean Rhys’s great achievement was to realise a voice and a form for this contingency – recovering from the feminist literary canon’s historical ashes the fully embodied Creole subject of Antoinette Cosway.