Before I begin my post on Wide Sargasso Sea I must make a preliminary statement.
Normally I see the life of an author as sort of an interesting side note, not as a central part of our understanding of a book. I still firmly believe this but I will talk a bit more on Jean Rhys as a person because I think there are important things to be learned from the fusing of her life and work.
Wide Sargasso Sea is set in the late 1830s to early 1840s. The work is a kind of prequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847). The book is the story of the first Mrs Rochester, the one who winds up as a mad woman. More than this it is a story of colonialism, relationships between blacks and whites on the island, of men to women, of Europe to its cast off children, of order to chaos. It is a story of how growing up in a place of wild beauty shapes people. It is about life on a small island and the sense of place that can produce. It is about patterns of speech. Never have I see the spoken words of slavery era people of African descent conveyed in a more beautiful fashion. (I do not know if the speech patterns and dialect in the book are accurate.) It is about love, passion and beauty.
The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, "Because she pretty like pretty self".
Slaves have just been emancipated. The creoles (as the white residents of the island were called at the time) were to be paid a fee by the British government for their slaves, about half the then market value.
She was my father's second wife, far too young for him they thought...When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told us that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was bad and road repairing was now a thing of the past.
The economy was based on sugar plantations which were not at the time an economically viable enterprise without slave labor. The former slaves had no way off the island and no where to go. Many never in fact left the service of their former owners but we do see the changing dynamics of power. In the 1830s there were five classes of people. The largest class were freed slaves. The second class were people of mixed heritage. The narrator Antoinette (of two of the three sections of the book) tells us of the many different terms by which people could be designated by the balance of their racial heritage. The third group were people of English background whose ancestors arrived after the advent of slavery on the island. Before there were slaves on the island it was largely populated by transported convicts and indentured servants. With the introduction of the sugar plantations, it was became viable as an economic enterprise to import slaves. The descendants of the first white occupants of the island were commonly called "white cockroaches". There were also still carib people on the island, though their cultural identity was lost. Antoinette was a descendant of pre-slavery days whites.
Above all else Wide Sargasso Sea is about beauty and our ability experience it.
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible--the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were over grown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell...Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus flower--then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.
Let us take a second and ponder over this incredible prose. The island smells of new life and death in the same breath. There is great beauty there but we cannot really touch it. There is a pervasive evil in this garden. Is the snake colonialism and slavery? Maybe the snake has a name, Mr Rochester. But this would be too easy. Rhys is going very deep with this. The snake is old and slavery is as old as man but the snake is also wise and slavery is not. Imagine the heroine of an English novel of the 1840 comparing an orchid to an octopus. When the flower blooms its tentacles do not show. The tentacles are still there. There is deep passion in Antoinette to be able to respond to a flower so deeply. Imagine her misery in the moors. Why does she never go near the flower when it blooms? This book has more questions than answers (we can learn more from a good question than a good answer). The prose in the book is as beautiful as the octopus orchid. It has tentacles to take us in. The book smells of beauty but it knows the price this island paid for its beauty. Like the garden, you sense beauty and death as a pair.
The novel is divided into three sections. Part one is narrated by Antoinette, know as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. The reason for the name change is explained as the narration proceeds. My reaction to the names is to see Antoinette as a free spirit, perhaps not quite in tune with reality. Bertha is a grinder of hoe cakes. (This me only maybe). Part two is told from the point of view of her husband, Mr Rochester while they live together as man and wife on the island.
We hear her husband speak of her after a month of marriage.
She held up the skirt of her riding habit and ran across the street. I watched her critically. She wore a tricorne hat which became her. At least it shadowed her eyes which are too large and can be disconcerting. She never blinks at all it seems to me. Long, sad, dark, alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either. And when did I begin to notice all this about my wife Antoinette? After we left Spanish Town I supposed.
Compare this for a second to the passage from the thoughts of the wife I quoted earlier. Her description of the flowers is overwhelmingly sensual while recasting the experience in a way that sees quickly into the depths of her mythic consciousness. In the prose of Rochester we see the Imperial style of the colonialist, school master approved prose. There is talk of Zombies and Obeah all of which very much confuses Mr Rochester. Here is a conversation he has with an elderly black man, and ex-slave now a servant:
"Is there a ghost, a zombi there, I persisted."
"Dont know nothing about such foolishness"
It was nearly dark when we were on back on the red clay path. He walked more slowly, turned and smiled to me. It was as if he's put his service mask on the savage reproachful face I had seen.This is a very rich book. The patterns of speech are so exquisite. Here is a passage in which Antoinette is seeking advice from a former slave woman about her marriage.
All women, all colours, nothing but fools. Three children I have. One living in this world, each one a different father, but no husband, I thank my God. I keep my money. I don't give it to no worthless man...But look me trouble, a rich white girl like you and you more foolish than the rest. A man don't treat you good, pick up your skirt and walk out. Do it and he come after you.
Stop for a second here. "Three children I have" is real, speech from the depths. "I have three children", the speech of the colonial master. "But look me trouble" compacts several paragraphs worth of Victorian era prose into four words. Mr Rochester and the other English born whites are annoyed by what they call the ignorant speech patterns of the former slaves and the deeply rooted creoles. They lack the ability to see the speech patterns of the islanders have roots as least deep as theirs.
Part three of the novel is narrated by Bertha while she is living in England in the mansion of Mr Rochester. She has chosen to take the use the name "Bertha" and the narration is through her stream of consciousness. As the novel proceeds we see her descent into madness.
I must say again the prose is incredibly beautiful. Wide Sargasso Sea seems like a wild garden gone back to riot but it is as carefully wrought as The Good Soldier or A Sentimental Education. There is a tie, in my mind, to the earliest works of Kenzaburo Oe to Wide Sargasso Sea. Here is what I said in writing on Oe's The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears:
There is a long established literary tradition of using the insane to say what cannot be accepted by those in fully sunlit worlds. The narrator of The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears has very deep roots in western culture. His ancestors were in the plays of Euripides, his great grandfather was Dostoevsky's underground man, he speaks through Crazy Jane. Oe has stated that he has come to understand the meaning of his own works through reading the poetry of William Butler Yeats.
Now I will add Antoinette of Wide Sargasso Sea to this ancestry.
In her quite brilliant introduction Angela Smith by a marvelous coincidence (proverbs for paranoids-there are no coincidences) cites Edward Said in his book Culture and Imperialism as stating that classic realist fiction develops in Europe in the 19th century because the power to narrate or block other narratives from forming and emerging is a way of asserting cultural superiority. Culture and Imperialism is often referenced by Oe as profound analysis of colonialism and the western world's creation of the other in Asian countries. It is interesting to me to note that Oe's very first works are written in a style unlike Victorian narratives. As he got older and more educated in a western fashion (he studied French Literature and wrote his dissertation on Sarte) his form became more like the Victorian novel. We can see in the very different narrative presentation in the parts of the book told by Antoinette, Mr Rochester and lastly Bertha exactly how the notion of acceptable narrative style and speech controls. Parts of the work do mirror the forms and diction of a Victorian novel, other parts are quite other from this.
Here is a description of the later years of Rhys from a good short biography of her I found on line
From 1939 to 1957 Rhys dropped from public attention. Having divorced Lenglet in 1933, she married in 1934 Leslie Tilden-Smith, an editor; he died in 1945. Two years later she married his cousin Max Hamer, a solicitor, who had served a prison term and spent much of their marriage in jail. He died in 1966. With her second husband Rhys retired to Devonshire in 1939. She lived for many years in the West Country, often in great poverty, avoiding literary circles. In 1949 Rhys was arrested for assaulting her neighbors and the police.
Rhys herself was thought to be dead, but after a radio company became interested in her work, she returned to publicity. Her novel Good Morning, Midnight was adapted by the actress Selma Vaz Dias for the BBC. Encouraged by Francis Wyndham, Rhys started to write again, and her short stories were published in the London Magazine and Art and Letters. Rhys continued to live alone in her primitive Devon cottage at Cheriton FitzPaine, drinking heavily but still writing.
There is a recent biography of Ms Rhys, The Blue Hour:A Life of Jean Rhys by Lillian Pizzichini that has gotten good reviews on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com. I hope to read it once it is out in paperback.
I somehow imagined Ms Rhys making her way to a seat in the literary Pantheon. I imagine the Brontes inviting her for tea but wondering if Father would approve of her. I can see Junichiro Tanizaki knocking Ford Madox Ford over as he rushes over to greet her. Henry James looks very puzzled. Flaubert knows of the places she worked at in Paris (in her demi-monde period) and suggests she have dinner with Turgenev, who will, of course, pick up the costs. Walt Whitman keeps wanting to call it "The Wild Sargosso Sea." Tolstoy asks if it is near the Caspian Sea. Hemingway asks her if she prefers Scotch or Gin? Of course she wants a Rum and coke. Proust offers her his chair and makes a mental note to ask Flaubert what a demi-monde does? Chekhov says "you know I am a doctor so should you need a physical please call me".
I endorse this book as much as I can-teachers should note that it does use language that is no longer acceptable-