When Wide Sargasso Sea, her last novel, was published, Jean Rhys (24 August 1890 – 14 May 1979) was described in The New York Times as the greatest living novelist. Such praise is overstated, but Rhys’s fiction, long overlooked by academic critics, is undergoing a revival spurred by feminist studies. Rhys played a noteworthy role in the French Left Bank literary scene in the 1920’s, and between 1927 and 1939, she published four substantial novels and a number of jewel-like short stories. Although she owes her current reputation in large measure to the rising interest in female writers and feminist themes, her work belongs more properly with the masters of literary impressionism: Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. She began to publish her writing under the encouragement of her intimate friend Ford Madox Ford, and she continued to write in spite of falling out of favor with his circle. As prizes and honors came to her in her old age after the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, it must have given her grim satisfaction to realize that she had attained entirely by her own efforts a position as a writer at least equal to that of her erstwhile friends.
Jean Rhys’s first novel, Quartet, reflects closely her misadventures with Ford Madox Ford. The heroine, Marya Zelli, whose husband is in prison, moves in with the rich and respectable Hugh and Lois Heidler. Hugh becomes Marya’s lover, while Lois punishes her with petty cruelties. The central figure is a woman alone, penniless, exploited, and an outsider. In her next novel, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, the central figure, Julia Martin, breaks off with her rich lover, Mr. Mackenzie, and finds herself financially desperate. Voyage in the Dark tells the story of Anna Morgan, who arrives in England from the West Indies as an innocent young girl, has her first affair as a chorus girl, and descends through a series of shorter and shorter affairs to working for a masseuse. In Good Morning, Midnight, the alcoholic Sasha Jensen, penniless in Paris, remembers episodes from her past which have brought her to this sorry pass. All four of these novels show a female character subject to financial, sexual, and social domination by men and “respectable” society. In all cases, the heroine is passive, but “sentimental.” The reader is interested in her feelings, rather than in her ideas and accomplishments. She is alienated economically from any opportunity to do meaningful and justly rewarding work. She is an alien socially, either from a foreign and despised colonial culture or from a marginally respectable social background. She is literally an alien or foreigner in Paris and London, which are cities of dreadful night for her. What the characters fear most is the final crushing alienation from their true identities, the reduction to some model or type imagined by a foreign man. They all face the choice of becoming someone’s gamine, garçonne, or femme fatale, or of starving to death, and they all struggle against this loss of personal identity. After a silence of more than twenty years, Rhys returned to these same concerns in her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea. While the four early novels are to a large degree autobiographical, Wide Sargasso Sea has a more literary origin, although it, too, reflects details from the author’s personal life.
Wide Sargasso Sea
Wide Sargasso Sea requires a familiarity with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). In Brontë’s novel, Jane is prevented from marrying Rochester by the presence of a madwoman in the attic, his insane West Indian wife who finally perishes in the fire which she sets, burning Rochester’s house and blinding him, but clearing the way for Jane to wed him. The madwoman in Jane Eyre is depicted entirely from the exterior. It is natural that the mad West Indian wife, when seen only through the eyes of her English rival and of Rochester, appears completely hideous and depraved. Indeed, when Jane first sees the madwoman in chapter 16 of the novel, she cannot tell whether it is a beast or a human being groveling on all fours. Like a hyena with bloated features, the madwoman attacks Rochester in this episode.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a sympathetic account of the life of Rochester’s mad wife, ranging from her childhood in the West Indies, her Creole and Catholic background, and her courtship and married years with the deceitful Rochester, to her final descent into madness and captivity in England. Clearly, the predicament of the West Indian wife resembles that of Rhys herself in many ways. In order to present the alien wife’s case, she has written a “counter-text,” an extension of Brontë’s novel filling in the “missing” testimony, the issues over which Brontë glosses.
Wide Sargasso Sea consists of two parts. Part 1 is narrated by the girl growing up in Jamaica who is destined to become Rochester’s wife. The Emancipation Act has just been passed (the year of that imperial edict was 1833) and the blacks on the island are passing through a period of so-called apprenticeship which should lead to their complete freedom in 1837. This is a period of racial tension and anxiety for the privileged colonial community. Fear of black violence runs high, and no one knows exactly what will happen to the landholders once the blacks are emancipated. The girlish narrator lives in the interface between the privileged white colonists and the blacks. Although a child of landowners, she is impoverished, clinging to European notions of respectability, and in constant fear. She lives on the crumbling estate of her widowed mother. Her closest associate is Christophine, a Martinique obeah woman, or Voodoo witch. When her mother marries Mr. Mason, the family’s lot improves temporarily, until the blacks revolt, burning their country home, Coulibri, and killing her half-witted brother. She then attends a repressive Catholic school in town, where her kindly colored “cousin” Sandi protects her from more hostile blacks.
Part 2 is narrated by the young Rochester on his honeymoon with his bride to her country home. Wherever appropriate, Rhys follows the details of Brontë’s story. Rochester reveals that his marriage was merely a financial arrangement. After an uneasy period of passion, Rochester’s feelings for his bride begin to cool. He receives a letter of denunciation accusing her of misbehavior with Sandi and revealing that madness runs in the family. To counter Rochester’s growing hostility, the young bride goes to her former companion, the obeah woman Christophine, for a love potion. The nature of the potion is that it can work for one night only. Nevertheless, she administers it to her husband. His love now dead, she is torn from her native land, transported to a cruel and loveless England, and maddeningly confined. Finally, she takes candle in hand to fire Rochester’s house in suicidal destruction.
In Brontë’s novel, the character of the mad wife is strangely blank, a vacant slot in the story. Her presence is essential, and she must be fearfully hateful, so that Jane Eyre has no qualms about taking her place in Rochester’s arms, but the novel tells the reader almost nothing else about her. Rhys fills in this blank, fleshing out the character, making her live on a par with Jane herself. After all, Brontë tells the reader a great deal about Jane’s painful childhood and education; why should Rhys not supply the equivalent information about her dark rival?
It is not unprecedented for a writer to develop a fiction from another writer’s work. For example, T. H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) imagines that some of Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians were transported to England, escaped captivity, and established a thriving colony in an abandoned English garden, where they are discovered by an English schoolgirl. Her intrusion into their world is a paradigm of British colonial paternalism, finally overcome by the intelligence and good feeling of the girl. This charming story depends on Swift’s fiction, but the relationship of White’s work to Swift’s is completely different from the relationship of Rhys’s work to Brontë’s. Rhys’s fiction permanently alters one’s understanding of Jane Eyre. Approaching Brontë’s work after Rhys’s, one is compelled to ask such questions as, “Why is Jane so uncritical of Rochester?” and, “How is Jane herself like the madwoman in the attic?” Rhys’s fiction reaches into the past and alters Brontë’s novel.
Rhys’s approach in Wide Sargasso Sea was also influenced by FordMadox Ford and, through Ford, Joseph Conrad. In the autumn of 1924, when Rhys first met Ford, he was writing Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance. Some thirty years earlier, when Joseph Conrad was just beginning his career as a writer, his agent had introduced him to Ford in hopes that they could work in collaboration, since Conrad wrote English (a language he had adopted only as an adult) with great labor. Ford and Conrad produced The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903) as coauthors. During their years of association, Ford had some hand in the production of several works usually considered Conrad’s sole effort, although it has never been clear to what degree Ford participated in the creation of the fiction of Conrad’s middle period. About 1909, after Ford’s disreputable ways had become increasingly offensive to Conrad’s wife, the two men parted ways. Immediately after Conrad’s death in 1924, however, Ford rushed into print his memoir of the famous author. His memoir of Conrad is fictionalized and hardly to be trusted as an account of their association in the 1890’s, but it sheds a great deal of light on what Ford thought about writing fiction in 1924, when he was beginning his powerful Tietjens tetralogy and working for the first time with Rhys. Ford claimed that he and Conrad invented literary impressionism in English. Impressionist fiction characteristically employs limited and unreliable narration, follows a flow of associated ideas leaping freely in time and space, aims to render the impression of a scene vividly so as to make the reader see it as if it were before his eyes, and artfully selects and juxtaposes seemingly unrelated scenes and episodes so that the reader must construct the connections and relationships that make the story intelligible. These are the stylistic features of Rhys’s fiction, as well as of Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915), Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
An “affair”—the mainspring of the plot in an impressionist novel—is some shocking or puzzling event which has already occurred when the story begins. The reader knows what has happened, but he does not understand fully why and how it happened. The story proceeds in concentric rings of growing complication as the reader finds something he thought clear-cut becoming more and more intricate. In Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900), the affair is the scandalous abandonment of the pilgrim ship by the English sailor. In The Good Soldier, it is the breakup of the central foursome, whose full infidelity and betrayal are revealed only gradually. Brontë’s Jane Eyre provided Rhys with an impressionist “affair” in the scene in which the mad West Indian wife burns Rochester’s house, blinding him and killing herself. Like Conrad’s Marlow, the storyteller who sits on the veranda mulling over Jim’s curious behavior, or The Good Soldier’s narrator Dowell musing about the strange behavior of Edward Ashburnham, Rhys takes up the affair of Rochester and reworks it into ever richer complications, making the initial judgments in Jane Eyre seem childishly oversimplified. “How can Jane simply register relief that the madwoman is burned out of her way? There must be more to the affair than that,” the secondary fiction suggests.
One of the most important features of literary impressionism is the highly constructive activity which it demands of the reader. In a pointillist painting, small dots of primary colors are set side by side. At a certain distance from the canvas, these merge on the retina of the eye of the viewer into colors and shapes which are not, in fact, drawn on the canvas at all. The painting is constructed in the eyes of each viewer with greater luminosity than it would have were it drawn explicitly. In order to create such a shimmering haze in fiction, Ford advises the use of a limited point of view which gives the reader dislocated fragments of remembered experience. The reader must struggle constantly to fit these fragments into a coherent pattern. The tools for creating such a verbal collage are limited, “unreliable” narration, psychological time-shifts, and juxtaposition. Ford observes that two apparently unrelated events can be set side by side so that the reader will perceive their connection with far greater impact than if the author had stated such a connection openly. Ford advises the impressionist author to create a verbal collage by unexpected selection and juxtaposition, and Wide Sargasso Sea makes such juxtapositions on several levels. On the largest scale, Wide Sargasso Sea is juxtaposed with Jane Eyre, so that the two novels read together mean much more than when they are read independently. This increase of significance is what Ford called the “unearned increment” in impressionist art. Within Wide Sargasso Sea, part 1 (narrated by the West Indian bride) and part 2 (narrated by Rochester) likewise mean more in juxtaposition than when considered separately. Throughout the text, the flow of consciousness of the storytellers cunningly shifts in time tojuxtapose details which mean more together than they would in isolation.
Because Wide Sargasso Sea demands a highly constructive reader, it is, like The Good Soldier or Heart of Darkness, an open fiction. When the reader completes Jane Eyre, the mystery of Rochester’s house has been revealed and purged, the madwoman in the attic has been burned out, and Jane will live, the reader imagines, happily ever after. Jane Eyre taken in isolation is a closed fiction. Reading Wide Sargasso Sea in juxtaposition to Jane Eyre, however, opens the latter and poses questions which are more difficult to resolve: Is Jane likely to be the next woman in the attic? Why is a cripple a gratifying mate for Jane? At what price is her felicity purchased?
The Doppelgänger, twin, or shadow-character runs throughout Rhys’s fiction. All of her characters seem to be split personalities. There is a public role, that of the approved “good girl,” which each is expected to play, and there is the repressed, rebellious “bad girl” lurking inside. If the bad girl can be hidden, the character is rewarded with money, love, and social position. Yet the bad girl will sometimes put in an appearance, when the character drinks too much or gets excited or angry. When the dark girl appears, punishment follows, swift and sure. This is the case with Marya Zelli in Quartet, Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Anna Morgan in Voyage in the Dark, and Sasha Jensen in Good Morning, Midnight. It is also the case in Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The education of Jane Eyre consists of repressing those dark, selfish impulses that Victorian society maintained “good little girls” should never feel. Jane succeeds in stamping out her “bad” self through a stiff British education, discipline, and self-control. She kills her repressed identity, conforms to society’s expectations, and gets her reward—a crippled husband and a burned-out house. Rhys revives the dark twin, shut up in the attic, the naughty, wild, dark, selfish, bestial female. She suggests that the struggle between repressed politeness and unrepressed self-interest is an ongoing process in which total repression means the death of a woman’s identity.
Principal long fiction
Postures, 1928 (pb. in U.S. as Quartet, 1929); After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, 1930; Voyage in the Dark, 1934; Good Morning, Midnight, 1939; Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966.
Other major works
Sort Fiction: The Left Bank and Other Stories, 1927; Tigers Are Better-Looking, 1968; Sleep It Off, Lady, 1976; The Collected Short Stories, 1987.
Nonfiction: Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, 1979; The Letters of Jean Rhys, 1984 (also known as Jean Rhys: Letters, 1931-1966).
Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.
Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Harrison, Nancy R. Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women’s Text. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander, and David Malcolm. Jean Rhys: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996.
Staley, Thomas. Jean Rhys: A Critical Study. London: Macmillan, 1979.