When Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 she was 75 years old, the same age as Bob Dylan is now. Unlike Dylan, though, Rhys had not been celebrated by all – or even any – sectors of the cultural establishment. After spending the best part of two decades secluded, forgotten and largely unread, Rhys resurfaced with a text that would secure her place in the canons of a discipline, postcolonial studies, that had not yet been invented. But what is it about Wide Sargasso Sea that makes it so compelling?
One easy answer to that question is, of course, that it deals – cleverly, expertly, subtly – with a favourite classic of English literature: Jane Eyre. Borrowing for a moment from a musical metaphor – this week, it feels, all barriers have been suspended – Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is to Bronte’s original what Gun’s N Roses’ cover of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ was to Dylan’s anthem: a brilliant adaptation that is faithful to the essence of the original yet combines it with a foreign, almost outlandish element (the Caribbean on the one hand, Slash on the other) to make it relevant to the modern times.
Evocative as it might be, however, this answer is hopelessly insufficient because it fails to account for the most original and significant aspect of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’ own conception of literature as the cauldron where reality and imagination meet to create a separate entity.
The Weight of Reality
Family lore, history, literary tradition, memory, all these elements find their confluence in Wide Sargasso Sea, a text whose internal balance is in constant dialogue with external factors that ultimately dictate the direction of the narrative. Despite placing the action in Jamaica in 1839, immediately after the abolition of slavery, Rhys’ novel drifts in and out of the landscape of her own childhood memories in Dominica at the turn of the twentieth century. This is evident from the very first page, where we learn that the Cosways’ estate is called Coulibri – the French word for hummingbird, a perfectly plausible name for a plantation in St Kitts, St Lucia or indeed Dominica, but certainly not in Jamaica.
While clearly circumstantial, this detail reveals how soft the boundaries are between the spaces of fiction and memory in Rhys’ mind. This tendency is recurrent in the rest of the novel and indeed in the entirety of the author’s literary work. In her modernist novels from the thirties Rhys never fully detaches her fiction from her real-life experiences, creating a hybrid space where the two are in continuous interaction. In this respect, Paris plays a special role in her early literary production as the setting both of her troubled extra-marital relationship with Ford Maddox Ford and of her novels, all of which draw from this traumatic experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in Good Morning, Midnight, where Paris becomes a city “saturated with the past…all the hotel rooms I’ve ever slept in. All the streets I’ve ever walked in.”
The weight of reality always presides over Rhys’ work, regardless of the narrative devices she uses to give the illusion of mobility between fact and fiction, present and past, time and space. Hence, as Wide Sargasso Sea moves forward – closer to the realm of Jane Eyre – the dynamics that blend memory and fiction in the first part of the novel become problematised by the superposition of a wider context which conditions the reader’s response to the events narrated. It is ironic that the reality that restricts the freedom of the characters in Wide Sargasso Sea belongs precisely to another work of fiction, Jane Eyre – but for the purposes of the novel the source of that “reality” makes absolutely no difference.
Rochester and Antoinette inhabit different dimensions, to the point where their worldviews are diametrically opposed. When Antoinette asks Rochester if it’s true that England is like a dream, instead of being amused he seems insulted by the question. It transpires that to him what seems like a dream is the West Indies, to which Antoinette asks, “But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?” His answer displays perfectly the size of the impasse reached by their contrasting worldviews: “How can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?” Thus, it becomes apparent that though in Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys matches the destinies of two outcasts, of two others, they still fail to find enough common ground to build a shared existence.
The Fabric of Literature
As soon as the decision is made to travel to England Rochester assumes the dominant position, dooming Antoinette to the miserable existence given to Bertha Mason by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre. Before that, however, Rhys transports the setting of her novel to a different island which is never named but can quite easily be identified with Dominica, the physical location of her childhood memories. This allows Rhys the privilege of her own insight in the development of her female protagonist, Antoinette, a blameless member of the minority ruling class in an environment where she is never allowed to feel comfortable.
But Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t only about Antoinette, it is also about Rochester – which is why Rhys’ first-person narration alternates between the two. This results in a bi-polar but reasonably balanced situation: Antoinette, laden with the weight of Rhys’ childhood experience, stands in direct contraposition to Rochester, burdened with the expectations of a patriarchal society. Yet, during their honeymoon, in the nameless never-never land of fiction, far from the oppressive reality of their respective surroundings, they find the freedom necessary (“Here I can do as I like,” they tell each other) to weave a brief episode of careless mirth.
In her earlier writing Rhys is at times more adventurous, more original, even more ambitious than in Wide Sargasso Sea, but nowhere does she manage to combine imagination and rigorousness more successfully than in the second part of her last novel. Therein lies, perhaps, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this piece, and with it her greatest literary accomplishment.
 The omniscient narrator in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie says of Julia, “her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination”. A perfectly fit description of any of Rhys’ protagonists, and by extension of their very author.
Commissioned by the TLS online. Abridged version published in the TLS online on December 2, 2016. Full version later published in talking humanities on January 10, 2017.
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