When Jean Rhys’ last novel Wide Sargasso Sea was first published, back in 1966, the concept of postcolonialism was still in its infancy, its application restricted to historical or at best sociological concerns rather than to art or literature. And yet, when it came, right in the thick of the sixties, it resounded so loudly we are still speaking about it today.
Back then the world of art and music and literature was already deep into a process of transformation that would shift its center of gravity: in Spain, the influence of transgressive Latin American writers had topped the sales charts in all bookshops with works such as Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963) and Vargas Llosa’s The Green House (1966); in Britain, the emergence of Caribbean writers did not have the same sort of commercial success, though the long-term effects of works such as Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1958) and Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) turned out to be monumental; similar diversification trends dominated American culture too, though we now know—we’ve just had it confirmed by the Nobel Committee—that the main conduit of the countercurrent, the form that most vividly captured the essence of that generation, was music, Dylan’s music of course, but also Hendrix’s and Baez’s and so many others’ who spontaneously and seemingly out of the blue began to speak for the exploited, the underdog, the outsider, the Other.
In some sense, then, life had gone full circle for Rhys. Born in Roseau, Dominica, in 1890 to a relatively prosperous white family, Ella Rees Williams was sent to England at the age of sixteen. Though she never again lived in the Caribbean, throughout her tumultuous time in mainland Europe, as a bohemian artist in Paris and Vienna in the twenties and thirties, Jean Rhys always counted among the eccentric, the impudent, the exotic. Her first incursion in the Paris literary scene in the inter-war years proved desperately unsuccessful, despite the fact that her collection of short stories The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927), and her four early novels were relative warmly received by the critics. But they simply did not sell. Her last attempt, an experimental novel titled Good Morning, Midnight (1938) in which she put forward her own interpretation of stream-of-consciousness and the notion of relativity, came out just months before the break of World War II. Once that cataclysmic hiatus in the history of western civilization was over Rhys was no longer in continental Europe, nor was she writing much. It would take almost twenty years until the BBC revived an earlier idea to produce Good Morning, Midnight as a radio play. By then, Rhys was living in seclusion in Devon, almost completely unread, forgotten.
At the time, Rhys had been working on her memoirs, and she had also grown obsessed with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Her sudden reacquaintance with the literary world spurred her to embark on a new novel—a prequel of Jane Eyre, in which the background story of Rochester is blended with her own experience to recreate the world of Bertha, Bronte’s “madwoman in the attic.” The result is Wide Sargasso Sea, a beautifully crafted piece of fiction that doubles up as an early form of fan fiction, a wonderful work of metaliterature and a seminal title in the discipline that would come to be known as postcolonial studies.
The plot of Wide Sargasso Sea follows the life of Antoinette Cosway, the eldest daughter of a white widow and landowner in Jamaica. The protagonist’s childhood is marked by the resentment felt by the black population towards her and her family in the days immediately after the abolition of slavery. Faced with utter despondency, Antoinette’s family is saved when her mother marries Richard Mason, a well-off English bachelor recently arrived in Jamaica looking for a wife. But things still get worse before they get better because even if respectability is restored to Coulibri, their family plantation, with the injection of funds brought by Richard Mason, with it too comes renewed hatred from the local population. So much so that one night the estate is set ablaze and the Masons are forced to run for their lives before the watchful eyes of a group of locals. Neither Antoinette’s mother’s hysteria nor the death of her little brother Pierre can bring the congregation of onlookers to disperse—only the sight of the family’s pet parrot burning frightens the superstitious crowd. Antoinette loses her brother in the fire, and her mother starts losing her mind, but her life is somewhat regularized as soon as she is sent to boarding school. When the time comes for her to be married she is introduced to Edward Rochester, the second son of a wealthy English landowner who is attracted to her considerable dowry. Their relationship, however, collapses even before they leave the West Indies.
Wide Sargasso Sea provides a fascinating exploration of the world of the Other by adopting the first person from the perspective of both Antoinette and Edward alternately, giving the reader an insight into the personality of both characters. This results in a bi-polar situation where their worldviews stand in direct contraposition to each other. Nevertheless, by carefully describing a setting in which Antoinette has never been accepted, or even comfortable, Rhys sets up a reasonably balanced scenario which favours neither protagonist. As the narrative continues, the patently differing worlds of Edward and Antoinette become more and more distant, to the point where they prove irreconcilable. Thus, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys matches the destinies of two outcasts, of two Others, who nonetheless fail to find any common ground to build a shared existence. In the relatively neutral middle ground of Dominica, Antoinette finds the tools to fight against Edward, but as soon as the decision is made to return to England Edward assumes the dominant position, to the point where he refers to Antoinette by the name of Bertha, simply because “it’s a name I’m particularly fond of.” By then, Antoinette is already doomed to the miserable existence given to Bertha Mason by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre.
Wide Sargasso Sea is much more than just a clever take on a previous classic. Rhys’ most celebrated book is the culmination of years, decades, in the business of observing others and relating their stories in novel ways. But Wide Sargasso Sea is also the product of a lifetime lived in at times willful but often also imposed alienation—a condition that would be shared by many millions long after the author’s death. Therein lies, precisely, the great value of Rhys’ minor (and harmless) obsession with Bertha Mason, and indeed perhaps the greatest value of fiction altogether: conjuring up a world of fantasy and illusion, literature can not only explain real life, it can actually presage future developments well in advance. Wide Sargasso Sea not only foreshadows postcolonialism, it also provides a clear diagnosis for the malaise of uprootedness that has become symptomatic of a world in which infinite connectivity has resulted in an unbridgeable chasm of incongruity. In a way we are all either Bertha or Rochester, which is why Wide Sargasso Sea remains poignantly relevant even half a century after it was published. Nor do I see it growing old anytime soon.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint MAarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday December 3, 2016.