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To Determine the True Victim, Give the Mad First Wife a Backstory Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea

The path that led Jean Rhys to write the masterly Wide Sargasso Sea after decades of literary silence is unlikely, to put it mildly, and it deserves a novel in itself.

Born in Roseau, Dominica, in 1894 to a Welsh doctor and Creole woman, Rhys (whose real name was Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams) moved to England to study at the Perse School in Cambridge at the age of sixteen. She showed promise in the dramatic arts, and she spent a year studying at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Bloomsbury. After her father’s death, though, she was forced to leave the school and seek work as a model and a chorus girl.

In 1919, she married a struggling Dutch poet and moved to Paris, where she slipped comfortably into the Bohemian Left Bank crowd. Despite the fertile surroundings, she had no literary aspirations of her own until a friend asked for writing samples. Rhys gave the friend some diary entries, and the friend worked them over and showed them to Ford Madox Ford, who was then editing The Transatlantic Review.

Ford saw promise in the writing samples, and he took Rhys under his wing—even bringing her into his house while her husband served a short prison term. Perhaps inevitably, Ford also began an affair with her, and the outcome can be pieced together from thinly disguised fiction written by Rhys, Ford and his ‘wife,’ Stella Bowen. (Ford was only legally married once, to a woman who refused to divorce him, but he had long-term relationships with three other women whom he would, each in turn, consider his wife.)

Under Ford’s guidance, Rhys’s finely crafted novels and stories began appearing in print in the 1920s. She slipped from the public eye after sales tapered off in the 1930s, though, and she was even believed dead before the writer and critic Francis Wyndham re-discovered her in the 1960s.

Wide Sargasso Sea’s publication in 1966 helped resurrect Rhys’s literary reputation—and her career. Tigers Are Better-looking appeared in 1968, and it was followed by a strong short story collection, Sleep It Off, Lady, in 1976. In the wake of her renaissance, she received several awards and was even made a CBE before her death in 1979 at the age of eighty-four.

Rhys’s work consistently shows strong craftsmanship and poetic style, but Wide Sargasso Sea is her best effort. And as a ‘prequel’ to Jane Eyre, it’s certainly the novel with the best hook: in a series of first-person narratives, Rhys explores at length the childhood and early adulthood of Rochester’s first wife, ‘the madwoman in the attic.’

In Charlotte Brontë’s novel (published in 1847), the mad wife is a gothic monster, acting variously as a ghostly apparition, Jane’s would-be murderer and a legal impediment to Jane and Rochester’s marriage. With the exception of her brother’s relatively brief appearance, she stands largely without a backstory to explain or assuage her madness, and while Brontë’s Victorian readers may have found her presentation acceptable, most modern readers will probably find the novel strangely cold and indifferent to her plight.

It’s therefore especially fascinating to read Wide Sargasso Sea in conjunction with Jane Eyre—Rhys’s book reads almost like an antidote to the most ‘objectionable’ elements of Brontë’s work. Indeed, so close is the connection between the two that Rhys’s novel doesn’t completely work in isolation from Brontë’s novel but instead requires the reader to approach Jane Eyre to finish the tale. (Which book one begins with colors the combined reading experience dramatically, of course.)

In his preface to Rhys’s first book, The Left Bank, Ford presciently noted in her work “a terrifying instinct and a terrific—almost lurid!—passion for stating the case of the underdog.” In Rhys’s account, Rochester’s mad wife becomes the ultimate underdog, struggling against racism, colonialism and chauvinism—along with Rhys’s abiding terrors, loneliness and alienation—with admirable courage. Not surprisingly, in Rhys’s hands, Rochester himself comes out of it looking far less appealing than Jane would find him a few years hence; indeed, some readers might not even recognize Brontë’s darkly brooding character at first glance.

It’s not difficult to see Wide Sargasso Sea and its protagonist’s fate in Jane Eyre as a veiled autobiography: the Creole / English girl travels from a life of loneliness and alienation in the West Indies to an even more bitter (and lurid) life of loneliness and alienation in England. But it’s Rhys’s writing style—stunningly sensual and mellifluous yet pared-down and immediate—that ultimately makes Wide Sargasso Sea so powerful, I think. Consider the music and concision in this small scene in which the future Mrs. Rochester recalls the nights she spent as a child with one of her family’s servants:


When evening came she sang to me if she was in the mood. I couldn’t always understand her patois songs—she also came from Martinique—but she taught me the one that meant ‘The little ones grow old, the children leave us, will they come back?’ and the one about the cedar-tree flowers which only last for a day.

The music was gay but the words were sad and her voice often quavered and broke on the high note. ‘Adieu.’ Not adieu as we said it, but à dieu, which made more sense after all. The loving man lonely, the girl was deserted, the children never came back. Adieu.


That the prose is so tightly—even brilliantly—controlled is especially impressive, given Rhys’s own difficulties controlling her own life. Her twin obsessions, she said, were writing and drinking, and she had no room in her life for much else. (Her first child died of pneumonia in a hospital while Rhys and her husband got drunk in their apartment, and her daughter, born three years later, was boarded in places remote from her mother throughout her childhood.) Ford’s wife Stella wrote that Rhys was


a really tragic person…She had a needle-quick intelligence and a good sort of emotional honesty, but she was a doomed soul, violent and demoralised. She had neither the wish nor the capacity to tackle practical difficulties…[she] showed us an underworld of darkness and disorder, where officialdom, the bourgeoisie and the police were the eternal enemies…and was well acquainted with every rung of the long and dismal ladder by which the respectable citizen descended towards degradation…It taught me that the only really unbridgeable gulf in human society is between the financially solvent and the destitute. You can’t have self-respect without money. You can’t even have the luxury of a personality.


That the reader of Wide Sargasso Sea would never guess its author’s own dire difficulties in the face of its supreme authorial control is certainly a testament to Rhys’s writing prowess. In print, at least, she could control that underworld of darkness and disorder.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted August 1, 2004



About the Author

Jean Rhys (1894-1979) was born in Roseau, Dominica, and traveled as a teenager to study in England. After her father's death, she drifted into Paris's Left Bank crowd, where she was discovered by Ford Madox Ford. Her novels and stories began appearing in the 1920s, but she slipped out of the public eye until her Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966.



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