Jean Rhys’s literary cauldron

When Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea fifty years ago, she was seventy-five years old. After spending the best part of two decades secluded and largely unread, Rhys had produced a book that would secure her lasting popularity and a 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 is that it takes its inspiration from a favourite classic of English literature: Jane Eyre. It is a brilliant adaptation, faithful to the essence of the original but successfully made relevant to a radically different audience and time. However, perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel relates to Rhys’s conception of literature as the cauldron where reality and imagination meet; family lore, history, literary tradition and memory all converge in a single book.

Placing the action in Jamaica in 1839, immediately after the abolition of slavery, Rhys 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, all islands with historical links to France, but certainly not in Jamaica.

That detail may be small, but it reveals how permeable the boundaries are between the spaces of fiction and memory – and they are permeable in all Rhys’s fiction. In her early novels, written and set in the 1920s and 1930s, Rhys never fully detaches her fiction from her real-life experiences. This is most palpably true of her troubled extra-marital relationship with Ford Madox Ford and her time in Paris, a city “saturated with the past . . . all the hotel rooms I’ve ever slept in. All the streets I’ve ever walked in” (Good Morning, Midnight, 1939).

In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys progressively moves away from her free association of memory and fiction as the novel comes closer to the realm of Jane Eyre. Alternating her first-person narration between Rochester and Antoinette, she makes the two inhabit different dimensions, their world views diametrically opposed. When Antoinette asks Rochester if it’s true that England is like a dream, he seems insulted by the question. To him what seems like a dream is the West Indies; “But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?”, asks Antoinette. His answer signals an impasse: “How can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?” In the Caribbean, Antoinette, laden with the weight of Rhys’s childhood experience, and Rochester, burdened with the expectations of a patriarchal society, find the freedom necessary (“Here I can do as I like”, they tell each other) to weave a brief episode of careless mirth. But as soon as the decision is made to travel to England, Rochester assumes the dominant position, condemning Antoinette to the miserable existence given to Bertha Mason by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre.

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