Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jean Rhys: Caribbean Gothic

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Think of a ‘classic’ you were forced to read in high school or college, some supposedly great book that you hated, that bored you, that left you cold. Now pick it up again, read the first chapter or two, and see what you think. Chances are, the story will be different than you remembered it. That is what happened to me the other day when, sorting the books on my shelves, I discovered my old copy of Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, bought on whim, when I hadn’t a nickel to spare, at the old Brentano’s in Greenwich Village, a choice I remember regretting at once.

What hadn’t I liked about it? For the life of me I couldn't remember. Curious, inspired by my friend David’s recent praise of the novel, I scanned the first few pages and was hooked, so that by three o’clock that afternoon I had read it straight through. I sat amazed: surely someone had changed the story on me, for this novel was brilliant—sharply imagined, poetically crafted, darkly twisted in its setting and characters, in its storyline, phrasing, and detail. A ruined estate, a ghost of a mother, a parrot in flames. What more could one ask for?

What I liked especially about the novel this time around was the fact that, while it is a bold and original story in its own right, set mostly in the British West Indies and conceptually, thematically complete, it is further enriched (if one happens to have read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre) by Rhys’ fleshing out of Rochester’s infamous madwoman in the attic, his first wife, the Creole and suicide, Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Rhys herself loved the novel Jane Eyre, read it throughout her life, yet always what moved her most about the story was not the protagonist herself but the minor, obliquely rendered Bertha, Rochester’s violently insane wife. As a woman and writer, Rhys wondered at the cause of this woman’s distress, at the story behind it, restless and dissatisfied with the little she knew.

While such re-imagining of famous novels is now grist for the mills (of Jane Eyre adaptations Rhys herself wrote that “[t]here have been umpteen thousand and sixty already”), what Rhys accomplished with Wide Sargasso Sea is something altogether different. No money-making scheme, she sought to humanize—and in this way more fully understand—this terrifying footnote of a woman she calls Antoinette by moving her center-stage and reducing the men in her life to shadows. In so doing the woman is no less mad, but it is a madness with which one can sympathize, for which one can grieve, a harrowing affliction of mind and heart that one can see for what it is: the residuum—cruelly concentrated in a single person—of nearly three centuries of slavery and oppression, the toxic half-life of British patriarchal and colonial rule.

Jean Rhys was one of the twentieth century’s foremost writers, a literary artist who made exquisite use of the raw material of her own turbulent life to create fiction of memorable resonance and poignancy.  Between 1928 and 1939, Rhys published four novels, Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight, which brought her critical acclaim but not fame.  After almost thirty years of obscurity, the successful publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 led to her rediscovery.  She died in 1979. (W.W. Norton)

Peter Adam Nash

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