Book Of A Lifetime: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
Friday 25 July 2008
Wide Sargasso Sea is not just a great novel, it is many brilliant books in one. Multi-layered and complex, Jean Rhys's prelude to Jane Eyre vividly illustrates how accounts and understanding differ, and creates a sense of the characters' past being inescapable.
In this poignant evocation of the bitter romance between the white Creole heiress Antionette Cosway, of the Jamaican plantation-owning class, and the increasingly cold Englishman Mr Rochester, Rhys creates a relationship that is intense with the rage of desire and marked by deep tragedy.
I first read Wide Sargasso Sea before coming to Jane Eyre. When I did read Charlotte Brontë's story, it seemed to me that the first Mrs Rochester, the discarded wife who ghosted about Thornfield Manor, cast a far darker shadow over Mr Rochester and Jane than Brontë had intended.
Set in wild, magical Jamaican scenery, Wide Sargasso Sea depicts the trouble and confusion on West Indian sugar estates in the aftermath of emancipation. Not only is most of the black population as poor as ever, there are poor whites too. Rhys shows that the movement of the West Indians has not been a progression from colonialism to a racial-political independence, but rather from one form of slavery to another. She explores accounts of tensions between written and oral cultures and, through Antionette's narrative, urges the reader towards an understanding and acceptance of the mad woman in the attic. In my own moments of torment, I am often reminded of Antionette's passionate and haunting story. Her psychological disintegration and descent towards madness is a journey which ultimately becomes the mirror opposite to that of the wholesome goodness of the innocent Jane Eyre, as depicted by Brontë.
Wide Sargasso Sea speaks of the history of cruelty and suffering that lies behind some of the West's accumulated wealth, a history which in Jane Eyre is secret and mysterious, and only appears in brief glimpses. This is a book that gives voice to neglected, silenced and unacknowledged stories, exploring different inflections of marginality – gender, class, race and madness. Where historical events, recorded in written discourse, have shaped the opinions of many of the people of the former British colonies and education is exclusively from a Eurocentric perspective, the recovery of "lost" histories has a crucial role to play in allowing access to events and experiences which have not previously been recorded. This idea of "writing back" by breaking down explanations for events and favouring more localised narratives and perspectives has informed my own work, especially in the voices of the former slaves in my latest novel. Wide Sargasso Sea is an inspiration. Certainly, before the phrase was coined, Jean Rhys was a post-colonial writer whose work reminds us that "there is always another side, always".
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