Author: Jean Rhys
First published: 1966, by André Deutsch
“Such terrible things happen,” I said. “Why? Why?”
Jean Rhys (Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams) was born in 1890 in Dominica—an island in the British West Indies. Her father was a Welsh doctor, and her mother was Scottish Creole, which made Rhys British, but no quite. This aspect of Rhys’s beginnings has everything to do with the development of Wide Sargasso Sea—the novel Rhys published in 1966 after producing a number of novels and short stories, living a wildly bohemian life in Europe, and finally coming to live in obscurity in Devon, England. It is the novel that expresses every expatriate’s grappling with their own place in the world: “I often wonder who I am,” her main character writes, “and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”
The novel is lush, and wonderful, and menacing—Rhys’s answer to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It is the “backstory” of Bertha Mason—Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic”—who in Rhys’s masterpiece reveals a story all her own. To my knowledge Wide Sargasso Sea is the first major contemporary example of “recuperative fiction”—that is, a novel that re-imagines or “recuperates” a minor character from another novel. The trend is so popular today that it seems impossible to count these kinds of stories. Wide Sargasso Sea was a ground-breaker in its day.
There is no redemption for anyone in this novel, however. The text is unforgiving, to the point of brutality. And yet the reader is submerged from start to finish in an ocean of words that crashes with life—towering ferns and moss-covered walls, mango trees and frangipani, octopus orchids that flourish “out of reach or for some reason not to be touched.” There is something immediately contemporary about Rhys’s stream-of-consciousness prose, even though this story is set, like Jane Eyre, in the middle of the nineteenth century. “I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.”
Wide Sargasso Sea won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967, but Rhys’s response to her literary acclaim was that it had “come too late.” Everything seems to have come too late for everyone in this book. Sanity, freedom, love—even death.