Wide Sargasso Sea
Penguin Modern Classics
Take a look at Jane Eyre. That unfortunate death of a Creole! I am fighting mad to write her story. (Letter to Selma Vas Dias, 9th April 1958)
Serendipity seems to be the abiding feature of my relationship with Jean Rhys. I am currently reading this, her final novel, and her letters simultaneously, and by some quirk of happenstance, I am just at the point that she starts discussing the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea in her correspondence.
It seems to me, that Jean Rhys was born to write the first Mrs Rochester’s story. If anyone was going to give Bertha Mason a voice, then Jean Rhys was the perfect candidate. She knew what it was to look European and yet be marginalised for her ethnicity: never fully accepted by the English colonials of her adopted home, or by the black Dominicans on the island of her birth.
In Jean Rhys Letters 1931-1966 we are able to see, by the advantage of hindsight, how Jean Rhys’ life was stuck in a cycle of repetition: money troubles, moving house frequently, writing in bed and drinking cheap wine, never integrating or fitting in, constantly complaining about her health and the weather. And yet, her writing sustains her throughout: a constant focus.
Rhys, a Creole exiled in Cornwall, while writing Wide Sargasso Sea, found the place cold, unfriendly and boring. She says in one letter that there are two places in her heart; Paris and Dominica. This novel is full of longing for the West Indies and perhaps it was her escape from the chilly, bleakness of her circumstances. Although, that is only a minor aspect of this book – it is the beautifully written and well structured work of an accomplished writer.
However, it wasn’t an easy book to write; she wrote many versions on scraps of paper over the years and kept them under her bed. She experimented with various points of view, but in the final novel settled on Antoinette Cosway (Betha Mason) and Mr Rochester. Knowing this, it is amazing how cohesive the novel seems. Though, however haphazard her methods, Jean Rhys was very particular, a perfectionist, and it shows.
She [Bertha Mason] must be at least plausible with a past, the reason Mr Rochester treats her so abominably and feels justified, the reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad, even the reason why she tries to set everything on fire, and eventually succeeds. (Personally, I think that one is simple. She is cold – and fire is the only warmth she knows in England). (Letter to Selma Vas Dias, 9th April 1958)
(Have I said how much I love Jean Rhys?!)