Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

I am nearly as reluctant to write about Wide Sargasso Sea as I was to read it — and, yes, until last week, I had never read it, which in some circles (like, for instance, the circle of 99% of my professional colleagues) would surely have made me a winner at “Humiliation.” I knew about it, of course, but what people said to me about it never made me interested in it as a book in its own right. It was always held up, self-righteously, as a corrective to Jane Eyre: the story Charlotte Brontë didn’t tell but should have, the story that shows her and her heroine up for their racism and imperialism, that story that, as the back cover of my Penguin Modern Classics edition says, “rescues the madwoman in the attic … and brings her to life.” The pitch seemed to be that this novel was the post-colonial vitamin pill required to read Jane Eyre in good health. How delightful that sounded!

It’s not that I haven’t read my share of post-colonial responses to Jane Eyre. For some time post-colonial criticism of the novel was all the rage. Then out came an article calling for a “Post-Postcolonial Criticism,” and a bunch of scholars responded vigorously … and for all I know they’re still passing  arguments back and forth. I took a professionally responsible interest in the issues and stakes, and I do believe that it matters to explore what the novel’s emancipatory rhetoric  suppresses (or oppresses) in its turn.  In my graduate seminar on Victorian women writers I used to assemble a whole package of secondary readings just on post-colonial criticism of Jane Eyre. But after a while I kind of got tired of it all, because the arguments seemed to be missing what (thanks to my library-school trained brother) I now think of as the “aboutness” of the novel. Certainly none of them made me want to go read Wide Sargasso Sea. If anything, the scholarly infighting made me more weary of the whole concept.

So I came to Wide Sargasso Sea, after all these years, with some reluctance, but also with relief: since my book club had chosen it, I was finally compelled to put aside my petulant resistance and look at Jane Eyre from the other side. I wish I could say that actually reading Wide Sargasso Sea was in some way decisive for me: that it either confirmed all my worst fears by being ham-fistedly ideological and reductive, or won me over by being good enough on its own terms that I got excited about the dialogue it creates with its predecessor. Instead, I didn’t get worked up about it either way. It was more nuanced and oblique than I expected about its relationship to Jane Eyre. If anything, I expected more direct overlap, but not only is the story Rhys creates of the Bertha-Rochester marriage quite different in its specifics from Brontë’s, but the Thornfield section was surprisingly brief. I suppose the logic was that we know how Bertha ends up and so the interest lies in how she gets there — still, I thought there’d be more. Rhys doesn’t do anything with the parallels between Bertha and Jane, for instance, that give Bronte’s novel so much of its own revolutionary energy. Was it that she didn’t want to admit that Brontë had already made Bertha something more complicated than Rochester’s (and, by association, Jane’s) victim? The introduction to my edition is eloquent about Rhys’s mission to “make amends for the sins of omission committed by the Victorian writer, and by that era’s literature and history in general,” but Rhys keeps the Victorian novel peripheral and doesn’t seem to be engaging with it at a very profound level.

I found myself wondering, though, if that dissatisfaction wasn’t partly the result of all the propaganda about Wide Sargasso Sea as a revision of Jane Eyre and a corrective to it (the kind of thing I’ve already quoted from the cover and introduction to the novel). Rhys isn’t necessarily answerable for the reductive constructions put on her own book, after all. If you grant Wide Sargasso Sea more literary independence from the outset, looking at it as a response to Jane Eyre, yes, but still its own novel, freely inventive, then my objection that it leaves too much of its original reference out is beside the point. My biggest irritation has always been that there’s a tendency to talk about Rhys’s novel as if it tells the true story of Brontë’s character, when of course there is no such character outside Jane Eyre and there is no reason to doubt the facts about her as Rochester relays them to us. (There are other grounds to object to the story he tells, but I don’t think there’s any suggestion in the novel that he’s outright unreliable about the history of their marriage.) But Rhys makes enough changes to those facts that it seems as if she doesn’t intend to treat the same characters anyway: rather than telling the other side of the same story, she’s inspired by Jane Eyre to tell a different story, one that reflects on Jane Eyre but doesn’t correct it, doesn’t (as that ontologically odd locution of “rescues” implies) set the record straight, somehow, about  Bertha Mason.

If I push Wide Sargasso Sea further away from Jane Eyre in this way, then the question is less how it does or doesn’t engage with Brontë’s novel and more how good a novel it is on its own terms. I’m not sure I can answer that question very well, because while I was reading it I was so preoccupied with Jane Eyre. I’ve reread portions of it, but I have nothing like an intimate knowledge of it. My impressions at this point are not especially favorable. I didn’t find the prose compelling: it often seemed labored, portentous, too insistent on its own profundity. Rhys is fond of ending a paragraph or chapter or section with a heavily meaningful line: “I was young then. A short youth mine was.” “I felt bolder, happier, more free. But not so safe.”  “There was a full moon but I saw nobody, nothing but shadows.” “Once I would have gone back quietly to watch her asleep on the sofa . . . But not any longer. Not any more.” When we’re not getting ka-thumps like that, we’re getting overripe stuff like “She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.” There is a dream-like vagueness to a lot of the scenes, and perhaps that is deliberate, but in our discussion it seemed most of us were frustrated at gaps or confusions, and though most of us agreed that there are sections that are very evocative of the setting or that capture a moody restlessness well suited to the storyline, overall we didn’t — and, not to avoid speaking for myself, I didn’t — find the novel very good overall.

And now I’ll duck, in anticipation of the incoming corrections, if not to Jane Eyre, then to my own imperfect reading of this book which is, whatever I thought of it, now inextricably linked to Brontë’s. Have at!

14 thoughts on “Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

  1. Maryb November 26, 2012 / 1:35 am

    “There is a dream-like vagueness to a lot of the scenes, and perhaps that is deliberate, but in our discussion it seemed most of us were frustrated at gaps or confusions, and though most of us agreed that there are sections that are very evocative of the setting or that capture a moody restlessness well suited to the storyline, overall we didn’t — and, not to avoid speaking for myself, I didn’t — find the novel very good overall.”

    I’ve been waiting to hear what you thought about it. About ten years ago one of my book clubs (which only meets every OTHER month) chose to read both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. WSS was not popular and some of us wondered if it suffered by being read immediately following Jane Eyre and being included in a discussion of Jane Eyre. But in the end we came to pretty much the same conclusions as you did above. It has been so long since I read it that I don’t remember some of the specifics but I vividly remember the “dream like vagueness”.

    I was personally interested in reading it less from the perspective of another side to the Jane Eyre story and more from the perspective of life in the West Indies – my family emigrated to Barbados in the 1600’s and my great-grandfather didn’t come to the U.S. until the late 1800s. I’ve always wondered what life would be like on the island for English descended people who weren’t necessarily part of the grandest families. I thought this novel might make life on a West Indian island come alive for me. But it didn’t. And when I finished it I thought that, standing on its own, without any reference to Jane Eyre, it didn’t give me a story that came alive for me. Which is why it failed as a novel for me.


  2. Chris November 26, 2012 / 1:48 am

    I read WSS without having read Jane Eyre first. I remember liking it specifically because of the sections that really delve into madness with a close read. I don’t disagree about the ka-thunks, but, overall, I thought remember thinking the thing as a whole was very well-done. I don’t remember how I felt about it from a style perspective while I was reading it, but the psychosis passages made an impact.


  3. Alex in Leeds November 26, 2012 / 6:19 am

    I read and reviewed this over at my site this week and had confess that having read and studied it with book groups and study groups I like WSS less with each reading. I still appreciate the landmark it represents and think it should be included in the conversation but personally I find it remarkably unrewarding. Interestingly I was reading it this time with a group of men, only one of whom had ever read Jane Eyre (and that reading was twenty years ago), and they all commented about the vivid imagery and the sense of place… and almost nothing else. They just didn’t connect with the novel on its own and without prior knowledge of the connections it’s making they didn’t find it very substantial as a text.


  4. Jennifer Delamere November 26, 2012 / 11:32 am

    Thank you for this analysis! Like you, I’ve considered (and then put off) reading this novel for years. I appreciate your comments, and the others here as well. Still not sure if I’ll read it, but I feel like this gives me a good basis to start from if I do. Has anyone seen either of the two movie versions? They book look pretty awful, but I’d be curious to know if anyone who has read the book has seen either of the two films, and if so, what they thought about them.


  5. Rohan Maitzen November 26, 2012 / 11:45 am

    Mary, that was definitely our conclusion–that it didn’t stand up very well on its own. It shouldn’t, in a way, given that it is deliberately about or connected to Jane Eyre, but at the same time it should at least be a worthy companion, however critical.

    Chris, Rhys’s style is much admired by other readers, so as always, individual responses are interestingly idiosyncratic. I wonder if the overlap between people who like the kind of writing we get in Jane Eyre and people who like modernism is just not very large.

    Alex, thanks for the tip about your own post (which is here if others want to read it). I nodded especially hard at your observation that the book requires us to feel the same way about the characters as Rhys does.

    Jennifer, I watched some clips on YouTube from the version with Nathaniel Parker (a.k.a. Inspector Lynley, to Mystery fans). It seemed fairly true to the book, for what that’s worth, but I couldn’t really get a sense of the whole thing.


  6. The Critical Critic November 26, 2012 / 12:07 pm

    “She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”

    My diagnosis is an acute case of Faulkner-poisoning.

    Readers more attuned to the – what is a polite word? – expansive aspect of Faulkner’s style will likely be happier with Rhys’s prose, although this particular sentence should make anyone wince. It’s that last prepositional phrase that does it in.

    If Modernists do not like the prose of Jane Eyre, they are reading it wrong! That’s a tricky book.


  7. Caroline November 26, 2012 / 2:38 pm

    I think Jean Rhys was writing a fanfiction instead of a real companion piece in tribute to Jane Eyre. In fact, Jane does tell Rochester he is cruel to his wife (in the original) but it turns out that not only is Bertha vulgar and mad, she is a promiscuous adulteress (and Jane Eyre remains loyal to Rochester even when they can’t be together). This sort of thing was severely disapproved at the time it was written, so it makes sense that Rochester would want to divorce his wife. But Jean Rhys heroises Bertha Antoinetta so that she’s not the same person in the original. She might as well have given all of them different names. And there is even less perspective in this book than in the original Jane Eyre and almost none of its power.


  8. Stefanie November 26, 2012 / 3:01 pm

    I read the book back in college in the late 80s. I had never heard of it before, maybe that helped? I liked it pretty well, liked that it gave a “voice” and a “what if” view of Bertha, that it made me feel sympathy for her character in Jane Eyre, made me see her as more than just a “mad woman in the attic.” I’ve only read it that once so I have no idea what I would think of it now.


  9. Teresa November 26, 2012 / 9:51 pm

    I felt much the same way about this book as you did when I read it years ago, although I hadn’t heard quite as much about it as you had. All I knew going in was that it was Bertha’s version of her marriage to Rochester–I knew nothing of post-Colonial criticism at the time. (Honestly, I sometimes wonder what my lit professors in college were up to–I studied Jane Eyre *twice* and never heard that perspective. I don’t know whether to be glad or annoyed.) Anyway, what frustrated me most was that the novel was so utterly different from Jane Eyre. It wasn’t just that I didn’t see the Rochester in this book as the same man as in Bronte’s, although that’s part of the problem. From what I remember, I felt as you do that it didn’t seriously engage with Bronte. It just took the bare bones of the plot and created something new, which is fine, but not what I expected.

    What really took me aback, however, is the style and tone. I had expected a pseudo-Victorian style and got, well, this, and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Now that I’ve read and admired some other Caribbean literature, I’ve thought about revisiting this, just to see if I can get a grip on my feelings about it, perhaps without worrying so much about the connection to Jane Eyre.


  10. Rohan November 27, 2012 / 11:04 am

    “an acute case of Faulkner-poisoning” — ha! Now I know I should not rush to read more Faulkner. “A Rose for Emily” will do. I agree Jane Eyre is tricky. Imagine the book Rhys could have written if she’d really wanted to tangle with it. Imagine the book Ian McEwan could write if he tangled with it (not the Ian McEwan of Solar or Amsterdam but the Ian McEwan of Saturday and Atonement).

    Caroline, I’m interested in the idea that Wide Sargasso Sea is better read as fanfiction. Wouldn’t that imply Rhys being a fan, though? I guess I don’t really know the parameters of that genre: is there such a thing as critical fanfiction?

    Stefanie, maybe your college teacher set you up well to appreciate the book. One of the other members of my book group had read the Norton Critical edition. I wondered if I would have done better — not necessarily to like it, which is one thing, but to get it — with more support for my reading.

    Teresa, I think you have a point about reading the novel as something besides a pair with Jane Eyre. At least for those of us who know JE very well and love it, maybe Rhys just gets too easily overshadowed.

    I’ve been trying to think of revisions or answers to other classic novels that I’ve read and liked better. There’s The Hours, though I actually read it before I’d read Mrs Dalloway, so it might have been different for me if I were a more expert Woolf reader. There’s Jack Maggs, which I didn’t get excited about, and Mr Pip (ditto). I have Audrey Thomas’s Tattycoram but haven’t read it yet. There’s Fingersmith, which I adore, but it’s engaged with a whole genre as much as with an individual novel or author. I have mostly avoided Austen spin-offs, but I do like Bridget Jones’s Diary! I wouldn’t hold it up as a great novel, though, entertaining as it is. There’s Keith Oatley’s A Natural History: I can barely remember it, which suggests it wasn’t transformative for my thinking about Middlemarch. Oh, I know: there’s David Lodge’s Nice Work: that’s a good one! But again, entertaining but not a new classic. I’m probably forgetting (or just ignorant of) lots of others …


  11. Amateur Reader (Tom) November 27, 2012 / 11:49 am

    Thankfully, Faulkner has more than one mode; “hot gas” is only one of them. He wrote a controlled, clean prose when he wanted to.

    The all-time great “revision” writer was Euripides, who continually parodied, attacked and re-wrote Aeschylus and the sainted Homer. Your verb is perfect – Euripides tangled with Homer, plunged in and got tied up in him.

    Or perhaps the most audacious revisionists were the writers of the Christian Gospels who transformed the Hebrew Bible into the Old Testament without changing a word of it.


  12. Lisa Hill November 27, 2012 / 7:01 pm

    No need to duck, I felt exactly the same way about the ‘vitamin pill’ beforehand and unimpressed afterward, for much the same reasons. Thanks for your thoughtful review:)


  13. Colleen December 4, 2012 / 12:31 am

    Speaking of tricky–Amateur Reader, why did you post here under two different handles? 😉

    Rohan, your question: “is there such a thing as critical fanfiction?” My god, I hope so; otherwise, you get mush like Twilight giving birth to monsters like Fifty Shades of Gray! Let’s say there is. Perhaps part of the fandom is looking so closely at the beloved story that one *can’t help* but think through to all that isn’t told, all the other options, especially those that arise out of the reader’s, rather than the original author’s, narrative milieu? But seeing the possibilities doesn’t mean being up to the task, as you suggest about WSS (and with which I agree; you’ve hit on everything about this book that irked me, but especially its lack of “aboutness” and how unrelated the Rochester and Bertha of one novel seem to the Rochester and Bertha of the other). Or, maybe the dreamy vagueness is simply meant to reflect Bertha’s essential disconnect with reality? If so, I’m not sure it’s a convincing way to go about engaging with JE.

    (It occurs to me that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is fan fiction gone mad–that it’s fan fiction written about fiction itself!! Not that this is related to the discussion, really, but I have nowhere else to put this thought right now.)


  14. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 4, 2012 / 1:36 am

    The two names are the result of a critical technique called “a big goof-up.”

    Regardless, The Critical Critic is an outstanding name for a book blogger.

    Some film adaptations can be like “critical fanfiction”: jettison this entire subplot, change the motivation of this character, and generally get rid of everything that irritates the screenwriter and keep only the parts she loves. I am thinking of movies like the 1999 Mansfield Park which makes Fanny into a sassy feminist writer and openly incorporates Edward Said’s post-colonial criticism of the novel.


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