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!