In 1939 Jean Rhys’s second husband gave her a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, an act that would shape Rhys’s writing life for the next three decades. So haunted was Rhys by the shadowy figure of Rochester’s mad Jamaican wife in Bronte’s novel that she struggled for over 20 years to write this first Mrs Rochester’s untold story. This she finally achieved in 1966 with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea—her fifth, final and most devastating novel—which tells the story of Mrs Rochester from her childhood in the West Indies to her incarceration in Rochester’s attic in England, a journey from warm tropical lushness to cold that Rhys knew well from her own life. In bringing to life the spectre that haunts Jane Eyre, Rhys gives voice to the woman whose lunacy shapes one of Victorian England’s most acclaimed novels, and brings to centre stage the colonial foundations upon with the British Empire was built.
Set in 1830s Jamaica and Dominica, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the tragic story of Antoinette Cosway, as Rhys names Bronte’s Bertha Antoinetta Mason who married Mr Rochester. Narrated in multiple voices, the novel tells Antoinette’s story in three parts. The first part, narrated by the young Antoinette, tells the story of her life before marriage, of her beautiful mother and the family’s fading fortunes. The second part, narrated by the unnamed Rochester, tells the story of his married life in ‘Granbois’, Antoinette’s mother’s house in the Windward Islands. Rochester finds life there overwhelming: ‘Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.’ And his wife disturbs him: ‘The girl is thought beautiful, she is beautiful. And yet …’
The brief third part is told by Antoinette in England: ‘In this room I wake early and lie shivering for it is very cold.’ Here Rochester has renamed her Bertha, which for Antoinette is some kind of magic, a way for Rochester to further reshape her identity and possess her. As Antoinette says: ‘Names matter, like when he wouldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking-glass.’ For Rhys’s novel, written with the beauty and precision of poetry, is predominately a tale of possession, of love and haunting: ‘She’s mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me.’
Rhys draws on a rich history of early 19th century Caribbean life for her portraits of Antoinette and her mother, in particular on the phenomenon of Creole heiresses who had gone mad as a result of their inbred colonial society, their sanity further tested by their sudden impoverishment following the emancipation of the slaves on whom their fortunes depended and by their beliefs in local voodoo superstitions. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 of British Parliament originally stipulated emancipation over a seven-year transitional phase to allow a period of adjustment, but this was amended and the slaves were granted full emancipation in August 1838 (although in Dominica, Rhys’s home, slavery ended in 1834). The local planters felt betrayed by the British government, and their loss of free labour and the halving of sugar prices following the introduction of free trade destroyed their fortunes. Many plantation families were ruined, like Antoinette’s, and their estates were bought up by wealthy interlopers from Britain such as Mr Rochester, who knew nothing about island life.
Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in Roseau, Dominica, a Caribbean island that had been sold to England by France in 1805. Her father was a Welsh doctor, her mother a white Creole whose grandfather had owned a plantation and been part of Dominica’s white colonial elite. Dominica is a small, rugged island, densely vegetated and mountainous, with a violent history. As Rhys’s Rochester longingly observes: ‘It was a beautiful place—wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, “What I see is nothing—I want what it hides—that is not nothing.”‘
Rhys left Dominica when she was 16 to go to school in Cambridge, England, where her grandfather had gone to university. After a brief term at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she dropped out to become a chorus girl. In 1912 after a passionate affair Rhys began to write. In 1919 she married the Dutch writer Jean Lenglet and they lived a bohemian life, mostly in Vienna and Paris. They had two children, a son who died at three weeks and a daughter, Maryvonne. When Lenglet was jailed in Paris in 1924 for embezzlement, Rhys moved in with writer Ford Madox Ford and Australian painter Stella Bowen, and Rhys and Ford soon became lovers. (In her autobiography Drawn from Life (1941), Bowen refers to the unnamed Jean as ‘the real Wild One’.)
Ford helped to transform Lenglet’s wife Ella into the writer Jean Rhys, editing her prose and giving her the name Jean Rhys. He published Rhys’s first short story in in 1924 in his magazine The Transatlantic Review which published Hemingway, Joyce and Stein, and in 1927 a collection of her stories, The Left Bank, was published under her pen name ‘Jean Rhys’. This was followed by the publication of her first novel, Quartet, based on her affair with Ford. Between 1928 and 1939 she published four novels, about beautiful, fading women in Paris and London during the 1920s and 30s. In 1928 she returned to England and moved in with her agent, Leslie Tilden Smith, whom she married in 1934. They moved to Cornwall when war broke out in 1939—and Rhys then disappeared from the literary world for nearly three decades.
In 1939, after receiving Jane Eyre from Tilden Smith, Rhys began excitedly to write the missing story of Mrs Rochester: ‘It is that particular mad Creole I want to write about, not any of the other mad Creoles,’ she wrote. She originally called the story Le Revenant (one returned from the dead) but burnt the typescript after an argument with her husband. She then spent the next 20 years labouring over her story: ‘I must write. If I stop writing, my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people, but it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death.’ Impoverished and isolated in Cornwall, Rhys poured a lifetime of separation and division into her only novel set in the West Indies, eventually calling it Wild Sargasso Sea. She named it after the Sargasso Sea, a free-floating sea in the North Atlantic adrift between the West Indies and the Azores, unique among the world’s seas because it has no coastline.
Despite her rumoured death, Rhys was finally discovered in Cornwall by the outside world in 1957. Impressed by a broadcast version of her novel Good Morning, Midnight, the editor Francis Wyndham finally tracked down Rhys and wrote to her, wondering if she had any new work. She replied that she was working on a new novel ‘unlike anything I’ve attempted before’. Sustained by a group of supportive editors and agents, including Wyndham, Diana Athill, Sonia Orwell (George Orwell’s widow) and Olwyn Hughes (Ted Hughes’s sister), Rhys eventually managed to shape from her obsession with Bertha Mason a novel in lucid prose as haunting as it is beautiful. So profoundly did Rhys struggle with Antoinette Cosway’s story that, according to Diana Athill:
It is no exaggeration to say that it nearly killed her: her heart went into failure on the day she was supposed to hand the book to me, and it was two years before she recovered enough to add the two or three little finishing touches without which she would not let us publish it.
Wide Sargasso Sea has been twice adapted to the screen, first in 1993 and again in 2006. When she discovered that Jean Rhys had spent several days in Holloway Prison, English playwright Polly Teale knew she had to write a play about her life. She was fascinated by the fact that this gifted writer had assaulted a neighbour, whom Rhys believed was making too much noise, then bitten the policeman who arrived on the scene to deal with the matter. This story of Rhys’s violent behaviour is eerily evocative of the fictional Mrs Rochester; fittingly, Teale named her play After Mrs Rochester.