Essay: Suneeta Peres da Costaon Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, fifty years on

Cover detail from the first edition dust jacket for Wide Sargasso Sea.
Cover detail from the first edition dust jacket for Wide Sargasso Sea.

I first fell in love with Jean Rhys’ writing through reading Wide Sargasso Sea. It was a love affair that changed my idea of what fiction could do, what it might be for, and about the faith one must keep with one’s art even under the most adverse circumstances. Perhaps this last lesson was one I needed even though – or because – my own career had started with such promise. I was nineteen or twenty then, studying post-colonialism at university and under the spell of more florid, overtly allegorical and political writers like Marquez and Rushdie and their popular brands of magic realism.

When I chanced one day upon a copy of Wide Sargasso Sea in Sappho Books or Gleebooks Secondhand, I was instantly transfixed by Rhys’ prose, which Francis Wyndham describes in his introduction as ‘that mixture of quivering immediacy and glassy objectivity’, and the psychological acuity with which Rhys treats empire, race and hysteria, as well as the power relations between men and women. I underwent something of a conversion then, acquiring and devouring each of Rhys’ earlier works and the last, a posthumous collection of memoir sketches, Smile Please, edited by Diana Athill.

Re-reading again now in this, the fiftieth anniversary year of its first publication in 1966, I can’t help feeling that Wide Sargasso Sea remains just as groundbreaking and heartbreaking. Doubtless, Rhys’ audacity and ingeniousness – and that which enables the novel to travel so well down the decades – was to take a canonical text like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and disrupt its imperial flow via a feminist and post-colonial re-reading. In subjectively reconstructing the life of the so-called mad woman in the attic – Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason – endowing her with a real name and identity in Antoinette Cosway – Rhys took incredible technical and imaginative risks, and prised open the doors of world literature to other such anti-colonial literary ripostes.

Wide Sargasso Sea is really a prequel to Bronte’s classic, the title referring to the coastless stretch of sea that divides England from the Windward Islands (Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890). But the action is cleverly transposed a few decades earlier than Jane Eyre and, as the novel opens, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1863 has recently taken effect. In the first of the book’s three sections, it is Antoinette’s voice we encounter, as she recounts the ruin that has befallen her family and childhood following the death of her father, an English slave-owner, on their remote estate of Coulibri in British Jamaica. Rumours abound of old Cosway’s drunkenness and his having sired children with many different native women (‘Presents and smiles for the bastards every Christmas…’).

Compensation has been promised, but not granted, and resentment of the whites who are still living on native land is escalating. Widowed, impoverished, caring for Antoinette’s younger, disabled brother, Pierre, the situation of Antoinette’s mother Annette is precarious. The house at Coulibri is a wreck and the roads are in ruins. One of the house help – a young man named Disastrous whom they called Sass – has left (‘…[n]o more slavery – why should anybody work?’).  When her horse is poisoned and a Spanish Town doctor refuses to return to tend Pierre, Annette fears that they will be permanently stranded. She withdraws, walking the lengths of a glacis that adjoins the house, exposed to onlookers and becoming increasingly paranoid.

Annette is Creole – a term that at the time referred to anyone who was born in the West Indies of European heritage – but this cultural legacy enmeshes her yet more inextricably in the social tensions of the post-Emancipation period. Unlike the English, she cannot ‘close ranks’ and return anywhere, as there is no such place; her inheritance might be French, Spanish and/ or English – it is all mixed up.

The estrangement for Antoinette is meanwhile redoubled by her mother’s rejection of her, and is arguably existential as well as colonial. She can observe Annette but only from afar:

A frown came between her black eyebrows, deep – it might have been cut with a knife. I hated this frown and once I touched her forehead trying to smooth it. But she pushed me away.

The young Antoinette is fixated by a picture that hangs in the house at Coulibri called the ‘Miller’s Daughter’ which features ‘a lovely English girl with brown curls and blue eyes and a dress’. She glances from this ‘… at my mother, so without a doubt not English, but no white nigger either. Not my mother. Never had been. Never could be’. Rhys makes potent analogies here about maternal and colonial kinds of abandonment and disinheritance.

Other native children taunt Antoinette for her family’s conspicuous poverty and fall from grace: ‘White cockroach, go away, go away, No body want you. Go away.’  She befriends a black girl, Tia, whose mother is not Jamaican, but although they play and eat boiled green bananas out of a calabash together, Antoinette perceives their difference: ‘…fires always lit for her, sharp stones did not hurt her bare feet, I never saw her cry’. Even this nascent trust is betrayed when Tia tricks her at the bathing pool, stealing her one good dress and telling Antoinette, ‘Old time white people nothing but white nigger now and black nigger better than white nigger’.

Antoinette takes to spending much of her time with Christophine, the Martinique maid (Annette, who is also originally from Martinque, tells Antoinette that Christophine was ‘one of Old Cosway’s wedding presents’ to her). Christophine is ‘blacker – blue-black with a thin face and straight features’ and wears ‘a black dress, heavy gold ear-rings and yellow handkerchief – carefully tied with two high points in front’. She sings patois songs which are unlike Jamaican songs and, because of her appearance and origins, is also perceived as an outsider. Yet in many senses, she is more familiar to Antoinette than her own mother; she misses her cooking and waits up for Christophine as she likes ‘to see her last thing’ before bed. Christophine has a reputation for practising obeah (folk magic) and one day Antoinette comes upon her practising and is frightened:

I was certain that hidden in the room …there was a dead man’s dried hand, white chicken feathers, a cock with its throat cut…

The complexity of Antoinette’s identity, forged in this crucible of slavery and colonial trauma, is beautifully extrapolated in these scenes from childhood and the evocations of memory and landscape are tenderly, yet unsentimentally, inscribed. The nature of Antoinette’s native place – her only real inheritance – can be a salve, but is also attended by ambivalence, menace and loss. Antoinette recalls how ‘[o]ur garden was large and beautiful… the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild…’; and that ‘[t]wice a year the octopus orchid flowers but …. I never went near it’.

She observes ‘black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain soaked me to the skin – once I saw a snake. All better than people.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, she inherits her mother’s melancholic and solitary nature. (She later tells her new husband, Rochester, ‘…I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all’).

Despite Mr Mason repairing the house and making reassurances about the future (he describes at one point a plan to import coolies to Jamaica from the East Indies), Annette remains restless, anxious to leave the island. It is a point of rising tension as Mr Mason downplays her fears as hysteria. Antoinette is wedged between; grateful for Mr Mason’s protection, she nevertheless observes that ‘[i]n some ways it was better before he came though he’d rescued us…[t] he black people did not hate us quite so much when we were poor’.

Then one night Annette’s fears of violence come true and the house comes under attack. In the fire that destroys the estate, Pierre dies and Antoinette is badly injured. In fact, the rock that is hurled at her as they are escaping the burning house, is thrown by her sometime friend, Tia. Poignantly, just as they are escaping, the family parrot, Coco, is discovered unable to fly from the glacis balustrade because his wings are clipped. His feathers catch fire and Aunt Cora tells Antoinette not to watch – but already she has seen too much.

Antoinette is orphaned, not only by losing her childhood home but by the experience of seeing her mother succumb to a complete mental breakdown after Pierre’s death. She is taken to live in Spanish Town with Aunt Cora who, significantly, consoles her by telling her the scar on her forehead will not spoil her for her wedding day. On the one occasion she is allowed to visit Annette, Antoinette greets her expectantly, ‘I am here, I am here’ – but her mother rejects her and flings her away.

Later, Antoinette boards at a convent school that is ‘a refuge, a place of sunshine and death’. She remains haunted by the fire and that last terrible encounter with her mother for whom she now prays believing that her soul has left her body, like a zombie.  Her stepfather visits at the convent, bearing gifts and promising that Antoinette will not be ‘hidden away all her life’ – a promise which is also full of tragic irony. And then she receives news that her mother has died.

The second part of the novel is, with the exception of one scene, narrated from Rochester’s perspective and recounts their fateful honeymoon in Granbois, Dominica, at an estate owned by Antoinette’s mother’s family.

The ghosts of imperial violence linger and court them. As they are passing through a town called Massacre, Rochester asks casually, ‘And who was massacred here? Slaves?’ to which Antoinette responds, ‘Not slaves. Something must have happened a long time ago. Nobody remembers now’.

From the outset, Rochester’s asides betray an intense contempt for his environment: ‘Everything is too much… Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.’ He is critical of local customs that he does not understand. When Christophine attends him in a dress that trails on the floor, he condemns it as a marker of poor hygiene rather than seeing it as the respectful compliment that it is. He drops and tramples the frangipani wreath that has been laid on the nuptial bed for him.  He claims not to trust  any of the servants, but is not immune to the looks of Amélie, one of the young, ‘half-caste’ servants – ‘[a] lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps, like much else in this place’.

Earlier in Spanish Town he had suffered a bout of fever of which many of his fugue-like reflections seem to be a lingering symptom. Perceiving that Antoinette is an ineluctable part of Granbois, its landscape, people and history, he at times appears to succumb to its allure: ‘…wild, untouched…with an alien, disturbing secret loveliness…’ –  only to determine that it is forever unknowable and therefore repellent. He desires the strangeness, then loathes himself for doing so – as he does the river flowers which open at night, enchanting him at first with their bursts of sound and intoxicating perfume, then deafening him, making him giddy.

Their intimacy is also from the first punctuated with misunderstanding.  Antoinette asks him, ‘Is it true that England is like a dream?’ And he answers, ‘Well that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream’. At one moment he hears a bird – ‘[a] mountain bird. Shrill and sweet. A very lonely sound’ – and claims Granbois’ remoteness and solitary air, like Antoinette’s, makes him uneasy. In fact, Antoinette is openhearted, inviting him into her inner and outer worlds, mediating the world for him and intimating her wish to be loved; it is he who remains aloof and misanthropic.

Sexually, too, Antoinette is framed within Rochester’s schizoid imperialistic imaginary, which paradoxically discloses a fear not only of the Other, but that which is unassimilable, irrational, female: ‘[s]he was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did’. Of Antoinette’s eyes he ruminates, ‘[l]ong, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.’ To Rochester, Antoinette is complicit in his alienation by virtue of her confounding Creole heritage.  He confesses: ‘I did not love her… I was thirsty for her, but that is not love.’ Of their love-making: ‘Desire, Hatred, Life, Death came very close in the darkness’.

His coldness is chilling. Yet the execution of Rochester’s stream of consciousness is, from a technical point of view, impeccable even if the first person lens occasionally overexposes his flaws. Soon we have intimations that the wedding itself was a farce:

It … meant nothing to me… I bowed, smiled, kissed her hand, danced with her… played the part I was expected to play… Every movement I made was an effort of will… I must have given a faultless performance.

We also learn that Antoinette’s stepbrother Richard has given all her inheritance – £30,000- to Rochester upon her marriage ‘…without question or condition. No provision made for her’, despite Aunt Cora urging that Antoinette be protected in any settlement.

Whereas the union has made Rochester financially independent of his own father it has rendered Antoinette his dependent. He cynically ruminates, ‘I have not bought her, she has bought me, or so she thinks…’. Rhys certainly suggests that marriage may be yet another kind of bondage. Antoinette begins to chafe at Rochester’s insensitivity. At first she attempts to be more tender toward him, but this merely increases his hostility on the one hand, and her vulnerability and powerlessness on the other. He recoils and renounces her, taking to sleeping in his dressing room with the servants gossiping and sniping. In the midst of which drama, Christophine leaves.

The mood of conflict and mutual mistrust reaches a climax when Rochester receives a letter from a man, Daniel Cosway, who claims to be Antoinette’s illegitimate ‘half-caste’ brother – the son of her father, Alexander Cosway. The letter alleges madness in the Cosway family.

Antoinette meanwhile seeks Christophine’s intervention to win Rochester back with obeah; initially Christophine refuses, counselling her to request half her dowry back, leave Rochester and go to Martinique. But Antoinette has become bewildered and docile. She displaces her consciousness of finding herself ensnared in a loveless, mercenary marriage into fantasies about going to England: ‘I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me’. (Earlier Rochester had mocked her romantic, ‘fixed’ ideas of England – ‘[s]ome romantic novel, a stray remark never forgotten, a sketch, a picture, a song, a waltz, some note of music …’). Now Christophine wakes her from her delusion, saying, ‘You think there is such a place?’

Rochester meets Daniel at his small one-room abode. A framed copy of Iago’s dictum, ‘Vengeance is mine’, hangs on the wall.  We also get an insight into the roots of Daniel’s bitterness and vindictiveness, entwined with the legacy of slavery; it is a mirror of Antoinette’s own fate:

Sometimes when [Old Cosway] get sick of a woman which is quickly, he free her like he free my mother, even he give her a hut and bit of land for her self… but it is not mercy….

He tells how Old Cosway refused to acknowledge him as his own son, buying his silence with money. Daniel’s revenge is now to insinuate more about Antoinette and her family – then promptly demand £500 hush money from Rochester.

The same evening, Rochester confronts his wife with Daniel’s accusations and Antoinette again tells the story of her past, the events leading up to the Coulibri fire and its aftermath, her mother’s mental illness and death – but the more she reveals, the more Rochester wilfully misconstrues. He begins to mock and infantilise her, calling her names: Marionette, then Bertha – an echo of Antoinette’s mother’s name:

‘My name is not Bertha; why do you call me Bertha?’

‘Of course, on this of all nights, you must be Bertha.’

It is that night – of all nights – that the love medicine that laces his rum punch fails and, when he recovers his senses, Rochester believes he has been poisoned. He flees and, out of vengeance, sleeps with Amélie – an act he just as soon regrets: The betrayal is discovered and Antoinette reacts with fury and a drunken rage, which only feeds Rochester’s sense of righteousness. With epithets like ‘my lunatic’, ‘my mad girl’, he turns her into an hysteric, thus completing Daniel’s pathologising prophecy.

Rochester hastily resolves to take Antoinette to another island faraway from gossip and scandal. He sketches this future absent-mindedly; but it is one far removed from Antoinette’s fantasies of ‘chandeliers and dancing… swans and roses and snow’, far from freedom or indeed even humanity:

I drew a house surrounded by trees. A large house. I divided the third floor into rooms and in one room I drew a standing woman … a dot for a head, a larger one for the body, a triangle for arms and feet … it was an English house.

We can fill in the rest: the attic, the red curtains, Grace Poole, an encounter on the stair with a young woman with long hair, candlelight, another fire. There’s a symmetry and poetic justice to the final, very brief section of the novel, told from Antoinette’s perspective.

I cannot agree with the postcolonial feminist critic Gayatri Spivak who in a well known critical reading of Wide Sargasso Sea (1985) took issue with the settler point of view Rhys employs, which, she argued, limits the reader’s knowledge of the subjectivity of native characters such as Christophine. This criticism overlooks the fact that in placing Creole identity as a problem at the heart of legacies of slavery and colonialism – in writing recuperatively out of that unique Creole perspective – Rhys does describe, give loud voice to – if not speak for – a wide variety of colonised experiences. We could see writers such as Jamaica Kincaid, Shani Mootoo and Junot Diaz as having further answered the book’s call to write back to Empire.

It must also be remembered that Wide Sargasso Sea is a work of consummate style and imaginative force. Some of the territory of the novel would have been familiar to Rhys, but as she was born at a much later point in history her own memories and experiences of colonial Roseau – vividly captured in her posthumous memoir Smile Please – were more benign. It appears Rhys had a fairly happy childhood as the daughter of an English government doctor who had reluctantly accepted a post in Dominica.

In Smile Please we learn that Rhys had a voracious appetite for books and from a young age read Robinson Crusoe, Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Satan. Perhaps she also knew The Tempest and Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre. Aspects of Wide Sargasso Sea necessarily draw on her beginnings: her father had had a fever when he first came to Roseau and married her mother shortly after; Rhys felt emotionally distant from her mother and attended convent day school; a dominant aunt, Clarice, hovered in the background; a maternal grandfather was a Scots ex-slaveowner, whose estate had been burned down after the Emancipation Act was passed.

Yet there were just as many divergences in the life of Antoinette and Jean Rhys – or Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams as she was born. My feeling is that a large quotient of the counter-colonial rage expressed in Wide Sargasso Sea more likely arose from Rhys’ exile in England where she was sent at age of sixteen to attend school at Perse Girls’ in Cambridge and mercilessly teased for her accent. She was then rejected by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for ‘never being able to speak proper English’.

When her father died, Rhys became truly unhomed, working in chorus lines and other ill-paying jobs, moving restlessly between Paris and London. Her first child died only two weeks after she gave birth and, a year after her second was born, her first husband was extradited to Holland on a charge of illegal entry into Paris and offending against currency regulations.

Rhys’ first five books, all written before the second world war were, by her own admission, written to exorcise some of the pain of that time. They feature down-at-heel heroines, adrift in London or Paris, starving or freezing in bed-sits and hotels, unsure whether they will be able to afford their next rent. They reluctantly accept the largesse of men with whom they have had bruising relationships. They pass their time in cafes and bars, wearing fake astrakhan coats and drinking too much Pernod and cognac.

In his preface to her first collection of stories, The Left Bank (Cape, 1927), Ford Maddox Ford, who was one of Rhys’ first literary admirers, wrote of her ‘terrifying instinct and terrific – almost lurid! – passion for stating the case of the underdog’. Rhys’ instinct was even then to write truth to power, incorporating into her next novel, Four Quartets (Chatto & Windus, 1928), a pungent satire of the terrifying and terrific – almost lurid! – humiliation she endured following an affair with Ford into which she had been thrust by, of all people, his wife. (It was Ford who had encouraged her to change her name to Jean Rhys when he first published her work, but he also gave his own name to one of two books of French literary translation Rhys undertook for him).

In this light, it is remarkable to consider the personal courage and commitment out of which Wide Sargasso Sea emerged. Rhys had enjoyed a modicum of success until the time that her fifth novel, Good Morning, Midnight appeared in 1939 – but then for twenty years following the outbreak of the second world war her name and work were virtually forgotten. She hardly had a literary community – let alone a following. Francis Wyndham recalls that it was only because of a fortuitous adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight in 1958 for the BBC that he’d found Rhys to be alive at all – living in  Bude, Cornwall (a place she despised). A luckless third marriage had left her virtually destitute.

She was at that time writing a novel which was to become Wide Sargasso Sea, but the life of art was mixed with poverty, depression and alcoholism. Wyndham introduced Rhys to the editor Diana Athill at André Deutsch. In Smile Please Athill describes how painstakingly Rhys then – despite a serious heart attack and her own exacting literary standards – persevered for nine years to complete the manuscript. (The editor writes of her bemusement when long after publication Rhys took her task for letting the novel go to press with ‘the existence … of two unnecessary words. One was “then”, the other “quite”‘).

The rest, as they say, is history. Wide Sargasso Sea’s publication was met with critical acclaim, winning both the WH Smith Award and the Royal Society of Literature Award and Rhys was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966. Her backlist was reissued by André Deutsch. By then she was 76 years old and it must have gratified as much as exasperated her to be ‘rediscovered’. We can understand the remark she made to Athill that the success which Wide Sargasso Sea brought her ‘came too late’.

It was bittersweet but true. In art as in life Rhys was unwilling to sugar-coat. It has been said her books were overlooked when they first appeared because they were ‘ahead of their time’. Perhaps it is now in our own time, with the novel prescribed as essential on any given postcolonial reading list, that we are finally catching up with Jean Rhys and celebrating – with her, despite her – the unequivocal achievement of Wide Sargasso Sea.


Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, André Deutsch, 1966
Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, André Deutsch, 1979
Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’  in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Ashcroft, B., Giffiths, G. & Tiffin, H. (eds.). Routledge, 1995.