Wendy James's first novel, Out of the Silence, was published by Random House Australia in October 2005. (Foreign rights still available!) Her short stories have been published in various literary journals and anthologies. Wendy lives in Armidale, NSW, with her husband and four children. Here she writes an appreciation of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.
Wendy James on Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
The novel's spirit is the spirit of continuity: each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the previous experience of the novel. (Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel)
Conclusions may be, as George Eliot once remarked, 'the weak points of most authors', but it should be a universally acknowledged truth (and one that offers a partial excuse to the much put-upon author) that the end of a novel is never the end of the story. Some narratives live on in the mind of the reader indefinitely - characters, events, the narrative voice, all are absorbed, assimilated; the most powerful narratives can inform the reader's present, influence their future, transform their understanding of the past. The most resonant stories gradually assume a myth-like status, become part of a cultural consciousness. Such stories exist perpetually in a kind of literary imaginary, where the possibilities of new narratives - retellings, variations, subversions, extensions, revisions, even refutations of the original - are endlessly generated.
Jean Rhys's 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, is one such retelling that has become as much a part of my own literary consciousness as its inspiration, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Like Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel of female development, and like its predecessor has become a classic of English literature - its assimilation to the canon evidenced by its publication by Penguin as a Twentieth-Century Classic, and its inclusion on the syllabuses of secondary English courses and university reading lists. It has been positively critiqued as a feminist text, a postmodern text, a post-colonial text; a cinematic adaptation has been attempted, however unsuccessfully. In telling the tragic story of Antoinette Cosway/Bertha Mason - first wife of Jane Eyre's hero Rochester, and the infamous madwoman in the attic - Rhys has provided a disturbing, unforgettable companion to Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece, a novel that, once read, is impossible to factor out of any subsequent re-readings of the original.
The story that Rhys tells is a story with an ending that is already circumscribed, inalterable, written. Marooned, as it were, in a sargasso sea of inevitability, her heroine, Antoinette Cosway (later renamed Bertha) is doomed from the outset. Like the protagonists of Rhys's earlier fiction, the hauntingly beautiful Antoinette is 'cursed' with a nature that is both recklessly passionate and strangely passive - and is subject to conditions over which she has no control. The orphaned heiress to a Creole fortune, Antoinette (in an ironic inversion of recently outlawed slavery) is given 'without question or condition', and along with thirty thousand pounds, to the impecunious Mr Rochester. Despite the newlyweds' initially heady physical attraction, the relationship rapidly degenerates into suspicion and violence - and madness. There is never any real possibility that Rhys's heroine will be allowed to experience the satisfying progression, the ultimate transcendence through love, that Jane savours in the earlier novel.
Wide Sargasso Sea is not only Antoinette's narrative, but belongs to Rochester, too. There's no simplistic rendering of good and evil, victim and villain, here. Rochester himself is a reluctant participant in the arranged marriage. As the second son of an English gentleman, his social position is tenuous and ambiguous; he is untitled, penniless, exiled, and in the novel, literally unnamed. 'I have sold my soul, or you have sold it,' he writes to his father, 'and after all is it such a bad bargain? The girl is thought to be beautiful, is beautiful. And yet...' His experiences in the Caribbean leave him further disconnected and alienated, as he is subject to forces (Antoinette's sensuality, the sultry weather, Christophine's magic, unfamiliar social structures and race relations, political unrest, tropical illness) that confuse and terrify him. Eventually Rochester reasserts his control of the situation: he removes and renames Antoinette, drives her to madness, confines her to the attic, consigns her to her fiery death - but in Rhys's hands he is never shown as less than fully human (he is not always purposely cruel, but misguided, metaphorically blind) and somehow, in the end, he is no less a tragic figure than Antoinette.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a quintessentially 20th century novel - concerned with uncertainty, with the fluidity of truth and fiction, of past and present, appearances and reality, madness and sanity - and yet remains elementally connected to the concerns of its mother-narrative. It's a 'historical novel', of course, but Rhys's recreation and apprehension of this past are so complete, so unselfconscious, so unforced, that that becomes almost incidental. In remarkably lucid and deceptively simple prose she gives each of the protagonists a memorable and distinctive voice, while somehow managing to provide a singular, organic vision of the oppressive and potentially violent nature of the world that she's describing. The entire narrative is charged with a relentless, fevered anxiety - a kind of sensory prefiguring of the novel's nightmarish finale. And it's a finale that the reader requires, has always required, almost welcomes. For without Antoinette's tragic end, there can be no triumphant return to Thornfield Hall - and no happy ending - for Jane.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]