Charlotte Brontë featured a Jane Austen-style heroine in her novel Jane Eyre. Despite her inferior social and financial position, Jane would not back down against Mr. Rochester any more than Elizabeth Bennet would back down against Mr. Darcy. Jane Eyre’s difficult situation as a governess is exactly what Austen’s Jane Fairfax sought to avoid—and finally did—in Emma.
Jane Eyre provides striking psychological insight into a woman’s mind. It also has the strange and forbidding mood and just-in-time plot twists of the Gothic thrillers and sentimental novels that Austen parodied in her early novel, Northanger Abbey. Most readers forgive Brontë’s melodrama for the intimate portrait it gives of this plucky young woman.
Most readers also forget the other woman. Or actually, the wife. It is Jane, it turns out, who is the other woman.
Jean Rhys, however, remembered. In the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, she tells the story of Jane Eyre from the point of view of the madwoman in the attic. This is the woman Jane initially fears is a ghost and who, until the fatal fire, prevents Jane from marrying Mr. Rochester. Herself a Creole from Domenica, Rhys had wanted to tell this story for years.
Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, almost 120 years after Brontë’s novel, and has been made into a film several times. The movies focus on the steamy sensuality of the Caribbean. (Images above and in the text are from the 1992 movie by John Duigan.)
The book, however, is more into the overall life of heroine and her bare existence. The novel marked a reemergence of Rhys, who was originally part of the 1920s Paris crowd that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, and others. Her earlier novels were about the Paris nightlife—and wild life.
Wide Sargasso Sea features a terrific first half, which tells the story of Antoinette Cosway’s early life in the West Indies. This is when the small white or Creole landowners in the West Indies lost their free labor. Such families would not have been the wealthy absentee owners but middle-class farmers who suddenly had no way to make a living.
It’s implied but never stated that her family is Creole. It’s several times described as white, but this may mean only whiter than the black neighbors. At one point a black girl tells the heroine that she’s a “white” (n-word) and “everybody know” that the “black” (n-word) is better than the white.
Mixed-race offspring were often freed and were allowed to set up their own shops and farms. They were allowed to possess their own slaves, who gained their freedom along with all the others in the 1830s. Now the small farmers, rather than their enslaved workers, are close to starvation. Away from the towns, they lack protection from their former “possessions.”
The story of life in the Indies is harrowing, but the novel becomes predictable in checking (“ticking” to my British friends) the boxes as to the evils of colonialism, sexism, and patriarchy as we get caught up in the Rochester story. Still, the descent of a strong, intelligent woman into insanity is terrifying. Readers will like Rochester a lot less after reading this novel than after Jane Eyre.
Sargasso is stylistically tight like Rhys’s 1930s novels and stories. One problem is that it switches the narrator from the female lead, Antoinette Cosway, in the first section to Rochester in the second section and back to Antoinette in the third section. Rochester is not nearly as interesting as she is, so the book sags when it should surge.
However, Wide Sargasso Sea became Rhys’s most popular book and brought back her earlier novels, which are riveting explorations of Parisian life after World War I. Rhys is too important a writer for these other books to be lost.
Rhys lived in obscurity during the thirty-year gap between her early novels and Sargasso. She and her husband were desperately poor. He was involved in a financial crime and went to jail. Then his health failed. The situation drove her to desperation and depression. She described the passage of many years as being “two days drunk, one day hung over.” Her books went out of print and no one could find her to get permission to republish them. Finally, someone tracked her down in a remote English village. She died in 1979.
The person who collected her works, Diana Athill, said Rhys most identified with her heroine in Sargasso because she knew what it was like to be driven to the brink of madness. Most of her stories were biographical, including the one about a young woman’s ménage a trois.
I came upon her early novels in 1986 (I looked up my list of annual reads!) because I’d found a passing mention to a writer named Jean Rhys who might have been a model for Ernest Hemingway’s tight prose. I’d never heard of her, and I was studying Hemingway at the time. Her early stories and novels have a similar feel to his. However, they were writing more or less contemporaneously in Paris, among the same literary set. I’ve seen no references that they knew each other personally, but Hemingway knew and detested (as a writer) Ford Maddox Ford, who was her patron and lover.
Hemingway’s first novel was published in 1926, hers not until 1928. It’s not clear who might have influenced whom. But it is a strange parallel, indeed, between the most macho writer of the early 20th century and a woman who wrote no-holds-barred novels about the lives of women. Rhys’s early books are about those days in Paris, too, from a woman’s underdog point of view rather than Ernie’s two-fisted-drinking man’s point of view (though drink features prominently in hers too).
A collected set, The Complete Novels of Jean Rhys, is worth exploring for anyone interested in a unique voice telling unique stories about women. Not just Antoinette’s life but the lives of women of our era.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.