Jean Rhys: The Madwoman in the Attic

Jean Ferguson on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin)

Book cover

The publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 was, almost literally, a return from the dead for its 76-year-old author, Jean Rhys. In the 1950s she had become a near recluse and was widely believed to have died, either during the Second World War or in a sanatorium. Her brief and notoriously Bohemian literary career, it seemed, had ended with Good Morning, Midnight, published in 1939. Francis Wyndham, the novelist and adviser to her publisher, André Deutsch, wrote of her as “the late Jean Rhys”.

Born in Dominica in 1890 to a Welsh doctor and a white West Indian mother, Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams came to England in 1907 to finish her education. She stayed, married a Dutch poet and spent the 1920s writing and, by all accounts, drinking in the cultural capitals of Europe. During that time she adopted the pen name Jean Rhys. Her short stories and novels from the 1920s and 1930s are mostly set in Paris and London and deal with cheap hotels, ephemeral relationships and betrayal. The Caribbean, for the most part, is distant and idealised, an exotic memory which accentuates the sadness of the present.

Rhys’s early work was well received but hardly best-selling. The books went out of print and she disappeared from the literary scene into a sort of self-imposed obscurity. In 1958, however, Good Morning, Midnight was dramatised on BBC radio and, as a result, Rhys was traced to an address in Cornwall. A surprised Francis Wyndham wrote to her and enquired whether she was still writing. She replied that she was at work on a novel.

The novel in question was to become Wide Sargasso Sea and had already had a turbulent 20-year gestation. In 1939, it seems, Rhys had started writing a new novel. Her second husband had typed parts of it from her almost illegible handwriting and, after one of their violent rows, she had decided to punish him by burning the typescript. Parts of the original were also destroyed. Two decades later the novel was still not finished and it took another nine years for Wyndham to prise it away from the author. Her third husband died in March 1966, and she wrote to her editor at André Deutsch, “So the book must be finished, and that must be what I think about it really.”

Jean Rhys’s idea was both original and brilliantly simple: to write the “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and to uncover the secret of Mrs Rochester, the mad woman in the attic. In Brontë’s classic novel of 1847, little is known about Rochester’s first wife other than her Creole background and the tragic lunacy which culminates in the burning of Thornfield Hall. Rhys resolved to reconstruct this personality and to examine the events and emotions which led to her madness.

Wide Sargasso Sea is thus the story of Antoinette Cosway and her relationship with an unnamed Englishman who we realise to be Rochester through an elaborate web of allusions and clues. The novel could, of course, have run the risk of seeming contrived or of reading like a deliberate pastiche. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, as Rhys’s own preoccupations and extraordinary technical skill make the book entirely distinctive in its imagination.

 

What is lacking in Brontë’s novel fills that of Rhys: a real sense of the Caribbean as a place both real and symbolic. This is not the sun-kissed idyll of popular legend, however, but a mysterious and often sinister world in which reason and love are condemned to disintegration.

From the outset, Antoinette’s initial narrative describes an uneasy childhood set in post-emancipation Jamaica, in which the genteel poverty of the former slave-owners only inspires the hatred and derision of the former slaves. The society which Rhys evokes is decadent and fragile, an idea reinforced by her descriptions of the garden at the run-down Coulibri estate, where the vegetation is over-lush and threatening.

 

Antoinette’s childhood is abruptly ended by an arson attack which destroys the house, and her mother’s ensuing madness (both events ironically prefigure her own destiny). Her stepfather is only too happy to marry her to an Englishman, who, it is clear, is attracted by a large dowry. In return, Antoinette is to be provided with a husband “of good race”. Not surprisingly perhaps, the marriage is blighted from the beginning by suspicion and paranoia. Is she also “of good race”? What truth lies behind whispers of inherited madness?

 

For Rochester, who narrates the second part of the novel, the island where the couple spend their honeymoon is oppressive and menacing rather than exotic. By place names we know it to be Dominica, Rhys’s native island of volcanic mountains and dense rain forest, but Rochester sees it as a place which is paradoxically too beautiful and equally cruel:

. . . I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour. I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her.

His initial erotic attraction to Antoinette turns to revulsion. Surrounded by conflicting rumours and deep-seated fears of this unknown world, Rochester adopts the cruelty which he thinks he sees in the landscape. A mix of jealousy and sadism poisons the marriage. As the couple leave their honeymoon home, madness is already apparent in Antoinette’s “blank lovely eyes”.

The brief final section is set in England. A virtual prisoner in Thornfield Hall, Antoinette shivers in the cold and fantasises about fire. The scene is set for the Gothic horror of Jane Eyre. And by now it is abundantly clear why the mad Mrs Rochester came to die in Brontë’s terrifying inferno.

James Ferguson is the author of Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers).