Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea

IMG_0998The long silence on this blog is for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I am reading Infinite Jest, and it’s taking me a while. Second, reading Infinite Jest has forced me to take breaks to read shorter, more portable books (Infinite Jest is not something you can pop in your bag and read on the bus). I have also been writing, and reading non-fiction, and some well-meaning bastard bought me a subscription to The London Review of Books, which ironically takes up a lot of time that could be spent reading books… Some books I won’t post here, if I can’t think of anything to say, for example The Master and Margarita left me a bit cold and I’m not sure I could be bothered to write about it. Just the plain old truth.

Life gets in the way.

But I have read a couple of things, in the interludes, that have made me sit up and think.

The first is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I put this in my rucksack for Glastonbury as an afterthought, but was very glad of it on the rainy days, and in the hours spent sitting in the phone-charging tent.

My copy has an introduction by Francis Wyndham – a Rhys enthusiast who describes her work as being far ahead of its time: “The elegant surface and the paranoid content, the brutal honesty of the feminine psychology and the muted nostalgia for lost beauty, all create an effect which is peculiarly modern” “much closer in feeling to life as it is lived and understood in the 1960s than the accepted attitudes of [the 1930s]”.

There is, it’s true, a timeless quality to Rhys’ writing. This book in particular, because of it’s relationship to the canonical Bronte novel, sits squarely in an imaginative space that is at once constantly being examined and turned over, but also unshifting. The madwoman in the attic has been given a voice and a history, but it renders her symbolic importance no less terrifying or tragic.

The messiness of race and power and beauty are churned up in this novel. Antoinette – the daughter of Annette, the Creole widow of a slave-owner in Jamaica, and later a madwoman – is the woman who becomes Mrs Rochester, and as mad as her mother. Madness seems inevitable, inherent, but not free from cause either. The stain of slavery runs deep here – the injustice and arbitrary imposition of one people’s law on another. Cruelty, violence; the clash of cultures; the mistrust of great beauty, female independence and ‘otherness’ all play a part in the descent into madness for both characters.

Simultaneously ‘nothing to be done’ and a shrug, and an impotent rage against the circumstances that have made it so.

  1. You write brilliantly! I wasn’t sure what to make of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, so very interesting to see what you thought 🙂

    • Thanks! enjoying your blog too – we’re both thinking about madness this week! 🙂

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