'Sargasso' Re-Imagines The Madwoman Of 'Jane Eyre'

'Wide Sargasso Sea' book cover
Wide Sargasso Sea
By Jean Rhys
Paperback, 192 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $13.95

Read an Excerpt

From early childhood, I've loved books about underdogs, where heroines only triumph after they've paid their dues. Nancy Drew didn't speak to me: Rich and omnicapable, her life bore no resemblance to my own. She could not compare with Jo March, Anne of Green Gables or Jane Eyre. Call me perverse, but I've always identified with heroines who suffer before they succeed.

I used to reread the opening chapters of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which detail the heroine's privations at home and at school, like a glutton. They were reassuring: You knew a promised land lay on the far side of misery.

Jane Eyre was such an important part of my private world that when a friend told me, "You have to read the Wide Sargasso Sea," by Jean Rhys, I refused at first to look at it. A prequel to Jane Eyre, Rhys' 1966 novel tells the life of Mr. Rochester's first wife, the notorious Madwoman in the Attic.

In a narrative that alternates between Rochester's voice and that of the Creole woman he marries and destroys, we experience the beauty and the history of the Indies. Like the islands themselves, Rhys' story seems to pour out of her with a heart-choking urgency. But the narrative is tightly controlled, each word carefully chosen. Rhys wrote and rewrote it for almost two decades: It's the distillation of her life and craft.

I have mixed feelings about so-called vampire novels — books that depend on someone else's creation for their life. Shakespeare stole story lines without compunction. Lesser mortals retell Hamlet or Othello in a thousand different guises. Most vampire books make me impatient: I think to myself, take a chance, invent something of your own.

But I had a completely different reaction to Wide Sargasso Sea.

Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky's popular mystery novels feature the private detective V.I. Warshawski. Steven E. Gross/Courtesy of Sara Paretsky hide caption

itoggle caption Steven E. Gross/Courtesy of Sara Paretsky

Rhys grew up in the West Indies and came to England as a young woman. She was a protege and lover of Ford Madox Ford in the 1920s, when she wrote a number of acclaimed novels.

Wide Sargasso Sea knits the colonial Indies to England, for Rhys as well as for the reader. Rhys makes you understand that the Madwoman in the Attic isn't Bronte's swollen, drunken avatar of passion. She's a Creole, a woman of mixed European and African descent, like Rhys herself. The author understands how Europeans imagined West Indians — as sensual, almost animal in their passions. After reading this novel, we come to know Jane Eyre's Madwoman as a woman who's made mad by the bewildering white and male world in which she loses everything: her home, her beauty and, above all, her identity.

Ford said of Rhys that she had "a terrifying instinct for stating the case of the underdog." Nowhere does she do it more powerfully than in Wide Sargasso Sea, nowhere is her prose more supple, more assured than here. It's the kind of book that makes me despair of ever mastering my craft. You must read it.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Wide Sargasso Sea'

Wide Sargasso Sea
By Jean Rhys
Paperback, 192 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $13.95

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, 'because she pretty like pretty self' Christophine said.

She was my father's second wife, far too young for him they thought, and, worse still, a Martinique girl. When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told me that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was very bad and that road repairing was now a thing of the past. (My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed all belonged to the past.)

Another day I heard her talking to Mr Luttrell, our neighbour and her only friend. 'Of course they have their own misfortunes. Still waiting for this compensation the English promised when the Emancipation Act was passed. Some will wait for a long time.'

How could she know that Mr Luttrell would be the first who grew tired of waiting? One calm evening he shot his dog, swam out to sea and was gone for always. No agent came from England to look after his property Nelson's Rest it was called and strangers from Spanish Town rode up to gossip and discuss the tragedy.

'Live at Nelson's Rest? Not for love or money. An unlucky place.'

Mr Luttrell's house was left empty, shutters banging in the wind. Soon the black people said it was haunted, they wouldn't go near it. And no one came near us.

I got used to a solitary life, but my mother still planned and hoped perhaps she had to hope every time she passed a looking glass.

She still rode about every morning not caring that the black people stood about in groups to jeer at her, especially after her riding clothes grew shabby (they notice clothes, they know about money).

Then one day, very early, I saw her horse lying down under the frangipani tree. I went up to him but he was not sick, he was dead and his eyes were black with flies. I ran away and did not speak of it for I thought if I told no one it might not be true. But later that day, Godfrey found him, he had been poisoned. 'Now we are marooned,' my mother said, 'now what will become of us?'

Godfrey said, 'I can't watch the horse night and day. I too old now. When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it. The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for Him. Rest yourself in peace for the righteous are not forsaken.' But she couldn't. She was young. How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning. 'You're blind when you want to be blind,' she said ferociously, 'and you're deaf when you want to be deaf. The old hypocrite,' she kept saying. 'He knew what they were going to do.' 'The devil prince of this world,' Godfrey said, 'but this world don't last so long for mortal man.'

She persuaded a Spanish Town doctor to visit my younger brother Pierre who staggered when he walked and couldn't speak distinctly. I don't know what the doctor told her or what she said to him but he never came again and after that she changed. Suddenly, not gradually. She grew thin and silent, and at last she refused to leave the house at all.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.

All Coulibri Estate had gone wild like the garden, gone to bush. No more slavery why should anybody work? This never saddened me. I did not remember the place when it was prosperous.

My mother usually walked up and down the glacis, a paved roofed-in terrace which ran the length of the house and sloped upwards to a clump of bamboos. Standing by the bamboos she had a clear view to the sea, but anyone passing could stare at her. They stared, sometimes they laughed. Long after the sound was far away and faint she kept her eyes shut and her hands clenched. 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, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she had decided once and for all that I was useless to her. She wanted to sit with Pierre or walk where she pleased without being pestered, she wanted peace and quiet. I was old enough to look after myself. 'Oh, let me alone,' she would say, 'let me alone,' and after I knew that she talked aloud to herself I was a little afraid of her.

So I spent most of my time in the kitchen which was in an outbuilding some way off. Christophine slept in the little room next to it.

When evening came she sang to me if she was in the mood. I couldn't always understand her patois songs she also came from Martinique but she taught me the one that meant 'The little ones grow old, the children leave us, will they come back?' and the one about the cedar tree flowers which only last for a day.

The music was gay but the words were sad and her voice often quavered and broke on the high note. 'Adieu.' Not adieu as we said it, but a dieu, which made more sense after all. The loving man was lonely, the girl was deserted, the children never came back. Adieu.

Her songs were not like Jamaican songs, and she was not like the other women.

She was much blacker blue-black with a thin face and straight features. She wore a black dress, heavy gold earrings and a yellow handkerchief carefully tied with the two high points in front. No other negro woman wore black, or tied her handkerchief Martinique fashion. She had a quiet voice and a quiet laugh (when she did laugh), and though she could speak good English if she wanted to, and French as well as patois, she took care to talk as they talked. But they would have nothing to do with her and she never saw her son who worked in Spanish Town. She had only one friend a woman called Maillotte, and Maillotte was not a Jamaican.

The girls from the bayside who sometimes helped with the washing and cleaning were terrified of her. That, I soon discovered, was why they came at all for she never paid them. Yet they brought presents of fruit and vegetables and after dark I often heard low voices from the kitchen.

So I asked about Christophine. Was she very old? Had she always been with us?

'She was your father's wedding present to me one of his presents. He thought I would be pleased with a Martinique girl. I don't know how old she was when they brought her to Jamaica, quite young. I don't know how old she is now. Does it matter? Why do you pester and bother me about all these things that happened long ago? Christophine stayed with me because she wanted to stay. She had her own very good reasons you may be sure. I dare say we would have died if she'd turned against us and that would have been a better fate. To die and be forgotten and at peace. Not to know that one is abandoned, lied about, helpless. All the ones who died who says a good word for them now?'

'Godfrey stayed too,' I said. 'And Sass.'

'They stayed,' she said angrily, 'because they wanted somewhere to sleep and something to eat. That boy Sass! When his mother pranced off and left him here a great deal she cared why he was a little skeleton. Now he's growing into a big strong boy and away he goes. We shan't see him again. Godfrey is a rascal. These new ones aren't too kind to old people and he knows it. That's why he stays. Doesn't do a thing but eat enough for a couple of horses. Pretends he's deaf. He isn't deaf he doesn't want to hear. What a devil he is!'

'Why don't you tell him to find somewhere else to live?' I said and she laughed.

'He wouldn't go. He'd probably try to force us out. I've learned to let sleeping curs lie,' she said.

'Would Christophine go if you told her to?' I thought. But I didn't say it. I was afraid to say it.

It was too hot that afternoon. I could see the beads of perspiration on her upper lip and the dark circles under her eyes. I started to fan her, but she turned her head away. She might rest if I left her alone, she said.

Once I would have gone back quietly to watch her asleep on the blue sofa once I made excuses to be near her when she brushed her hair, a soft black cloak to cover me, hide me, keep me safe.

But not any longer. Not any more.

These were all the people in my life my mother and Pierre, Christophine, Godfrey, and Sass who had left us.

I never looked at any strange negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. Let sleeping dogs lie. One day a little girl followed me singing, 'Go away white cockroach, go away, go away.' I walked fast, but she walked faster. 'White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away.'

When I was safely home I sat close to the old wall at the end of the garden. It was covered with green moss soft as vel

Reprinted from Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Copyright (c) 1966 by Jean Rhys. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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