21 May 2018
Part 1, and some of Part 2—to the arrival of the letter
Some novels and novellas are almost impossible to read innocently. Despite Jean Rhys never mentioning, so far, that this one presents the back-story of a character in a famous Victorian novel, it seems that everybody knows it anyway. If you don’t, and you don’t want to find out before reading the book—perhaps such a reader exists—that’s OK for now, because I won’t mention it by name in this section. I don’t know whether the first readers in 1966 would have known—for all I know, it might have been marketed as a new take on a well-known literary character—but it’s interesting to try to guess if and when it becomes clear. I remember reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and realising that it’s only in the final chapter that the first readers would have discovered the secret that became the most famous thing about the book within weeks of its first publication. Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t quite like that—although one family name might offer a clue for ultra-alert readers. But the full name of the character, Richard Mason, is only mentioned once in the original novel, and it wouldn’t be enough of a clue for me.
Part 1 is all about the disturbing childhood experiences of the first narrator, Antoinette. In Part 2, another character takes over, but we don’t know this as we read Antoinette’s troubled little memoir. She describes how it felt to be the daughter of an unprepossessing white slave-owner in Jamaica at the time of emancipation. Everything is awful. Her father had always been cruel—we find out as the novella progresses that he never ran the estate either fairly or efficiently, and fathered plenty of illegitimate half-siblings for her and her disabled brother. After their father’s death, we get the child’s-eye-view of five years of real hardship, a second marriage and, inexorably, what we come to realise is her mother Annette’s breakdown and madness. And there’s another complication: Annete is from Martinique, a ‘Creole’—white, but born in the Caribbean—and, therefore, so is Antoinette. After emancipation, they aren’t accepted by either the ex-slaves or the European-born whites.
The country is having a breakdown of its own. Some whites are able to pick their way through the complications of a new reality. For them, and for the Blacks they employ, emancipation has not brought the end of exploitation, and they are able to keep up their estates and former lifestyles. One local landowner can’t do it, and he commits suicide by walking into the sea. Perhaps he felt as rejected as Antoinette and her mother do by the respectable whites and the Blacks who regard them all as ‘white cockroaches’. They don’t say it aloud in the hearing of whites who might be able to offer them work, but many of them taunt Antoinette and her mother mercilessly. For Antoinette, too young to remember the relative prosperity enjoyed while her dissolute and incompetent father was alive, Spanish Town and their estate, Coulibri, hold few pleasures.
But even when too poor to have new clothes, and suffering the disrespect of almost everybody, Antoinette persuades herself she is safe. We are offered clues as to the reality of this. For a long time she keeps a stick for protection, its nails removed by her Black nurse, in case of attack while asleep. And she thinks she has made friends with the daughter of a Black servant. Then one day, the girl takes the few pennies she has in a light-hearted ‘bet’, and steals one of her only two dresses. There are worse omens. When Antoinette finds one of the horses dead from poisoning , she tells nobody—realising that she’s pretending to herself that if she doesn’t say it, then perhaps it hasn’t really happened. She is sure of nothing.
It’s around now that things move on: Annette is suddenly buying yards of muslin for new dresses for both of them and, a few paragraphs later, Antoinette has a new father. In fact, she always calls him ‘Mr Mason’ until warned by Christophine, her former nurse, not to be so thoughtless. He is English, has married Annette for her beauty and, we realise during and after the courtship, for the sexuality her daughter finds as troubling as everything else. (There’s a scene as they dance what sounds like the most sensual of tangoes. Annette leans back so far over his arm that her hair touches the ground, before she rises up again to ‘a long kiss. I was there … but they had forgotten me.’) She remembers the gossip among the respectable whites, of how ‘he didn’t come to the West Indies to dance. He came to make money, as they all do.’ But he’s starting with money of his own, and at least he has had the house renovated.
I’m not giving you any impression of the all-out, claustrophobic weirdness of Antoinette’s life as she perceives it. But I’ve just come to realise that this is Jean Rhys’s way of telling us that at some deep level, the young Antoinette knows that everything in her life is somehow wrong. Her sense of identity is compromised by everyone else’s refusal to accept her. Her complete, and utterly sincere, blindness to racial differences has rendered her clueless as to why the Blacks should resent her privileged whiteness. She has half-siblings the whites routinely refer to as her father’s ‘bastards’, and her mother can do nothing about it. She can do nothing at all for Antoinette and her helpless brother before being rescued by this Englishman. Fine—except he is dangerously ignorant of how things work in Jamaica. He has the English sense of manifest destiny: his own superiority will overcome any small difficulties with the lazy, childish ex-slaves. Annette tries to warn him that he underestimates them, but he thinks this is just her own Creole prejudice. She, he tells her, doesn’t know how the world really works.
His arrogance brings his illusion, and this part of Antoinette’s life, to an abrupt end. Is it Christophine or Antoinette’s Aunt Cora who warns him not to speak in front of the Black servants about how he plans to bring in ‘coolies’ from East India to do the work the Blacks are too feckless to do? Whoever it is, she’s too late, and there’s a set-piece scene that becomes a pre-echo of a far more famous scene in the novel this is all foreshadowing. Antoinette, characteristically, has ignored the dark figures she thinks she might have seen outside the house at bedtime. But soon she is woken up. The house is being torched, the family is gathering in the main room—and there’s nothing they can do. Only Mason is surprised by the size of the crowd and its determination to do them harm. Annette is hysterical as she rescues her son from his burning crib—he doesn’t survive—and, after he has been taken from her, she has to be dragged away from the burning building. ‘She wanted to go back for her damned parrot,’ says Mason. ‘I won’t allow it.’ And he doesn’t, even though she bites him on the arm, hard.
It’s the parrot that saves them all. They would never have got past the crowd had it not suddenly appeared on the railings, its wings alight. It’s a vision of horror. ‘He made an effort to fly, but … he fell screeching. He was all on fire.’ It is made more terrifying for the ex-slaves by their superstition that it is unlucky to kill a parrot. They disperse quickly and the family can leave. However… Jean Rhys hasn’t finished yet. Antoinette’s Black friend Tia is there, and ‘I ran towards her, for she was all that was left of my life as it had been. … As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri. Not to go. Not.’ Hah, again. She notices the jagged stone in Tia’s hand, sees her fling it—but doesn’t feel its impact. All she feels is ‘something wet’ running down her face, and she sees her former friend’s face ‘crumple up as she began to cry…. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.’
As I re-read it, I was wondering whether this might be the most significant moment in her whole narrative. I was also thinking about how Jean Rhys has managed to get so much into less than twenty pages. It works on so many different levels. There’s the melodrama of moments like that set-piece burning down of the house. There are those objects that come to have a kind of symbolic alter-ego, like the stick, the stolen dress, and the stone that’s hurled and instantly regretted. And there’s the perpetual uncertainty of Antoinette’s never quite fully-formed stream of consciousness, hinting at the loss of something she never remembers having. As she loses consciousness, she has never really known who she is. And…
…after being out cold for six weeks, she finds everything different again. Her mother is not at her Aunt Cora’s with her, although Antoinette has memories of her screaming for the son who died, and against the husband who wouldn’t listen to her warnings. Cora is kind enough, sort of, but the next part of Antoinette’s life is thin stuff. She is sent to the local convent, and her first walk there becomes another set piece. She is being followed and, as soon as she’s out of sight of Aunt Cora’s house, she is taunted and pushed. There’s a Black girl, the oil on her hair giving off an overpowering smell—no hint now of any sense of connection—and a white-skinned ‘negro’ boy whose skin-colour is as troubling as everything else about the incident. She makes a bad impression on the nun who answers her desperate ringing of the convent bell, and… the next part of her life begins.
There isn’t much to it. That’s the point. She tells of the popular girls, the stories told about the nuns, the everyday routines. Jean Rhys lets us realise that the nuns, and this convent life, are an irrelevance in this world. For a time, it becomes what Antoinette is always looking for, but there are strict boundaries. ‘This convent was my refuge, a place of sunshine’—but there’s a sting in the tail—‘and of death.’ As she spends nearly two years of her adolescence there, she feels less and less connection to it. It’s been the story of her life so far and, in the end, it comes down to one intolerable omission. The girls must pray constantly for forgiveness for their sins and, ultimately, to be properly prepared for the moment of death. The omission, she realises, is happiness. She’s never found it yet and, it seems, she is being taught not to expect it from God.
It all comes to an end as abruptly as the earlier segments of her life. Her stepfather comes to see her, with another dress. He has always sent her clothes which, she understands, she can’t possibly wear in the convent. She tries to tell him there’s no point—except, this time, there is. At first, he’s evasive. He’s been looking at her admiringly—she’s her mother’s daughter, attractive and, as she reminds him, she’s over seventeen. He has ‘some English friends’ coming to stay for the winter, and, when she asks him ‘doubtfully’ whether they really will come he assures her, ‘One of them will. I’m certain of that.’ Readers who know the earlier novel can now guess exactly who this is—and Antoinette herself has clearly guessed what all this is leading up to. The realisation doesn’t bring the happiness she’s been looking for. ‘It may have been the way he smiled, but again a feeling of dismay, sadness, loss, almost choked me.’
She doesn’t leave the convent yet, and wakes the other girls with a nightmare of being led into a forest by a man with hatred in his face. There is the sense of powerlessness we’ve been getting throughout her narrative, and when one of the nuns comes to help her, she explains: ‘I dreamed I was in Hell.’ The hot chocolate the nun gives her is supposed to be a comfort, but it reminds Antoinette of her mother’s funeral. She only saw her once after the fire, securely held and clearly in the power of the man and woman employed to keep her a long way from Mason. Her mother seemed out of her mind, and didn’t want to know her. In the convent, Antoinette’s memory of chocolate biscuits at the funeral does not help.
Part 2 begins cynically enough. ‘So it was all over, the advance and retreat, the doubts and hesitations. Everything finished, for better or worse.’ Clearly, a wedding has taken place, and it seems that Antoinette is feeling fairly sceptical about it. Except it isn’t Antoinette. This is the second narrator, her new husband, and they are travelling to their honeymoon on a different island. In the rain, they reach formerly grand house that had been Annette’s before she lost everything. They had had to pass through the town of Massacre (a real place in Dominica), which causes some wry comments….
The husband hasn’t been in the Caribbean long, has spent two weeks in a fever from which he hasn’t yet fully recovered, and he’s having difficulty coming to terms with the strangeness of this subtropical world. The differences between here and England are clearly something he’s talked about a lot and, at first, it seems he will never settle. In his mind he begins to compose the letter he should have sent by now, but gets nowhere—‘Dear Father…’ is all he manages. How could he describe any of this?
But then things are better. What does it for him is what did it for Mason: a very comfortable lifestyle served by ex-slaves who aren’t openly hostile, and sex. After some weeks of this, he seems to think it will never end. But, of course, it doesn’t carry on for long. Granbois, as it is called, had seemed over-luscious from the start, once the rain that greeted them had stopped. And he can hardly believe the delights of the bed. But, really, the relationship is never unproblematic. Fairly soon, Antoinette begins to suspect her husband’s true feelings for her—in his narrative he muses on the way he feels passion for her, but no love—and he finds her way of expressing this troubling. Death has been a constant presence in her life and, desperate to hold on to the happiness she has convinced herself he brought her, she assures him that if he told her to die, she would. To himself, he makes a feeble joke about how he often makes her ‘die’, ho ho.
But then things start to become darker. The nature of their activities in bed is never described explicitly, but it’s pretty full-on. And, perhaps, one-sided. ‘The sight of a dress which she’d left lying on her bedroom floor made me breathless and savage with desire. When I was exhausted I turned away from her and slept.’ Perhaps inevitably, a degree of contempt starts to show. ‘If she was a child, she was not a stupid one but an obstinate one.’ And after a long paragraph describing what he means, he comes to a decision: ‘Nothing that I told her influenced her at all.’
Straight after this, the syntax breaks up to reveal what lies beyond speech inside him: ‘Die, then. Sleep. It is all that I can give you… wonder if she ever guessed how near she came to dying. In her way, not in mine. It was not a safe game to play—in that place. Desire, Hatred, Life, Death came very close in the darkness. Better not know how close. Better not think, never for a moment. Not close. The same… “You are safe,” I’d say, to her and to myself. “Shut your eyes. Rest.”’ The chapter ends with his contemplation not of where this is all going, but of the effects of the night’s rain. ‘If some of the flowers were battered, the others smelt sweeter.’ You bet. There is starting to be little dividing the febrile atmosphere of Granbois and the states of mind of these two, deeply embedded in it.
From the arrival of the letter to the end of Part 2
This is an extraordinary book. In the rest of Part 2, Jean Rhys seems to cover everything about the 19th Century that 20th (and 21st) Century readers would hope for. Race, and all the nuances you would expect among the layers of prejudice, suspicion and resentment. Power, in a hundred forms. Gender politics. And, very unusually, what we now call mental health issues: in the 1960s, a big question being asked of the status quo was whether old definitions of sanity and insanity held any meaning. Underlying all of these, we get Rhys’s presentation of diametrically opposed views of the world, allowing us a glimpse into how mutual suspicion, on all sides, seems to the participants to be based on incontrovertible evidence. Christophine’s pleas on behalf of Antoinette, the husband decides, are really only about money. Meanwhile in her eyes, as she describes the transaction that made Antoinette’s property over to him, it’s been about nothing but money from the start. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Jean Rhys doesn’t stay neutral. She knows where the abuses lie and, by the end of this section, she’s made it absolutely clear. And it brings happiness to nobody.
A lot happens before this. And—minor spoiler alert—if you really don’t want to know which famous 19th Century novel this is based on, stop reading now.
If you have the same edition that I have, and you’ve been looking up the rather over-meticulous notes on the text, you know all about the other novel from the start. The young husband—did I mention he must only be in his twenties?—is Rochester, dreaming of a house and trees nestling far away in a Charlotte Bronte novel. And Antoinette is Bertha. This is a name he uses against her will, as though forcing her into the role that everyone has heard of, even if they have never read Jane Eyre. She, one day, will become the madwoman in the attic. The fire in Part 1—with her brother’s bed burning around him, followed by the destruction of the big house—foreshadow the two that Bertha starts in Bronte’s novel.
But this is not a prequel. There are differences in the detail—for instance, Richard Mason in this novel is not the half-brother we meet later in his life in Jane Eyre—but, much more importantly, Antoinette and the man she marries in this novel are psychologically complex in ways that are entirely of Rhys’s invention. And a big part of the poison in Rochester’s mind—I think I’d rather call him ‘the husband’, as Rhys never names him—originates with the long letter he receives a few weeks into the honeymoon.
It’s from a man claiming to be one of the unknown number of Antoinette’s father’s ‘bastards’. He likes to call himself Daniel Cosway, using the family name for himself, and he has never stopped claiming to be Antoinette’s half-brother. Unlike all the others who might or might not have a claim, he has continually thrust himself into the foreground. He used to do it with Cosway himself—asking Rochester later, when they meet, why the Englishman would send him money if there was no truth in his claim. Of course, like all the other claims and allegations in this section, there are always other plausible explanations… but, having been less than honest with his own true feelings before the arrival of the letter, Rochester begins to have deep suspicions about everything concerning Antoinette and the place he had only temporarily thought of as a tropical paradise. He had swallowed his suspicions before—the sexual licence his marriage affords him, and the fortune that has come to him through Antoinette, might well make most men do the same—but now he can excuse himself for his own sense of bloated satiety. We realise he had already had enough of Antoinette—her habit of lapsing into patois with the servants, her blatant lack of any sense of propriety, her downright ignorance—and, after hearing Daniel’s allegations about the family’s mental instability, he starts to see a way out.
For me, the most interesting thing about this section is that, as Rochester presents us with his take on how things go from now on, we realise that he is no stronger mentally than she is. Bu, of course, everything about him—his gender, his new wealth, his status as an Englishman—makes that fact irrelevant. Only a short section is narrated by Antoinette, almost indistinguishable from Rochester’s narrative in its desperation—but whereas her sense of powerlessness leads her only to Christophine, he thinks he can see a real escape. He feels he has been manipulated, just as Antoinette does, both by her family and his own. But, in this society—his society—he can do something about it.
The dreadful irony is that this society, the one that has given him all the power and left Antoinette with nothing beyond the help she can beg of Christophine, seals his doom as much as Antoinette’s. For different reasons, he has no greater emotional or intellectual resources to understand the situation than she does, and it is about to condemn him to a life of unhappiness. We see the unfolding faux-logic of his explanation of the situation at the same time that alternative versions are made available to him, both from Antoinette and Christophine. But, ever since the arrival of the fateful letter, he has bought into Daniel’s version as fully as ever Antoinette has believed in Christophine. And, being an Englishman now made rich by her stepfather’s money, he has a monopoly not only of the power, but of the truth. He doesn’t realise that his version of everything is as subjective as Antoinette and Christophine’s, and it doesn’t matter because only he will be listened to. Which, of course, he takes utterly for granted.
It makes for painful reading. We see this terribly limited man, with his all too understandable sense of grievance, getting it all wrong. The effect on Antoinette, of course, is devastating. A terrible irony in these chapters comes from the way her efforts to deal with her situation lead her to behave in ways which, as far as he is concerned, prove her madness. She has persuaded Christophine, the only woman she trusts, to make up a potion that will make him love her again. Any reader can see that this isn’t madness, but the behaviour of a woman who foresees a terrible future for herself if she does nonting. She clutches at a hopeless fantasy of restoring the love we know her husband never felt. His violent sexual passion—or his passion for sex, violently carried out whenever the urge has taken him—temporarily blinded both of them to the truth: he, a product of a repressed and narrow-minded culture, could not resist what her very different models of behaviour could offer. But now, what he sees as the lack of any self-restraint in her simply disgusts him, and proves her inferiority. He even begins to wonder—horror of horrors!—whether she might not be of entirely white stock.
It’s a literary masterclass. Everything she does proves her inferiority to him, while nothing he does, including noisy sex with a Black maid that he knows Antoinette will overhear, will reduce his standing or power. He will be able to destroy her, while believing all along that the cross he will have to bear from now on is proof of his own wronged innocence. He could have left Antoinette in the Caribbean and hurried back to England, but he chooses not to. He has a moral point to make, to himself and to the world, that Englishmen are superior to such underhand behaviour. Really, of course, he wants to make sure that she, and the superstitious, grasping—and racially inferior—old nurse, will not live happily ever after without him.
He sees Antoinette at best as a child or a doll, and at worst the personification of Caribbean superstition and Creole madness. What we see in her is a desperate, increasingly depressed and withdrawn girl of seventeen who has no models of how to behave. The nuns offered a brief respite from her difficult life, but taught her only about how to die, not to live. Christophine is wiser than Rochester gives her credit for—and she plainly tells Antoinette that no potion will work on white people—but she is just as limited by her background. As for Annette… all she has taught her daughter, as far as Rochester can tell, is how to bite. It takes on as immediate a symbolic significance as anything that has gone before, and proves to him that he has been deceived into marrying a madwoman.
I can think of only one other work of fiction in which a strange and exotic country provides the mise-en-scene for the working out of a kind of narrative psychosis. In Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano it is a province in Mexico on the Day of the Dead that becomes far more than a metaphor of complete psychological breakdown. In that novel, too, it is difficult to perceive any boundary between the external world and the internal lives of the characters, and at the same time the boundaries between those characters’ own psychologies become almost interchangeable. In Lowry’s novel, as the Consul descends into the abyss, his wife has gone before him. In Rhys’s novella… the same thing seems to be happening. Nobody wins, and the overheated, crowded, noisy sub-tropical landscape—and its people—carries on as though nothing had happened.
But on the way, we get some horrifying insights into his mindset. ‘I tell you she loves no-one, anyone. I could not touch her. Excepting as the hurricane touches that tree—to break it. You’ll say I did? No. That was love’s fierce play. Now I’ll do it. / She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile in that damnable looking-glass. So pleased, so satisfied. / Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover, for I don’t want her and she’ll have no other.’ It sounds like mere sadism, but he can’t be the villain of their story if he takes her home with him, making arrangements for her to be cared for. Antoinette, no more insane than anyone who has lashed out in desperation at the cause of their pain, will be condemned to live out a life of virtual house-arrest while he has persuaded himself he is making a terrible sacrifice. In his narrative, he’s the hero and everything and everyone around him is to blame. ‘I was tired of these people,’ he begins, then lists all the things he hates about them and the place, culminating in ‘and I hated her.’
And their tragedy is complete.
Less than ten pages, and it’s at least as hard to read than what has gone before. Grace Poole, the nurse or keeper we recognise from Jane Eyre, briefly describes the terms of her employment, and the early days of it. Then it’s Antoinette’s turn, and it’s almost unbearably sad. It’s long been a trope of film and fiction that if a character is treated as mad, there is little or nothing they can do to prove otherwise—especially if, like Antoinette, they have no models of the kind of acceptable behaviour that society defines as sane. There is no stimulus in her attic room, no window low enough to see out of, not even a mirror. Rochester has been as good as his word in keeping her away from absolutely everything and, of course, the reader is bound to wonder how anyone could keep hold of any vestige of sanity in such a cell. Reality and her dreams blur into one another and, once, she does something terrible that she has no recollection of. This is the attack on Richard Mason—an attack that is easy to understand, even though she can’t remember it. He was the one who bought her a husband, and peace of mind for himself, with everything she possessed.
And there’s a final dream, presented so vividly by her that we wonder whether it’s really the stream-of-consciousness account of a real event. She knows where Grace Poole keeps her keys, knows her way around the house that is so brown and dull to her that she considers it to be made of cardboard. ‘Who am I?’ she often wonders, and we can understand why she believes herself to be in some sort of limbo, far away from the England that her husband promised. She’s far away from anywhere that anyone would recognise, and when, in her dream, she accidentally sets fire to a curtain, we can believe that this is the beginning of the conflagration in Bronte’s novel. The details of her retreat to the roof are all there, but… she wakes up—and ‘Now at last I know why I was brought here, and what I have to do.’ She takes a lighted candle out of her room and, after she has shielded it from the draught, ‘it burned up again to light me along the dark passage.’
The end. And if we don’t feel like blaming her for what we know is coming next, that’s exactly how Jean Rhys wants it.