Dan Sandman

18: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

In Books, Fiction on 01/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean RhysOn the 16th of October 1847, Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855) published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, a long established classic work of fiction. Bronte’s book was mostly about the romantic relationship between the characters Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, and focused on Jane’s struggle through life and her search for spiritual meaning. Part of the story involves a woman, who has been locked up because she is mad. Bronte created this frightening character as a wave to the Gothic tradition within English literature, and as a plot device to keep the romantic tension at a height.

Late in her career, Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979) wrote Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a short novel written as a prequel to Jane Eyre. In this haunting portrayal of mental illness, the mad woman in the attic Antoinette Cosway is given a detailed back-story. The first part of the book deals with her difficult childhood, the second part examines her troubled marriage, and the brief third part is set during her imprisonment. Using the first person (I did this, I did that), Rhys jerkily flicks perspective (no chapters or headings) from Antoinette to Rochester (who is not named). This difficult technique, at times badly handled by Rhys, can be confusing but becomes easier to spot during the second half of the book. Thematically, it has been argued, the novel explores the aftermath of the Emancipation Act (which stopped slavery), the unequal relationships between men and woman during this time, and the mysteriously destructive power of rumor combined with black magic.

I have often seen Wide Sargasso Sea taught alongside Jane Eyre on literature courses, where students are encouraged to relate both novels to different historical and theoretical perspectives. As I consider what to do with my writing, I am wondering whether an expensive masters course would be worth the investment. Personally, I think that these highly academic courses place too much emphasis on theory, often using it as a means to open up topics which are not relevant to the work itself. For example, it is not possible that Charlotte Bronte was writing from a feminist or post-colonial perspective, seeing as both of these critical viewpoints are twentieth century conceptions. Studying literature has helped me to write my first novel, but I don’t know where to go next with my work.

There are courses for that too, but my trick is to keep reading a book every week for another year.


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