Story for Today
Recommended by Jacqueline Mézec (Honorary Secretary, Jersey Arts Centre Association)
WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys
I avidly read Jean Rhys’ novels, written in the1920s and 1930s about rootless female characters drifting in the demi-monde of Paris and London (art mirroring her own life), when they were republished in the 1970s and 1980s.
Success came late to Jean Rhys (too late she said) in 1966, when she was in her 70s and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ was published. Based around a character in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, it is one of those rare prequel/sequel books which is artistically as good as the original work.
Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Rochester is the ‘madwoman in the attic’, a gothic villain and a barrier to Jane Eyre’s fulfilment and happiness, who the author doesn’t attempt to understand. Jean Rhys filled that void, using her experience, as an outsider coming to Europe from the Caribbean island of Dominica, to inform a poignant portrait of the same character as a young Creole woman. Jean Rhys names her Antoinette (Bertha is a nickname given to her by her husband in the book) and reveals the heart-breaking failure of her early marriage. Antoinette’s family are former slave owners and the novel deals with themes of post-colonialism, mental health and feminism.
I love both books, and they demonstrate how point of view affects the telling of a story. During lockdown I watched the National Theatre screening of their adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’ (a co-production with Bristol Old Vic) where Bertha is played by Melanie Marshall, who says nothing and sings instead, acting as a haunting counterpoint to the main characters – yet another way of telling Bertha’s story, freeing her spiritually from her incarceration.