JUDY KRAVIS

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Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Wide Sargasso Sea

After a 25 year silence, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Mr Rochester's mad wife in Jane Eyre. Jean Rhys, like the mad wife, grew up in the Caribbean. Came to England at 16. Unhappy, fragile and brinkish, living from day to day, job to job, drink to drink.  Mr Rochester's wife is her constitutional. Her best expression. An absentee from her own life, shut up in a secluded wing of a country house, a prisoner in a northern country whose reality she has no means of believing—except for the cold.  

The other night I watched the 1943 film of Jane Eyre with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. The love story of Jane and Mr Rochester, gloriously acted and filmed as it is, leaves the mad wife even more isolated,  without habitat, without sunset or looking glass. (All Jean Rhys's characters want to look at themselves, often.)

In the early 1800s, wealthy young men went out to the colonies in search of further wealth.  Charlotte Brontë could imagine Mr Rochester going in search of adventure, but could not imagine the wife he found there. That was for Jean Rhys to do. She knew the reality of the place, its flora and fauna, the mix of peoples and resentment, the troubled history, the shifting sands of money and property and status.

After reading a run of forgotten novels, early Penguins from the mid-twentieth century, my reading self, like the fasting body, was re-set and ready to receive intensity. Wide Sargasso Sea is a vertical, piercing read, a story of sunshine and death in an alien place, wild and untouched, full of secrets and lies and obeah. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. Mr Rochester doesn't stand a chance. And neither does his wife.

I read Wide Sargasso Sea a second time, just to stay a while longer in a cold week. The book is an axe to the frozen sea within, says Kafka. 

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