Wide Sargasso Sea | Study Guide

Jean Rhys

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Wide Sargasso Sea | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Written in response to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966 and uncovers the secret history of Bertha, the mysterious "madwoman" who lives in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Rhys read Jane Eyre as a teenager growing up in Dominica, but it wasn't until much later in life that she answered these questions: Just who is the madwoman in the attic? What is her story?

Wide Sargasso Sea, which took decades to write, tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (later renamed Bertha), a Creole heiress stuck in an unhappy marriage to an Englishman who, though never named in the novel, is ostensibly Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester. The novel, which is considered a postcolonial response to Jane Eyre, explores themes of racial identity and inequality, displacement, and power relations between men and women.

Written years after Rhys's previous novels, Wide Sargasso Sea is by far her most commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel.

1. Before Wide Sargasso Sea was published, many assumed Rhys was dead.

Rhys wrote prolifically in the 1930s, until a series of unfortunate events in her personal life led her to fall out of the public eye for the next two decades. During this time many people assumed she had died. An article in 1950 referred to her as "the late Jean Rhys," and the BBC declared that she had died during the war.

2. It took Rhys almost 30 years to write Wide Sargasso Sea.

Rhys reportedly began working on an early version of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1939, but it wasn't until the late 1950s that she received a publishing deal. She promised her publisher it would be ready in "six to nine months' time," but it took her another eight years to finish the manuscript. She was delayed by difficult personal circumstances—including poverty, depression, and alcoholism—as well as indecision about the structure of the novel.

3. Wide Sargasso Sea was published when Rhys was 76.

By the time Wide Sargasso Sea was finally published—27 years after her previous novel—Rhys was 76 years old. Despite earlier rumors of her untimely demise, she lived another 12 years. In her 80s Rhys began work on an autobiography, but she died before it could be completed.

4. Rhys grew up in Dominica and had firsthand knowledge of the West Indies.

Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica, in 1890 and spent her first 17 years in this tropical paradise. Rhys drew on her colonial upbringing to write Wide Sargasso Sea. Like Rochester, her father was a British man who came to the Caribbean and almost immediately married a Creole woman. Later in life Rhys wrote about Dominica with great nostalgia, calling it the only real home she ever had.

5. Rhys read Jane Eyre as a teenager and resented the way Creole women were represented.

When Rhys read Jane Eyre in her teens, she was appalled by Brontë's depiction of Creole women. She explained:

Jane Eyre was one of the books I read then. Of course Charlotte Bronte makes her own world...she convinces you, and that makes the poor Creole lunatic all the more dreadful. I remember being quite shocked, and when I reread it rather annoyed. That's only one side—the English side."

So she decided to tell the other side of the story.

6. Like Antoinette, Rhys felt like an outcast in England.

In 1907, when she was 17, Rhys left Dominica and enrolled in the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, England. The contrast between cold, damp England and her lush, tropical childhood home proved quite disquieting. It didn't help that she was tormented by her snobby new classmates—one told her, "What a really nasty voice you've got."

7. Rhys considered the titles Le Revenant and The First Mrs Rochester before settling on Wide Sargasso Sea.

Rhys considered numerous titles before choosing Wide Sargasso Sea. Le Revenant is French for "the ghost." She also considered the titles Before I Was Set Free, Purple Against Red, and Wild Sea of Wrecks, among several others. She was finally inspired by a line in a poem her cousin wrote: "Across the gold Sargasso Sea, I watch my heart come back to me."

8. Rhys's great-grandfather's estate in Dominica was the model for Coulibri in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Just as Coulibri—the Jamaican estate where Antoinette grew up—was burned by formerly enslaved people in the novel, Rhys's great-grandfather's estate, Geneva, was partially destroyed by rioters in 1844. In 1930 the estate house was completely burned down by arsonists. Rhys visited the ruined estate in 1936 and was quite affected by the experience.

9. After the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, the queen named Rhys a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Rhys was awarded the honor of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1978, one year before her death, for her contributions to literature. One critic has pointed out the dramatic irony of Rhys suddenly being promoted to a top rank in the British Empire, because she had felt so out of place in England and had chronicled the abuses of the British Empire in her writing.

10. Wide Sargasso Sea won the prestigious W.H. Smith Literary Award.

In 1966 Rhys was selected as the recipient of the W.H. Smith Literary Award. Her only comment on receiving the award was that it had "come too late." She also won the Royal Society of Literature Award for Wide Sargasso Sea.

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