What I'm Reading

I can think of a few things I have in common with Jean Rhys. We both were born and grew up in the Caribbean -- Ms. Rhys was born on the Island of Dominica and I was born in Guyana. We're both Virgos, writers, and last, but not least, Jane Eyre had a profound impact on us.

For me, Edward Rochester was the most complicated hero I'd ever read about, but it was Bertha Mason, his Creole "mad" wife who was kept locked in the attic that bothered me. While I wondered about her, Rhys actually turned her story into a novel, titled Wide Sargasso Sea.

In 1967, she wrote a letter to her editor, Diana Athill, where she expressed her frustration with the way Bertha was portrayed in Jane Eyre.

“I came to England between sixteen and seventeen a very impressionable age (the year was 1907), 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."

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys paints a psychological masterpiece of a young white Creole girl, Antoinette (Bertha) Mason, as she came of age in Jamaica when it was a British colony. It's a lush book, full of imagery, culture, and history. Antoinette's marriage to Rochester which was just a back-story in Jane Eyre becomes as vibrant as the Jamaican landscape.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a compelling piece of literature from a fascinating author who led a colorful life. She draws from her own memories of growing up in Dominica, which only adds more life to her portrayal of racial inequality and voodoo magic. Setting the novel during the abolition of slavery in 1834 (by pushing the time-frame up by about thirty years), enables Rhys to show how white Creole women fared during this tumultuous period and changing race relations.

It is widely believed that all of Rhys' novels are, in some ways, autobiographical. There was the heroine of her novel, Voyage in the Dark, moving to England from the West Indies to work as a chorus girl in England, very much like Rhys. Even Tales of the Wide Caribbean, a collection of short stories that was published six years after her death, offers a glimpse into her formative years in Dominica.

The best works of literature are the ones that draw from our memories and experiences, and Jean Rhys' life made for intriguing characters and settings. Wide Sargasso Sea will seduce you and change the way you read Western Literature. When I read Jane Eyre now, I see more than just a crazy woman in the attic -- I see a woman who was shaped by her circumstances. You will too, and you will enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea.

Tag: What I'm Reading