One of my favourite bookish activities last year was helping to organize a Jean Rhys reading week in September. Together with other readers we read and discussed most of Rhys’ literary output. 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of her most well-known novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” and to commemorate this event the British Library created a small exhibit in their Treasures Gallery displaying some of Rhys’ original manuscripts and other texts and articles related to her writing. I nearly missed out on this exhibit which will close on January 8th but luckily I ran into the writer Catherine Hall who lives around the corner from where I work and she mentioned it to me. So I popped into the British Library to have a look at the display.

It gives an introduction to the context in which Rhys wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea” discussing how she was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and the character of Bertha Mason (who Rhys referred to as a “poor Creole lunatic”). Rhys sought to reignite the material of Brontë’s novel and give it new life by writing a prequel to it. In doing so, she created an incredibly daring book which draws upon her childhood in the West Indies and has become a great classic. The British Library possesses several manuscript versions of this novel and has some on display in the cases. Whoever edited and transcribed Rhys’ manuscripts must have had a lot of patience as her handwriting is artful but rather difficult to decipher – especially when she makes copious corrections. However, seeing this reinforced for me what Diana Athill discussed in her introduction to Rhys’ unfinished autobiography “Smile Please” where she commented on Rhys’ perfectionism.

The exhibit also includes information and some manuscripts of Rhys’ earlier novels and stories. Included is a draft of “Voyage in the Dark” which contains more graphic scenes than what appeared in the published novel. It also gives a context to the public’s reception to Jean Rhys – who enjoyed relative success in the 1930s with a string of novels but then stopped publishing and fell into obscurity for nearly two decades until her writing was rediscovered. It also interestingly notes how Rhys become something of a fashion icon in the 1970s as was chronicled in several magazine articles which discuss the rejuvenation of old trends in clothes and feature photos of Rhys modeling. There’s an emphasis on clothes in much of Rhys’ writing as she creatively explored concepts of self consciousness and social appearance in her fiction. It makes me smile to think how Rhys must have enjoyed posing for these photos.

It was a pleasure getting a look at these fascinating documents pertaining to Jean Rhys’ writing process and the reception surround her output. The British Library possesses an incredible amount of literary treasures and I should really pay more attention to special events and exhibits they have.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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“Wide Sargasso Sea” is probably Jean Rhys’ most famous novel as it is widely taught in literature courses. It’s seen as an important novel for being a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” by imagining the life of Bertha Antoinetta Mason (the famous mad woman in the attic/first Mrs Rochester at Thornfield Hall). It’s also hailed as an important work of postcolonial literature for its portrayal of Antoinette’s conflicted sense of national/racial identity as her husband is repulsed and rejects her Creole heritage leading to her descent into madness. I read this novel considering these aspects many years ago, but it’s been such a pleasure revisiting it alongside Rhys’ earlier novels as they share or provide a different perspective on many of its ideas, themes and characters. For instance, Antoinette’s claim that “I often stay in bed all day” echoes closely Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” who often does the same. In addition, Antoinette’s Caribbean upbringing is so clearly twined with Rhys’ own childhood in the island of Dominica. This makes “Wide Sargasso Sea” a fascinating encapsulation of much of the material Rhys was working out in her writing throughout her entire life. It’s tremendously moving to think how Rhys came to identify with Brontë’s slighted “mad woman” when her second husband gave her a copy of “Jane Eyre” to read. In the decades between the publication of her previous novel “Good Morning, Midnight” in 1939 and the eventual publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea” in 1966, Rhys laboured to formulate this story by writing many drafts and perfecting the language. The result is a stunning slender novel that stands as the crowning achievement of Rhys’ literary career.

The first third of the novel is about Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood. It’s filled with vibrant invocations of the sensations and social makeup of this racially-divided community. She and her mother live reclusively in the run-down house after the death of her father. But one day her mother marries again and, though they live in relative harmony, the racial tension increases as resentment against the family grows. One tense night their house is set upon and burnt to the ground leading to the tragic death of Antoinette’s disabled brother. This event foreshadows what is to come many years later when Antoinette lives as a virtual prisoner in Thornfield Hall and resolves to burn it down. These destructions of home are physical expressions of the untenable existence of their inhabitants. In Jamaica, the house was burnt because some of the island’s black community were showing this Creole family (whose forefathers owned slaves) that they don’t belong. It leads Antoinette to feel “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.” This anxiety can be felt throughout all of Jean Rhys’ writing, but in this novel it gives a kind of logic to her eventual destruction of Thornfield Hall because it’s somewhere she clearly feels like she doesn’t belong. It’s her way of shattering what she views to be an illusion.

After the destruction of her family’s Jamaican home her mother suffers from mental instability and she is sequestered in a sanatorium. Antoinette’s future is ambivalent, but in the second part we learn an unnamed English gentleman has come to marry her as the marriage comes with a large dowry. Here Rhys narrates from a man’s perspective which is highly uncommon in her fiction. We get his cold-minded blunt thoughts about this marriage of convenience: “I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.” Because he cannot understand her or life on the island, he grows increasingly estranged and mistrustful. A man named Daniel begins sending him letters making accusations about madness in Antoinette’s family and Antoinette’s old nurse Christophine expresses her mistrust of him and plies him with her Obeah potions making him violently ill. In a weakened delusional state he comes to feel that “it seemed everything around me was hostile. The telescope drew away and said don't touch me. The trees were threatening.” This curiously echoes the wild fantasies and paranoia of Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” when she becomes seriously ill towards the end of that novel. It also leads him to abandon Island life and return to England, especially after his father and brother’s death lead him to inheriting the family fortune and stately home.

You can visit the attic in the stately home  Norton Conveyers  which inspired Charlotte Bronte after she heard stories of a woman known as "Mad Mary" who was confined here.

You can visit the attic in the stately home Norton Conveyers which inspired Charlotte Bronte after she heard stories of a woman known as "Mad Mary" who was confined here.

The short third part of this novel shifts to Grace who is charged with caring for Antoinette (renamed Bertha by her husband) while she’s hidden away in Thornfield Hall. For Antoinette, the England she experiences does not match the England in her mind. Throughout the novel the reality of England is questioned. Antoinette states early on that an island friend who now lives in England writes her that “London is a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.” Christophine questions whether England even exists because she’s never seen it. And when Antoinette sneaks out of her attic prison in the evenings she feels “This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.” The reality of the country can never match its mythological status in the minds of these people from the Caribbean. In his frenzied state of mind Antoinette’s husband comes to find “suddenly, bewilderingly, I was certain that everything I had imagined to be truth was false. False. Only the magic and the dream are true – all the rest's a lie.” Such a revelation also seems to come to Antoinette who seeks to destroy the lie of the life around her with fire.

While “Wide Sargasso Sea” has a beautiful artfulness to it, I slightly missed the raw feeling of Rhys’ earlier novels which in some ways seem like more a pure expression of her state of being. She set herself the noble task of telling Antoinette’s story to show the potential full complexity of a character that is often thought of dismissingly as simply the “mad woman in the attic.” But, whatever nuance she gave to her back story, Antoinette had to suffer the same fate as Brontë’s character. This inhibits the story in a way, but it also allowed Rhys the freedom to fully explore the complicated aspects of identity she’d been writing about for years by going back to the Caribbean in her fiction. It feels like a disservice to Rhys that this novel is often only read in isolation because I think I understand it so much better seeing it in relation to her other writing. I think of it more like a crystallization of her life’s work. Being part of this Jean Rhys Reading Week has shown me what beautiful variations Rhys created in her short powerful novels to expound upon her preoccupations and unique perspective about life. I hope that this week has done a little to encourage people to see in Jean Rhys’ other books that there is so much more to her writing than only “Wide Sargasso Sea”.

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It’s been heartening to see the buzz of excitement around the announcement a few days ago about Harper Lee’s new book “Go Set A Watchman” coming out this year. Like so many people, I loved reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” when I was a teen and, although there was no sign of this novel ever going away, how great that there is now a renewed interest in the original book which many people will no doubt read for the first time or reread. Who knows what the quality of it will be like, but it will be fascinating nonetheless. It’s had me thinking about sequels in literature.

It often feels like sequels of classics that come out many years after a book has been published and are written by another author are just looking to make easy money. I'm not talking about Harper Lee obviously who apparently wrote this book before “To Kill A Mockingbird.” As most people only think of sequels in terms of films these days, it’s interesting to note that there has been a long tradition of sequels in literature. I only know this because my boyfriend published an academic book last year titled “The Hollywood Sequel: History & Form, 1911-2010” by Dr Stuart Henderson. Obviously, I highly recommend it. Even as a non-film studies person it’s a fascinating and entertaining read about Hollywood. In an early chapter, it also discusses how many classic and 19th/20th century authors wrote sequels to their books.

The cash in sequel books I'm referring to are novels like “Scarlett” by Alexandra Ripley whose story followed from "Gone with the Wind." I'm not writing with total authority here because I haven't read “Scarlett” (but watched the tv series). Most reviewers were very critical of the book. As far as storyline, it seemed so preposterous and out of character with how Scarlett was in the original book - would she really go to Ireland?

One of my favourite literary prequels would have to be Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” which tells the story of the famous “mad woman in the attic” from Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” as a girl growing up on a Caribbean island and how she came to be the mysterious woman in Bronte’s novel. Having been born on the island of Dominica herself, this novel succeeds so well I think because its invested so much with the author’s own identity and personal history (not literally but her emotional experience). It also gives voice to a character that was marginalized – not necessarily by Bronte – but by the restrictions of the plot as laid out in “Jane Eyre.”

A recent example of a brilliant literary sequel is Rachel Joyce's “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey” which came out in the autumn last year and is a sequel to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” I think it succeeds because it was written by the same author and, though it has lots of references to the first book, it stands on its own and could be read without having read the first book.

Another good example of a literary sequel is JM Coetzee's novel “Foe” which is his sequel to Daniel Defoe's “Robinson Crusoe”. I read both of these while staying on a Greek island last year. Even though this was written many years later and by another author it too succeeds because Coetzee uses the story as a commentary on women and race as represented (or not represented) in Defoe’s text. It’s more like a dialogue. While it was a fascinating read and contemplates the form of writing itself, I don’t think it stands on its own as a satisfying story. While “Robinson Crusoe” stands as an iconic figure in our culture today, it’s probably not well known that Crusoe himself wrote a sequel titled “The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” I haven’t read it but can only guess it’s not as much interest as the original since it’s now virtually forgotten.  

I’ve been trying to think of other sequel books. Do you know of any particularly bad or good ones? Or do you have any favourites?