Although Jane Austen’s novels are filled with captains and soldiers and militias, there is little mention of the places that they disappear to in between being called upon for balls. Austen-land takes no notice of the Napoleonic wars, or of Canada, or the dying embers of slave trade, or colonies in the East and West Indies and Australia.
And, by and large, this silence is shared by the rest of England’s Victorian novelists. In Dickens, the colonies are just a place where Martin Chuzzlewit can go when Dickens is running low on inspiration or where the Artful Dodger and Mr. Micawber can be dispatched at the end of their respective books.
Trollope is not much better (somewhat surprisingly, considering that his mother once ran a general store in Cleveland that provided the raw material for her staggeringly popular dissection of American life: The Domestic Manners of Americans). He, like Dickens, wrote a few travelogues, but in his novels, there is little mention of the millions of Englishmen (and the hundreds of millions of subject peoples) who are raising the British flag in foreign climes.
Only Thackeray is even willing to allude to the existence of the colonies. A significant portion of the offstage action of Vanity Fair occurs in India, where Josiah Sedley makes his fortune as a tax collector in the princedom of Boggley-Wallah. Sedley’s occupation is just the merest nod to an immense colonial reality, but when put against the silence in most other books of the era, it begins to seem rather praiseworthy that Thackeray was even capable of noting that a significant fraction of his countrymen and women were engaged in these pursuits abroad.
Indeed, it seems like British literature didn’t begin taking notice of the colonies until the empire was well on its way to crumbling. In the late 19th century, we finally see the works of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kiping; and in the early 20th century we bookend the imperial era with colonial novels from E.M. Forster, George Orwell, and Graham Greene.
And that’s all great, but it still doesn’t erase two centuries of silence during which British people subjugated the world while their literati worked steadily to focus ever-increasing attention on the domestic lives of its provincial gentry.
The genius of Wide Sargasso Sea is that it forcibly inserts itself into this history. As most of you probably know, this is a novel that’s told from the point of view of Bertha Mason, the crazy heiress from the West Indies whose marriage to Mr. Rochester (in Jane Eyre) forms a stumbling block to the burgeoning romance between the two. In Jane Eyre, Mason is basically a MacGuffin: she’s a complication (albeit a complication that is the source of some truly horrifying scenes) that Charlotte Bronte introduced in order to keep the plot humming along.
Wide Sargasso Sea mostly takes place in the Carribbean, where the protagonist is the daughter of an old-line white planter who lost all his wealth after Britain ordered the emancipation of his slaves. She grows up in beautiful isolation, surrounded by a black populace that hates her for her parents’ crimes and calls her a “white cockroach”. But the Englishmen who occasionally come into her ambit also find her to be strange. Despite the color of her skin, they don’t in any way think of her as an English person. Two centuries in the West Indies have nativized her. She lives wild in the forests and believes in traditional magic. Some of the most beautiful passages of the book are just about the daily events of her incredibly isolated life on a remote part of a remote island.
But that’s where the genius comes in. Because while you’re reading this book, you can’t help but constantly think, “My god, this book is taking place at basically the same time as Jane Eyre. While Jane is living her stolid live in a tubercular boarding house, this woman is living this strange, tropical life. They’re both living these lives at the same time and under the same flag and under the same cultural tradition, but neither can possibly imagine the life of the other.”
It’s this leap across the boundaries of blank spaces in the page that makes the book so amazing. The author, Jean Rhys, found a way to go back into literature and forcibly insert herself and her culture into this stolid touchstone of British literature. It’s kind of like a huge wad of spit delivered right into the eye of the Victorian era.
The novel is also very sad. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel that was quite this lonely. The protagonist really has no one who cares for her. She has no future and she has no past. Something about this weariness reminded me a little bit of Faulkner, but at least in Faulkner, all the characters had their history. And they had their social superiority. They might not be worth much, but at least they were worth more than the blacks.
This protagonist has neither of those things. The English people have erased her history. And their numerical superiority means that black people form a constant physical danger to her. Although she cannot survive without their help, she also has no economic or social power with which to compel their obedience.
The novel contains one of the plaintive lines I’ve ever read:
I have been too unhappy, I thought, it cannot last, being so unhappy, it would kill you.
On a sidenote, this book also has a very sad and lonely “Making of…”
The author, Jean Rhys, was born in 1890. She was part of that 1920s generation of emancipated literary women and she published several books during the 20s and 30s. Then she just disappeared. She avoided her friends. She stopped publishing. For 27 years, not a word came out of her. Then, in 1966, she produced this novel. It won awards and became famous and revived her career. But I wonder what happened during that long silence? In search of this question, I hunted down her Paris Review interview, where the interviewer asked her, “What did you do during all those years when you weren’t writing” and Rhys said:
“When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never head a long period of being happy. Do you think anyone has. I think you can be peaceful for a long time. When I think about if, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down.”