Jean Rhys: Giving a voice to the women denied one

By Freya Thomas, English Literature First Year.

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International Women’s Day is synonymous with reflection. A celebration of talented, inspirational and pioneering women throughout history. These take the shape of female artists, musicians, politicians, activists and authors through time, and the focus is invariably on the impact they have had in shaping culture and society today. Jean Rhys – a modernist novelist of the mid-20th century – emerges as a female writer of incredible depth, unobscured authenticity and undeniable talent, a woman who achieved remarkable success in her work despite her deeply troubled background.

Born in Dominica to a Welsh Doctor and a Creole mother in August 1890, Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams – who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Jean Rhys’ – is most famous for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), but wrote a number of other texts drawing from her own experiences of tackling the harsh realities of cultural estrangement, the loss of children, abandonment by lovers, and the difficulties of establishing a female voice and identity.

I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all…

Antionette ‘Bertha’ Mason, in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966.

Having moved to Europe at the age of sixteen, Rhys went on to publish a number of successful works, including After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). However, while her literary accomplishments grew in number, so did her sufferings. Rhys faced racial discrimination, tackled a difficult relationship with her mother, went through three catastrophic marriages, experienced numerous messy affairs, the culmination of which was reached with her near-fatal abortion and lapse to prolonged bouts of alcoholism. Haunted by these afflictions, Rhys eventually disappeared from the literary scene, and ultimately from the public eye altogether. Once described on BBC radio as a ‘forgotten dead writer’, Rhys was even accused by her neighbour of ‘impersonating a dead writer called Jean Rhys’.

But the name Jean Rhys re-entered the limelight twenty-seven years later for the publication of what would become her most famous work: Wide Sargasso Sea. A text sitting in a liminal space between modernist and postmodernist works, and opening up to feminist and post-colonial theory, Wide Sargasso Sea functions as a prequel to Brontë’s much-loved and canonical novel, Jane Eyre (1847). Rhys writes from an entirely different perspective to Brontë, composing a voice not for Jane but for the ‘mad woman in the attic’: Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Mason. We are transported to a perspective distinctly Caribbean in nature, through the voice of both Antoinette and her husband Mr. Rochester, told the story of the white-creole girl’s childhood, her marriage to Rochester, and her subsequent decline into ‘madness’. Jean Rhys famously said of the estranged attic-imprisoned wife in Jane Eyre: ‘she seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I’d like to write her a life’. It is exactly this which Rhys achieves.

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Rhys’ own experiences of straddling two cultural and racial worlds without truly belonging to either pervades the concerns of the protagonist in the novel. Antoinette is a woman isolated from both the native Jamaicans and the second wave of white-English settlers: in a moment of poignant honesty she admits to her husband ‘I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all’.

Jane Eyre has been hailed by many feminist critics as a flagship for nineteenth-century feminist writing, but interestingly while Jane eventually does achieve some level of autonomy and independence, managing to establish a strong sense of voice for herself in the narrative, the voice of the woman in the attic remains inscrutable and neglected. Some suggest that Bertha is a mirror of Jane’s tamed violent and spirited instincts, while others argue that the attic-confined woman is a metaphor for the repressed female Victorian psyche. But Rhys saw ‘the mad woman in the attic’ most obviously not as symbolic, but simply as a racial and gender-based denial of voice. Wide Sargasso Sea gives back this deserved and neglected voice to its owner.

Rhys’ position as a feminist writer is debated: she herself denied any deliberate feminist agency behind her work. But what is clear is that, following International Women’s Day’s reflections upon female figures throughout history, Jean Rhys appears as someone who used her painful female experiences to write novels which are not only beautiful in narrative style, but are profoundly expressive and deeply challenging, and which consistently craft strong and authentic voices for their female protagonists.

Rhys is on the left. Original image, used under Creative Commons license.

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