In life Jean Rhys was a troubled person. She likely suffered from borderline personality disorder, depression, and acute feelings of loneliness and isolation. She was not a happy person. Living off of the labor of others while supplementing her income with various odd-jobs, she is an interesting figure in the late Victorian era precisely for her dark worldview. Even so, it was this outlook which enabled her to write one of the great novels of her time: viewing events from a racially marginalized position, she was able to sublimate colonist after-effects into a work of art which endures to this day.
The work in question is entitled Wide Sargasso Sea. Her final book, Rhys wrote it to rehabilitate Charlotte Bronte’s “crazy woman in the attic” and show the human side of her; effacing the primacy of patriarchy was no small feat, yet a “fan fiction” prelude to Jane Eyre was no easy feat to write. Taking decades to complete, the re-telling of Bertha/ Antoinette within a sympathetic vein was no small feat.
Filled with powerful writing, mysterious allusions, historical references, and more than a few biographical glimpses, Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel demanding to be read. Dense in its content, Rhys provides enough material to be able to interpret and construe the story through innumerable lenses. Rhys’s style is rich and sophisticated. This, in turn, allows her iteration of Bertha’s story maturity and originality. New characters meld with those already established flawlessly; from beginning to end, the story of how Bertha, or the first Mrs. Rochester came to be how the world saw her in Jane Eyre, is told with mastery which could only come from a true spirit of how it must have felt. Rhys, if nothing more than an artist, at least gave the world her Mona Lisa.