Word by Word

Creating myself one word at a time.


Wide Sargasso Sea cover

Published in 1966, this book brought literary fame to Jean Rhys only This 13 years before her death.

This is the continuation of a series of blogs looking back on the books that made an impression on me in my youth.

By the time I went off to college in 19…, well the year doesn’t really matter, I’d already read a fair number of books considered classics. You know the lineup: “Anna Karenina,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Great Expectations” just to name a few. One of the classics I’d read and enjoyed immensely was “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë.

I mean, what wasn’t to love? Shy, abused girl trying to make her way in the world. Dark, brooding owner of the manor. Gothic elements. And that whole “string attached to my heart” thing. Swoon!

Then I took a class my freshman year of college called “The Novel.” It was right up my literature-loving alley. You got to read novels…for homework…and then spend two hours talking about it…with other people who like to read. Swoon!

Okay, sorry, I digress. In this class, one of the professors assigned us the novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys. She said it was a prequel to “Jane Eyre.” It’s what might have happened before Jane, before the mad woman in the attic was “mad.” I was intrigued.

Jean Rhys blew my mind! There is another side to the story. I’d never thought to understand Bertha Mason’s back story. Rhys, who was born in Dominica, portrayed what it mean to be “other” in a society dominated by white males. There are a lot of literary theory and criticism words you can apply to this story: postcolonial postmodern. I call it eye-opening.

I will warn you. If Mr. Rochester is your dream guy, steer clear.

If, however, you like to have your views turned upside down and your paradigms shifted, “Wide Sargasso Sea” may be something you’d like to read.

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys (1890-1979)

I went on to read “Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography” by Rhys and was impressed with the wit and sarcasm. Her life was one with ups and downs. Unlucky in love. Literary success late in life.

There is a piece of me that thinks Charlotte Brontë would have appreciated what Rhys did. I know I appreciated her opening my eyes to the other side of the story.

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