Englishness is not a fixed identity but a series of contesting identifies, a terrain of struggle as to what it means to be English.
- Catherine Hall, White, Male, and Middle Class 26
So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.
- Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea 102
In a twentieth-century universe increasingly dazzled by fragmentary subjects and delighted by the logics of a global economy, the task of feminist inquiry must be to refuse celebrations of difference in which what is most frequently forgotten is the question of how and why such differences continue to be reproduced. Feminist inquiry must, instead, enter into the ongoing struggles over difference, participating in the battle over the meaning of gender and ethnicity, sexuality and national identity; in short, it must enlist in the tempestuous border disputes over what counts as the way things are. Jean Rhys's best-known novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, dramatizes the persistent struggles over meaning that are at the critical center of such a feminist politics of knowledge. Wide Sargasso Sea succeeds in more than simply inserting itself into the literary and cultural frameworks of Jane Eyre, the novel that Gayatri Spivak has called a "cult text" (263) of English feminism. Wide Sargasso Sea also inquires into the production of knowledge about Englishness and, in the process, puts Englishness itself into crisis. This article is, therefore, just as much about the details of Rhys's modernist textual intervention as it is about the making of Englishness in the early nineteenth century, both before and following emancipation. I am interested in the connections forged by Rhys's text between a politics of imperialism and a politics of gender, between English nationhood and English womanhood, and between the local geographies of English fiction and the global terrain of colonialism in the nineteenth century. I would like, further, to read Rhys's text not only as an expose of empire but also as the occasion to confront the ever-shifting relations between complicity and resistance that mark all aspects of feminist thought. If Antoinette Cosway, the white West Indian woman of Wide Sargasso Sea, has come to stand for a form of "native" resistance to English patriarchal power for many contemporary feminist readers of Rhys's text (as well as for Rhys herself), she also ultimately discloses a certain complicity with the very English patriarchal logics she challenges. My reading of Wide Sargasso Sea consequently explores some of the ways in which the various feminisms of the text both unsettle and reenact many of the commonsense structures of Englishness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The competing narrative frames, authorial voices, and shifting points of view that characterize Wide Sargasso Sea reenact the struggles over meaning that are embedded within the fictions of colonial identity and English imperial control. One of Rhys's early experiments with a title for the novel, "Sargasso Sea (The Wide) Crossing Across" (Letters 204), appropriately emphasizes this relentless movement.(1) Antoinette's narrative is literally shaped by the uncertainties of a Creole(2) vision that is fractured by the contradictory claims of British colonial history and the cultural residues of a dying West Indian plantation society. Her impossible task in Wide Sargasso Sea is to negotiate between the contradictory logics of British colonialism while also wending her way through the Creole culture and postemancipation English society that continue to elude her.(3) Antoinette explains:
... a white cockroach. That's me. That's what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I've heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all. (102)
Not quite English and not quite "native," Rhys's Creole woman straddles the embattled divide between human and savage, core and periphery, self and other. "They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks" (17) is Rhys's opening invitation into the borderland of the postemancipation West Indies. And yet, while the dramatic collapse of the Caribbean plantation economy in the 1830s succeeded in transforming the class of affluent Creole planters into economically and culturally disenfranchised "white niggers" and "cockroaches," locating them outside the ranks of the new community of nonslaveholding English colonials, it did not succeed in fully severing the Creoles' stubborn attachment to England. For the Anglophone, white Creole, Jamaica or Barbados was where one lived but England was still one's home. Anthony Trollope confirms as much in a rambling midcentury travel book on the West Indies in which he quotes a guide comparing the French colonists' fragile conceptualization of home to the admirably more solid vision held by the English colonists:
The French colonists, whether Creoles or French, consider the West Indies as their country. They cast no wistful looks towards France. They marry, educate, and build in and for the West Indies, and for the West Indies alone. In our colonies it is different. They are considered more as temporary lodging-places, to be deserted as soon as the occupiers have made money enough by molasses and sugar to return home. (159; emphasis in the original)
Of course, the tension between how one actually "made money enough" in the plantation economy of the early nineteenth century and the rising hatred in England for the institution of slavery and the colonial slaveholder complicated still further the task of being a British subject in the West Indies. In response, for example, to tensions over Britain's plan to abolish slavery in the colonies, a plan that did not inspire loyalty to the mother country in most West Indian mercantile planters, colonials in the Jamaican assembly in 1832 angrily renounced their Britishness:
We owe no more allegiance to the inhabitants of Great Britain than we owe to our brother colonists in Canada ... As for the King of England ... what right I should be glad to know has he to Jamaica except that he stole it from Spain? (Robinson 540)
Part One of Wide Sargasso Sea is rocked by the disorienting textual motion between the colonial identification and disidentification with England.(4) Rhys's text repeatedly calls attention to this intense ambivalence, lingering over the confusion of the Creole woman who is caught between the increasingly separate moral and economic logics of England and the West Indian colonies.(5) By 1830, there was virtually a national consensus in England regarding the immorality of slavery. The abolitionist movement in England was steeped in the rhetorics of Christian fellowship, human rights, and moral law that not only aided in excluding the slaveholder from the community of respectable English men and women but also clearly invested him with the moral and sexual indecencies attached to the hateful system he espoused.(6) Antoinette's plantocrat father, for example, is more than simply a slaveholder. He is also a promiscuous rake and a drunkard, producing "half-caste" bastards almost as quickly as he produces profits and then consuming those profits with equal haste. On the second marriage of Antoinette's mother, the subject of conversation settles on old Cosway and his untimely death:
Emancipation troubles killed old Cosway? Nonsense - the estate was going downhill for years before that. He drank himself to death. Many's the time when - well! And all those women! She never did anything to stop him - she encouraged him. Presents and smiles for the bastards every Christmas. (29)
Missionaries, abolitionists, and, by midcentury, common English people of all sorts dwelled on the excesses of plantation society. So much so, in fact, that the West Indian plantation owner and, by association, all the members of his family were convenient symbols of evil and immorality by the time Charlotte Bronte chose to write about the moral recuperation of one such tainted personage in Jane Eyre.(7)
Rhys's Antoinette Cosway must navigate her way through these treacherous landscapes of Creole and English identity. In short, even before Rochester arrives on the scene to initiate the increasingly violent battle between his narration and hers, his vision and hers, his historical memory of the vices of preemancipation times and her cultivated forgetting, the struggle over meaning that underlies Antoinette's tortured queries about herself and her place in the world is already under way. Rochester observes:
[Antoinette] was undecided, uncertain about facts - any fact. When I asked her if the snakes we sometimes saw were poisonous, she said, "Not those. The fer de lance of course, but there are none here," and added, "but …