Burning Down the House
Daughterly Revision in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea
Whether I have any right to do it is a question which I'll face later.
Jean Rhys, Letters
Alive, in motion, torch in hand, nightmare-wakened, and steeled to the fiery purpose of her dream—thus we remember the figure of Antoinette/Bertha Cosway Mason Rochester at the end of Jean Rhys's 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea. A short, stunning novel of spare, lyrical prose, Wide Sargasso Sea enacts a radical intertextual design, an “unprecedented and aggressive” revision (Ellen Friedman 117) of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre from the standpoint of Rhys's own West Indian Creole culture. In the past two decades Rhys's reimagining of the life of Brontë's Creole madwoman has received extensive critical attention, buoyed especially by Bertha Mason's sudden feminist stardom in the title of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's influential work The Madwoman in the Attic. Indeed, the intertextual pairing of Rhys's revision and its canonical mother text has itself become canonical, has come to typify the late-century feminist relationship of legacy and resistance to traditions of women's writing, 1 as well as the postcolonial appropriation of canonical European texts.
What contribution can be made to Rhys criticism, then, by reading Wide Sargasso Sea in the context of late twentieth-century Caribbean women's fictions of return to maternal history? To read Rhys's recreation of Brontë's Bertha as a multilayered allegory of Caribbean daughterly return is to raise a number of questions, first about Rhys's racial and cultural difference from the other writers of both the Caribbean and African-American sections of this study, and then also about the different sort of “return” her novel performs, that is, its primarily literary nature, its interest in reimagining that powerful element of Caribbean (and Commonwealth) cultural history known as English literary tradition. This chapter argues for the value of such a reading despite these differences. For Rhys's text of white colonial daughterly return has become a kind of mother itself: an antecedent and enabler of the Caribbean daughterly “renaissance” Rhys's long life did not quite allow her to see.