About eight years ago (or nine? really? that long? *!~#*!) I decided to take a course through the Open University. Wanting to do a science course but not having access to a computer at the time which was required, I “settled” for a humanities course instead. It was an introductory course so it briefly covered a wide range of topics such as art history, classical studies, music, philosophy and of course literature.
Naturally the literature part was my favourite and, I’m pleased to say, the section I did the best at. I’ve always wanted to study literature but for some reason have been a bit scared to actually do it. No idea why but the OU course gave me a bit more confidence and introduced me to some writers I wasn’t familiar with, one of whom was Jean Rhys.
As part of the assignments I had to read Wide Sargasso Sea in which Rhys takes the mad woman from the attic of Jane Eyre and gives her a story. I hadn’t read Jane Eyre at this point so the story was completely fresh to me and I loved it. I have since read it and I really enjoyed it but I couldn’t help thinking of Antoinette Cosway whenever the former Mrs Rochester appeared.
There is something haunting about Rhys’s portrayal of women who are lost in some way, struggling to retain their dignity and often their youth. She was far ahead of her time in that the emotions and desires so evocative in her writing are timeless in their relevance. I could still feel the pang of a young woman’s agony at having her freedom and even her name removed, and the sad passion of a woman past her prime waiting for someone to give her what she needs.
Her subtle way of presenting someone’s state of mind, seemingly revealing nothing until suddenly you realise how well you know the character when you feel an ache inside at their situation – it stays with you. I read a column where the journalist said she only had to read Jean Rhys once because she could remember everything after the first reading. I find that to be true for me as well. I may never read Wide Sargasso Sea or Good Morning, Midnight again but they are among my most vividly remembered memories of fiction.