15 March 2016
Wide Sargasso cover

Julia Rochester's first edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, bought by husband Scott when her first book was published

I am not sure ‘influence’ is the best word for what reading does to writing. ‘Permeate’ is better. There is a beautiful line in Wuthering Heights. Catherine is talking to Nelly (while Heathcliff fatefully eavesdrops: if only he had stayed to hear the end of the conversation; how different English Literature would be). Catherine is talking about dreams, but apply ‘read’ and ‘books’ to the sentence and there you have the perfect image for how words enter consciousness:

‘I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.’

One mind-colour altering novel that I return to again and again is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. It is the story of the first Mrs Rochester, but is far from being an adjunct to Jane Eyre. Jean Rhys, who grew up in Dominica, turns her West Indian insight into the story of a Creole heiress in post-emancipation Jamaica, and her descent into madness when she is married to Edward Rochester.  

A few years back I took Wide Sargasso Sea on holiday with me to Barbados. I wanted to read it in a Caribbean climate. I passed it on to a friend with whom we were travelling. He sat in the garden, surrounded by tropical plants, and at one point he looked up from the book and said, with awe, ‘Wow! The parrot!’ 

‘Yes!’ I said. ‘You see what I mean!’ And we shared a moment of perfect mutual understanding, because Rhys is one of those writers who conjures whole worlds out of the simplest few words.  Her editor, Diana Athill, recalls how she would say, ‘Cut, cut, cut. Keep it down as much as possible.’ Rhys pares away at language until you are left with pure impression – like that wine dispersed into water.

I had not remembered, until I read something of Jean Rhys’ background for this piece, that she lived for many years in Devon, where I have set my novel The House at the Edge of the World.

For some of those years she was in Bude, which is on the stretch of North Devon coast which I have fictionalised (or, more accurately, fantasised) in the book. Later, she moved inland, to a small village, which she described as ‘a dull spot which even drink can’t enliven much’. I wonder if any Devon landscape made its way into the lush and hostile Caribbean setting of Wide Sargasso Sea, and if I, having read and re-read it several times over the years,  put something of Jean Rhys’ Jamaica into my Devon.

Certainly, I have stolen from her. (All writers are magpies.) It was only when I sat down to write this that I remembered the parrot, Coco, trying to fly on clipped wings ‘all on fire’, but I have just now realised that, in my latest manuscript, I have brought him back from the dead and re-named him Oscar. His wings are still clipped. 

  • The House at the Edge of the World

  • LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION AND SHORTLISTED FOR THE DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE 2016

    Part mystery, part psychological drama, Julia Rochester's The House at the Edge of the World is a darkly comic, unorthodox and thrilling debut

    When I was eighteen, my father fell off a cliff. It was a stupid way to die.

    John Venton's drunken fall from a Devon cliff leaves his family with an embarrassing ghost. His twin children, Morwenna and Corwin, flee in separate directions to take up their adult lives. Their mother, enraged by years of unhappy marriage, embraces merry widowhood. Only their grandfather finds solace in the crumbling family house, endlessly painting their story onto a large canvas map.

    His brightly coloured map, with its tiny pictures of shipwrecks, forgotten houses, saints and devils, is a work of his imagination, a collection of local myths and histo­ries. But it holds a secret. As the twins are drawn grudgingly back to the house, they discover that their father's absence is part of the map's mysterious pull.

    The House at the Edge of the World is the compellingly told story of how family and home can be both a source of comfort and a wholly destructive force. Cutting to the undignified half-truths every family conceals, it asks the questions we all must confront: who are we responsible for and, ultimately, who do we belong to?

    'Wonderfully crisp and funny, and so full of vivid, surprising images that the reader almost doesn't notice the moment that deep secrets begin to be revealed. I enjoyed this book so much' Emma Healey, bestselling author of Elizabeth is Missing

  • Buy the book
  • Wide Sargasso Sea

    Penguin Essentials

  • Jean Rhys's spell-binding novel Wide Sargasso Sea, inspired by Jane Eyre and winner the Royal Society of Literature Award is beautifully repackaged as part of the Penguin Essentials range.

    'There is no looking glass here and I don't know what I am like now... Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?'

    If Antoinette Cosway, a spirited Creole heiress, could have foreseen the terrible future that awaited her, she would not have married the young Englishman. Initially drawn to her beauty and sensuality, he becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to reach into her soul. He forces Antoinette to conform to his rigid Victorian ideals, unaware that in taking away her identity he is destroying a part of himself as well as pushing her towards madness.

    Set against the lush backdrop of 1830s Jamaica, Jean Rhys's powerful, haunting masterpiece was inspired by her fascination with the first Mrs Rochester, the mad wife in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

    'Compelling, painful and exquisite' Guardian

    'Brilliant. A tale of dislocation and dispossession, which Rhys writes with a kind of romantic cynicism, desperate and pungent' The Times

    'Rhys turns a menacing cipher into a grieving, plausible young woman, and one whose story says whole worlds about global mixtures, about the misunderstandings between the colonized, the colonizers and the people who can't easily say which they are' Time

    Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother, and came to England when she was sixteen. Her first book, a collection of stories called The Left Bank, was published in 1927. This was followed by Quartet (originally Postures, 1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). None of these books was particularly successful and with the outbreak of war they went out of print. Jean Rhys dropped from sight until nearly twenty years later she was discovered living reclusively in Cornwall. During those years she had accumulated the stories collected in Tigers are Better-Looking. In 1966 she made a sensational reappearance with Wide Sargasso Sea, which won the Royal Society of Literature Award and the W. H. Smith Award. Her final collection of stories, Sleep It Off Lady, appeared in 1976 and Smile Please, her unfinished autobiography, was published posthumously in 1979. Jean Rhys died in 1979.

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