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. 

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