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Tuesday, November 06, 2012


First sentences: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. 

Wide Sargasso Sea: the most famous of literary responses. Written with, as Rhys herself put it, 'profound apologies to Charlotte Bronte and a deep curtsey too'*, at a time when she was thinking of calling it The First Mrs Rochester: its very existence, like the apologies and curtsey to Bronte, speaks of passionate ambivalence towards its predecessor Jane Eyre.

There are books like that, often books by women, novels that inspire and bewitch their readers even while containing within themselves such profound and problematic assumptions that to read them is to be pulled into impossibility: this is a book that speaks to you but also of you, and when it speaks of you, it shows no mercy. It resonates with you, speaking directly to the same humanity that, in you, it simultaneously denies.

Jean Rhys, born in Dominca, child of a white Welsh father and Dominican Creole mother. Bertha Rochester, nee Bertha Antoinetta Mason: supposedly white and wealthy, but tainted in the blood by 'her mother, the Creole ... a madwoman and a drunkard', whose debauched animalism leaves Jane's true love Rochester refreshed only by a 'sweet wind from Europe,' seeking salvation in the form of a woman to be 'the antipodes of the Creole' (note the conflation of the moral and the geographical): 'an intellectual, faithful, loving woman' who can, through her purity, cleanse him of this tropical contagion.

What is this contagion? Jean Rhys had an answer.

'Creole' is a word that means different things in different places, so for the sake of clarity we should begin with a definition. In this context, a Creole is a white West Indian, someone born in the Caribbean islands who is ethnically but not culturally European - or rather, not quite European ... or, from the point of view of these books' inhabitants, not European enough. The Creole population of the Caribbean islands, or at least the wealthiest among them, were sugar planters who relied on slave labour; its abolition in 1838 left such planters financially ruined. The loss of emancipated workers was given a compensation rate of £19 per slave by the British government at a time when the 'market price' of such people was £35, and in addition, new laws established free trade in the sugar market, meaning that the value of their product fell just as they lost their workforce. Plantations fell into disrepair, often to be bought up cheap by new, non-Creole, European immigrants. Antoinette Cosway, as 'Bertha Rochester' begins her life in Wide Sargasso Sea, is the daughter of one such plantation, growing up post-slavery on a derelict estate, a 'white n*****' accepted neither by the wealthy whites nor the resentful freed slaves, inheritor of a dowry by her new, non-Creole stepfather, but traded herself in a marriage that passes the wealth entirely to her English husband.

In other words, Antionette is white, but not a full part of white culture. Rochester - unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, simply 'him' or 'her husband' - has no credible reason to believe her otherwise, but rumour, suspicion and paranoia possess him regarding his beautiful bride, who demonstrably has black half-siblings from her father's slave-owning days, and may, he believes, be contaminated by African heritage, incest, nameless eugenic horrors.

Lest this be seen as an over-reading of Jane Eyre, it should be pointed out that the nature of virtue is in Bronte's book is explicitly racialised. We can acknowledge this even while we, with Rhys, tip a deep curtsey to the book's marvellous literary excellence, and even while we fall under its suspenseful spell: the primary speaker against the 'Creole' corruption is Rochester, but Bertha Mason is, even by her visual description, half-goblin, half racial caricature:

'It was a discoloured face - it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!'
'Ghosts are usually pale, Jane.'
'This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows raised over the bloodshot eyes.'

The writing is poised, but the description is a crude cartoon: the rolling eyes and 'swelled' lips and dark, 'inflated' features, all could be found in any imperialist image of the stereotypical African. Madness hasn't just corrupted Bertha Rochester's mind: it's darkened her skin and rounded her features and filled out her lips and rendered her, quite literally, 'blackened.'

That's a Creole-descended woman. Like Jean Rhys.

It's worth quoting Rochester's 'sweet wind from Europe' speech at greater length, in fact, because it employs imagery that Rhys was to adopt and make play upon, the idea of tropical flora that Rochester abhors becoming his first wife's natural element, the lush red blooms, representative of her healthy selfhood, that he goes so far as to trample underfoot:

A wind fresh form Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed, thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure. I then framed and fixed a resolution. While I walked under the dripping orange trees of my wet garden, and amongst its drenched pomegranates and pineapples, and while the refulgent dawn of the tropics kindled round me - I reasoned thus, Jane - and now listen; for it was true Wisdom that consoled me in that hour, and showed me the right path to follow. 
The sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves, and the Atlantic was thundering in glorious liberty; my heart, dried up and scorched for a long time, swelled to the tone, and filled with living blood - my being longed for renewal - my soul thirsted for a pure draught. I saw hope revive - and felt regeneration possible. From a flowery arch at the bottom of my garden I gazed over the sea - bluer than the sky: the old world was beyond; clear prospects opened thus: -
'Go,' said Hope, 'and live again in Europe...' 

It's impossible for a sensitive reader to miss either the bone-deep insult and the yearning, seductive poetry of the language. Rhys missed neither ... and she responded to both.

The first sentence of Wide Sargasso Sea is one half of a balance, a set-up for the deep, fatalistic closure of the second. 'They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did,' says Antoinette. 'But we were not in their ranks.' Even in the first sentence, 'the white people' implicitly excludes the speaker: it would be grammatically possible, but stylistically inelegant, for 'the white people' to include the narrative voice, and stylistic inelegance is out of the question in this reflective, half-iambic cadence. But at the same time, it's a sentence that already implies the speaker is white, else why would it she be considering the 'close ranks' advice as if it applied to her? This is a sentence empty of the first person, or even of any individuals: 'they say' and 'the white people' are collective terms, groups to which the speaker evidently does not belong: Antoinette is outside her own beginning, even down to identifying herself.

Notable, too, is the atmospheric pressure that social customs are felt to apply - and the way that blame, or even causation, cannot quite be pinned down. 'Trouble comes', the concept arriving on its own with no human companion in the sentence. 'The white people' are nameless, generic, inextricably linked by their description - note the definite article, the white people, people who are spoken of by third parties as 'the white people' with their whiteness as their defining factor. Race shapes people here.

Who are the 'they' who say to close ranks, white people or black, or both? It can't be known - but the fact that some people are generically identified as the white ones implicitly shows up the presence of black people too: the white people are having trouble and obliged to close ranks, and therefore are not the majority. Closing ranks is the act of an embattled people, not an established nation. We are a long way from England here. Already, we are seeing a sense of cultural jumble. People are identified by race, but proverbial wisdom comes from an unclear source. Unclear, but followed: people do what 'they say', but can't quite identify who 'they' are. How can a sensitive hearer navigate such nebulous pressures? Tragically, Antoinette can't.

Jane Eyre begins with a definite statement: 'There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.' I've said elsewhere that that firm, unquestionable prohibition sets out the understanding that human rules are non-negotiable - it's Mrs Reed's decision that means no walk can be taken, but Mrs Reed's word is implacable - and Wide Sargasso Sea likewise begins with a gesture of resignation: human mores are as forceful here as in its predecessor. But what in Jane Eyre is solid - rule-makers like Mrs Reed and Mr Brocklehurst and St John Rivers have a powerful physical presence, 'heathenish' little Jane absorbs the Christian propriety that will shape her adulthood from Helen Burns and Miss Temple in a clear line of moral descent, individuals embody the morals they profess to an almost mythical degree - is, in Wide Sargasso Sea, a whisper on the wind. Things may be impossible, but you can't know in advance; you only find the impossibility when you dash yourself against it, and even then, it's not quite clear who's ultimately to blame. Who made the rules? 'They say': we don't know. Need they be followed? Not necessarily: 'and so the white people did' creates a separation between the making of the rule and the acting upon it. 'There was no possibility of taking a walk' renders the rule and the compliance in a single phrase, but splitting 'they say' and 'so [they] did' into two clauses makes a moment in which the mandate might not, in fact, have been followed. 'There was no possibility of taking a walk that day, but we took one nonetheless' doesn't work. 'They say when trouble comes close ranks, but the white people did not' would make just as much sense. Social pressure here is truly social, not the justice or injustice of particular people - people can be fought - but a pressure as irresistible and impersonal as the weather - or more appropriately, as the tides.

This is the pressure that will destroy Antoinette: the confusions and contradictions of a place built on exploitation, resentment, the hostility and incomprehension of cultures. Why 'Wide Sargasso Sea'? The Sargasso Sea is a sea without borders, bounded not by land but by ocean currents. Not by the tangible, but by irresistible forces. Into the Sargasso Sea, all the currents deposit the plants and refuse of their original sources; the water is clear and beautiful, but tangling sargassum seaweed throngs the surface. Or at least, mythically tangling: ships lost on the Sargasso are usually becalmed, not choked in seaweed. A place where you can drown in the clear depths, cluttered with the detritus of other places, bounded by powerful forces you can feel but cannot see. It's one of the most perfect titles in the history of literature.

And when one thinks of the fluidity of tides, it's worth considering the use of language and sound in this first sentence. 'They say when trouble comes close ranks,' Antoinette begins, the imperative slipped in commaless and unmounted. Grammatically correct? Of course - but English? Not entirely. Jane Eyre would say 'They say that when trouble comes one must close ranks,' or at the very least put some kind of punctuation between the 'say' and the 'comes'; Antoinette's voice smooths over the meaning, the alliterative 'c' and iambic rhythm making the sentence sound flowing rather than clipped, even as it quietly drops unnecessary words. This is a voice influenced by the accents she hears around her: her nurse Christophine's voice is quoted in the same paragraph, describing Antoinette's mother: 'she pretty like pretty self.' Not, 'she was pretty like prettiness itself': a voice that is, in the linguistic sense of the word, creolised. A voice that has no time for the extraneous, the fripperies, the verbal niceties of an invader's tongue. Antoinette's voice is whiter than Christophine's, but it is not quite the formal English of Jane Eyre's either. Her words are simple, no more than two syllables, only two clauses in the sentence, and while the placing of voices, never mind blame, is hazy and confused, the placing of events is clear and straightforward, a neat line of event following event. Antoinette can say what happened when; events themselves are vividly perceived. She just can't say who, ultimately, is the cause. And if you cannot say who is the cause - if you cannot say by whose hand 'trouble comes' - you cannot know until it is too late how to protect yourself.

Almost every world will have closed ranks against Antoinette by the end of her story. Most of the black characters have little reason to love a former slaver's impoverished girl; Christophine has no power to protect her; her family trade her; her disenchanted husband imprisons her in a foreign land. 'The white people' closed ranks, Antoinette tells us, finally closing ranks against her too ... and we hear in this first sentence the echo of her fall. For Antoinette, an outside observer to this closing of ranks, is culturally marooned: she will end with nothing left to do but reenact the erstwhile slave uprising that burned her first home, reenact it from the other side as the rebel slave, taking into herself at last the fury of her first enemies. What else can she do? We can hear it from the moment she begins to speak to us: trouble will come, and lost, isolated Antoinette has no ranks to close.

*From a letter quoted in the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, p viii.


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