Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” relegates Mr. Rochester’s first wife to an attic, written off as a raving lunatic. Jean Rhys takes up the mad wife’s story in “Wide Sargasso Sea,” an overlooked and unique novel recommended by “Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
The book I would like to talk about I think people may have forgotten somewhat — "Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys. I have a personal connection with it because I actually met Jean Rhys when she was fairly old, and it was my editor in England — Diana Athill — who rediscovered her. People thought she was dead, but in fact she was off the radar, writing this book.
"Wide Sargasso Sea" is one of the very first books in which a character from a well-known book takes over center stage and tells her own story. It's the mad wife from "Jane Eyre," telling the story of her life. In "Jane Eyre," Mr. Rochester is married to a Creole wife, a woman from the West Indies. She is said to have gone mad, and she's up in the attic. Eventually, she sets fire to the house.
"Wide Sargasso Sea" is the story of her growing up in this colony, and of Mr. Rochester coming over and courting her — really for the money — and then her discovery that he doesn't really love her. And then her discovery that he's shutting her up in the attic and making eyes at Jane Eyre. Which, as you might imagine, does not fill her with with joy.
I first read this book when it came out because it was sent to me by my editor. She not only sent me the book, but arranged for us to go out to lunch with Jean Rhys, who was very pleased to have been rediscovered and very pleased that her novel was doing so well.
You might think that we spoke about novelistic things, but we did not. We spoke about going shopping at Miss Selfridges.