From early childhood, I've loved books about underdogs, where heroines only triumph after they've paid their dues. Nancy Drew didn't speak to me: Rich and omnicapable, her life bore no resemblance to my own. She could not compare with Jo March, Anne of Green Gables or Jane Eyre. Call me perverse, but I've always identified with heroines who suffer before they succeed.
I used to reread the opening chapters of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which detail the heroine's privations at home and at school, like a glutton. They were reassuring: You knew a promised land lay on the far side of misery.
Jane Eyre was such an important part of my private world that when a friend told me, "You have to read the Wide Sargasso Sea," by Jean Rhys, I refused at first to look at it. A prequel to Jane Eyre, Rhys' 1966 novel tells the life of Mr. Rochester's first wife, the notorious Madwoman in the Attic.
In a narrative that alternates between Rochester's voice and that of the Creole woman he marries and destroys, we experience the beauty and the history of the Indies. Like the islands themselves, Rhys' story seems to pour out of her with a heart-choking urgency. But the narrative is tightly controlled, each word carefully chosen. Rhys wrote and rewrote it for almost two decades: It's the distillation of her life and craft.
I have mixed feelings about so-called vampire novels — books that depend on someone else's creation for their life. Shakespeare stole story lines without compunction. Lesser mortals retell Hamlet or Othello in a thousand different guises. Most vampire books make me impatient: I think to myself, take a chance, invent something of your own.
But I had a completely different reaction to Wide Sargasso Sea.
Rhys grew up in the West Indies and came to England as a young woman. She was a protege and lover of Ford Madox Ford in the 1920s, when she wrote a number of acclaimed novels.
Wide Sargasso Sea knits the colonial Indies to England, for Rhys as well as for the reader. Rhys makes you understand that the Madwoman in the Attic isn't Bronte's swollen, drunken avatar of passion. She's a Creole, a woman of mixed European and African descent, like Rhys herself. The author understands how Europeans imagined West Indians — as sensual, almost animal in their passions. After reading this novel, we come to know Jane Eyre's Madwoman as a woman who's made mad by the bewildering white and male world in which she loses everything: her home, her beauty and, above all, her identity.
Ford said of Rhys that she had "a terrifying instinct for stating the case of the underdog." Nowhere does she do it more powerfully than in Wide Sargasso Sea, nowhere is her prose more supple, more assured than here. It's the kind of book that makes me despair of ever mastering my craft. You must read it.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.