|Jean Rhys, dangerous woman.|
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
by Jean Rhys
Jean Rhys was out of print and living in obscurity in Cornwall, of all places, when an English actress made a plea over the BBC for any information about her whereabouts. She wanted to do a radio version of one of Rhys's out of print novels from the 1920s, and no one could give her the rights. Everyone, it turned out, just assumed that Rhys had died either during or immediately after World War II. The subsequent radio version of her novel spurred new editions of her existing work, and it turned out that she had been working on a new novel since the late 1940's.
That novel was Wide Sargasso Sea, written from the perspective of the "Mad Woman in the Attic" from Charlotte Bronte's book Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea sat at the intersection of several hot trends in literature: It was set in Jamaica and Dominica (Rhys' home was on Dominica, though she left as a teenager literally never to retunr), it was, of course, written by a woman and it was about a character from another famous novel, making it as post-modern as post-modern gets. Also, it was under one hundred fifty pages long. Really just the perfect storm of characteristics to ensure that it would become one of the most read novels of the mid to late 20th century, and a staple text in undergraduate literature courses in England and America for the next fifty years.
It's incredible because Rhys' novels in the 20s hardly been ignored. It was more like the author herself chose to disappear. That's all well and good, but for her to come back close to a half century later and drop Wide Sargasso Sea at the end of her life, well it's just an extraordinary second act, and unlike any that I can think of up to this point. I guess, during her thirty years away from the spotlight she struggled with substance abuse. It sounds like she was pretty desperately impoverished during that period.
Rhys reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston, who was living in obscurity, cleaning hotel rooms at the end of her life, except that Rhys made it all the back, and wrote the biggest hit of her life.