Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea



Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.

Admiralty House, Bermuda.

Drawing of a house in the West Indies.

In the summer of 1986, I finished secondary school, and that autumn I enrolled in a secretarial course in Cork City. It was a course of a kind that I suspect no longer exists, with bookkeeping exercises involving sheets of carbon paper, classes in shorthand, typing learned on manual typewriters. I have a hazy recollection of being instructed in how to walk properly, and of someone who ran a modeling agency coming to talk to us. The talk was of little interest to me, perhaps because my modeling prospects were precisely zero. My secretarial prospects, unfortunately, were not much better, something that didn’t go unnoticed by the tiny, fierce woman tasked with teaching us. Still, I remember fondly the sweeps and curves and wriggles of Gregg shorthand as we practiced giving shape to language. Words like get or racket with their piglet-style tails, or yell and yam and Yale with their resemblance to mutant tadpoles. We took words apart and mined them for sound, converted that sound into something close to art. 

By night, I attended classes at University College Cork where, as part of an English-literature module, I first read Jean Rhys’s beautiful and subversive Wide Sargasso Sea. Here were words engaged in a different sort of taking apart. “Rhys took one of the works of genius of the 19th century and turned it inside-out to create one of the works of genius of the 20th century,” Michele Roberts has said of Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel didn’t just take inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, it illuminated and confronted it, challenged the narrative. The shorthand I practiced by day was a sort of code, comprehensible only to those initiated in its strange and lovely marks. Speed was imperative, measured in words per minute, and the movement from sound to symbol was not to be slowed by any pondering of meaning. In the world for which we were being trained, our usefulness lay not in any thoughts we might construct ourselves, but in the speed and accuracy with which we recorded the thoughts of others. And here was Rhys, in exquisite, deadly prose, constructing for Antoinette—or Mrs. Rochester—not just thoughts, but a novel in which to voice them.


Marcus came in and stood beside my bed. For once, he wasn’t wearing the green jumper, but a red and blue checked shirt that smelled of smoke. He picked up the book I’d been reading, one from my college syllabus, and turned it over to look at the cover. “Ah, yes,” he said, “Rhys. What do you think of her?”

“She’s good,” I said, carefully. There was more I could have said: how all week I couldn’t shift from my head the images of Coulibri gone wild, the smell of dead flowers mingling with living ones; a poisoned horse beneath a tree, its eyes black with flies. But I’d learned to be wary when discussing books with Marcus.’

(from “The Smell of Dead Flowers,” Dinosaurs on Other Planets)

Over a quarter of a century after first reading Wide Sargasso Sea, I wrote a short story called “The Smell of Dead Flowers” set in 1980s Ireland and featuring a teenage protagonist studying English at university. It began in a workshop given by Tessa Hadley at West Cork Literary Festival and, looking back over my drafts, I see that I battled with it for more than two years, going through forty-plus drafts, before Rhys’s novel elbowed its way in. In subsequent drafts, I deliberately incorporated a number of references to the novel. The postcard which the narrator’s mother keeps on her dressing table, for instance, is inspired by the ruined white-walled house surrounded by orange trees, the one that Antoinette’s husband stumbles upon in a forest clearing. And the story gets its title from a passage early in Wide Sargasso Sea where Antoinette describes the garden at Coulibri, gone wild, and “a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell.”


But I believe that Rhys’s influence may have been at work underground in the story long before it surfaced overtly. How else to explain the moths in my narrator’s bedroom that “at night crashed headlong into the hot bulb of [her] bedroom lamp, their blackened stumps scattered across the floor in the mornings”? On rereading Wide Sargasso Sea, I discovered similarly afflicted creatures: moths that “found their way into the room, flew into the candles and fell dead on the tablecloth.” There are other parallels, too: the locked doors; the sense of things gone, but not gone; mother-daughter relationships and precarious existences lived on the margins.

Or maybe my brain is engaged in a form of Obeah, tricking me into seeing resonances that aren’t there. Perhaps, to any other reader, the stories are resolutely different, and these echoes and reverberations are my perceptions alone, born out of a tendency to take comfort in patterns and affinities, in codes that explain and translate. And yet, in the course of writing this piece, I reread the passage in my story where Wide Sargasso Sea is directly mentioned, and was startled to discover a reference to smoke, noticing for the first time how it spoke to the burning of Coulibri, of Thornfield Hall, to the time when nothing would be left.

Danielle McLaughlin’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, the Irish Times, the Stinging Fly, and various anthologies. Her collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, was published in August.