What’s so great about Jean Rhys?
For one thing, there is the first line of the Dominican author’s seminal work Wide Sargasso Sea: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did”, which, beyond making it to a 2006 list of 100 best first lines from novels, resonates eerily amidst the turbulence of the current socio-political climate.
On November 19, the UK’s Royal Society of Literature (RSL) presents a special event in collaboration with the Bocas Lit Fest recognising the canonical writer and RSL Fellow Jean Rhys, a Caribbean native of European descent.
This is a joint celebration of the RSL’s 200th birthday and the Bocas Lit Fest’s tenth.
Notwithstanding their enormous age difference, both institutions are preceded by their international reputations for enabling and cultivating literary exploration and excellence.
RSL president, prizewinning writer, literary historian and NGC Bocas Lit Fest frequenter Dame Marina Warner says, “We’re the fortunate inheritors of a tradition that allows writers to speak their/our minds, and not many societies around the globe enjoy that. We have in common a commitment to writing—and reading—and trying to do inspiring, enjoyable and exciting things with words. The consequences of a work of literature, of a poem, a play, a novel, a biography, an essay, or any other form of literature are always unpredictable, but the activity matters.”
Born in 1890 in Roseau, Dominica, Jean Rhys is best known for her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagined the early life of Bertha Mason from Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. It is an archetypal work of “writing back” to literary tradition, and a popular classic tackling hard questions about history and race. Less investigated is Rhys’ writing career that spanned decades and forms, from her 1939 novel Good Morning Midnight, to Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, published in 1979, the year she died.
Notably, Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea also appears among the top 24 crowd-sourced books in the NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s “100 Caribbean Books That Made Us” campaign, one of the highlights of the festival’s tenth year with its title sponsor, to be celebrated in 2021.
Of 16 Caribbean authors whose books were most frequently mentioned, Rhys ranks highest of the four women emerging in this top tier of Caribbean writing that has helped shape generations of readers and writers.
Together, US writer, translator and academic Lauren Elkin; UK novelist and journalist Linda Grant; and T&T poet and book blogger Shivanee Ramlochan discuss the impact of Rhys on Caribbean literature and across the globe, with moderator Shahidha Bari.
Citing Rhys as her writing ‘hero’, Grant describes her as “a novelist of yearning, rage and desire, whose unadorned prose hits the solar plexus”. Trinidadian Ramlochan “thinks often of Jean Rhys’ Antoinette, carrying her arsonist’s candle through the empty, cold halls of her oppressor’s mansion, ready to raze it”. For Elkin, Rhys’ work has been undervalued “for decades”, her “reliance on her life as inspiration for her fiction used to minimise her artistic achievement”.
Bocas Lit Fest founder and director Marina Salandy-Brown says, “We can’t overstate the significance of this opportunity to present the voice of one of our region’s finest contemporary poets in such critical discourse which explores the contribution of a woman who, given her own struggles with identity and belonging, was compelled to represent an authentic experience of a Caribbean woman all those years ago; and not least of all to share birthday celebrations with an entity 190 years our senior! What an honour!”
The event will be livestreamed from 3.30 p.m. through 4.45 p.m. GMT-4 on November 19. Interested parties are invited to book their spots via the British Library website at https://www.bl.uk/events/whats-so-great-about-jean-rhys at a cost of £5.