As I’m sure you could guess based off my last two blogs, I am fascinated by the idea of hybrid identities in Post-Colonial countries. The melding of two cultures is such a unique thing to each person, depending on the type of person they are, where they are living, the cultures they are existing in between. Jean Rhys is the author of one of my favorite stories from this semester, The Day They Burned the Books. It is a story of cultural and racial hybridity and is highly influenced by Rhys’s own childhood between two cultures.
Jean Rhys was born as Ella Rees on the island of Dominica in 1890. Her father was Welsh, and her mother was a third-generation Creole woman of Scottish descent. Though both of her parents were white, her Creole heritage still set her apart from her English peers who also lived on the island. She was given the nickname “white cockroach” as a child. Even in her own family, Jean was isolated. Her mother was:
“cold and disapproving towards her daughter, creating a sense of abandonment for Jean that haunted her throughout her life.”
Nine months before Jean was born, her elder sister died, leading to Jean feeling like a replacement child throughout her childhood. When she was 16-17, Jean was shipped off to England, where she attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for a short time and was told that because of her Dominican accent, she would never get good roles. After this, she worked as a chorus girl, a prostitute, married three times, had some affairs, and wrote some books. It is her most famous book that is of interest to us here.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel of sorts to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It focuses on Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife in the attic, before she was crazy or in an attic. Antoinette Cosway, Bronte’s Bertha Mason, is a white creole living in the West Indies. Antoinette, like Jean, was not accepted by either the white colonials or the black islanders. Antoinette, like Jean, was rejected by her mother. Clearly, Jean Rhys took heavy inspiration from her own life growing up on Dominica. Both Jean and her creation are hybrids. Both are outcasts because of their existence between cultures. That sense of hybridity stayed with Jean through her life, and carried over into other works as well, most notably The Day They Burned the Books and a novel called Voyage in the Dark that seems to have been heavily inspired by many of her life experiences. From looking at Wide Sargasso Sea, it’s clear that the sense of cultural hybridity had profound influence on Jean’s life. It is that sense of being a hybrid that in part causes Antoinette to go mad when she is moved to England. This is what can happen to a hybrid. They can be so overwhelmed by both belonging to two cultures, and not belonging to either, that it can haunt them their whole life.