Writing Wide Sargasso Sea

A contract with publishers

Francis Wyndham, who worked for the publishing firm of Andre Deutsch, got to know about the work that Jean Rhys provisionally titled ‘The First Mrs Rochester’.

His firm eventually made her an offer of £25 for the option to publish the novel when it was finished. Jean told Wyndham and his editor at Deutsch, Diana Athill, that it would be ready ‘in six to nine months time - as a large part of it is already written’. In fact, the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea was to take much longer and to be a very much more troubled process.

Delays to writing

There were several reasons why Jean Rhys found it so difficult to draft and complete the novel:

  • Her unsettled personal circumstances distracted her from the concentration she needed to push the work forward. She and Max had very little money, they lived in cold, dilapidated chalets and cottages and Max was often ill. Looking after him took time away from her writing and she often resented this. He died just as Wide Sargasso Sea was finished in 1966
  • Jean Rhys’ psychological health also took its toll on the progress of the novel. Her lifelong tendency to depression was made worse by deepening alcoholism and paranoia
  • Her sense of alienation from English people increased. In these years, Cheriton Fitzpaine, photo by Martin Bodman, available through Creative Commonsshe chose to hide herself in the depths of the country, away from the life of the capital cities she always loved
  • She hated rural life; the mud, the cold, the gossiping neighbours. Most seriously, though, she missed contact with the literary world. She said that Cheriton Fitzpaine (the Devon village that was her last home) was not a place for books.

Technical difficulties with the text

Creating the text of Wide Sargasso Sea also caused Rhys intractable problems. Part one, the story of the ‘mad girl’ Antoinette, came relatively easily compared to the other two parts:

  • Perhaps because she had been mulling over her memories of the Caribbean for many years
  • Perhaps because she had already written four novels in which she had explored the subjective life of an isolated heroine

The second part of the novel caused the most trouble. She experimented with different ways of narrating Rochester’s experience for several years:

  • Should there be one person telling all of the story?
  • Should Rochester speak his own story?
  • How would he do this?

See: Narrative > Narration and Structure

In finding a satisfactory voice for Rochester she experimented with poetry. She included a poem ‘Obeah Night’ in a letter to Francis Wyndham in 1964. The speaker of this poem is Rochester, using the intimacy of a short lyric to face the contradictions in his feelings for Antoinette, that he was both ill and unhappy yet too knowing to confront his despair.

The shift into the poetic genre was not sustained for the final version, but it served a purpose. It informs the poetic language of the final sections of his narration and the way it is used to articulate his deepest feelings.


Wide Sargasso Sea was finished by the end of March 1966. Diana Athill wrote to Jean about ‘the labour and torment’ that had gone into its writing. No doubt she was referring to herself as the editor, as well as to its author. However, she concluded with a tribute that the artistry of the novel would conceal from readers any sense of that struggle:

‘It’s going to alight in their hands as complete and natural as a bird on a bough, as though it had just come into existence by itself … it ought to make you feel so proud – a rare and splendid creator.’

Letter from Diana Athill to Jean Rhys, 9 March 1966


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