According to her Contemporary Authors profile, Jean Rhys first finished (or nearly finished) a draft of her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, “by the end of 1939.” But “in one of the rages to which she was increasingly prone”:
she burned the typescript and, during a move, lost most of the manuscript. Angier reported that “many years later [Rhys] found ‘two chapters (in another suitcase),’ and used them for Wide Sargasso Sea. But she had to undergo much more suffering before she could create the final version of Antoinette, ” the novel’s protagonist.
And here’s an excerpt from a revealing letter, included in the Norton Critical Edition of the novel, that Rhys wrote in early 1966 about the relationship between Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, and the writing of the latter:
I came to England between sixteen and seventeen, a very impressionable age, and Jane Eyer was one of the books I read then.
Of course Charlotte Bronte makes her own world, of course she convinces you, and that makes the poor Creole lunatic all the more dreadful. I remember being quite shocked, and when I re-read it rather annoyed. “That’s only one side — the English side” sort of thing.
I think too that Charlotte had a “thing” about the West Indies being rather sinister places — because in another of her books “villette she drowns the hero, Professor Somebody, on the voyage to Guadeloupe, another very alien place — according to her.
Perhaps most people had this idea then and perhaps in a way they were right. Even now white West Indians can be a bit trying — a bit very (not only white ones) but not quite so awful surely. They have a side and a point of view.
Well years and years afterwards the idea came to me to write the book.
I started off quite lightheartedly thinking I could do it easily, but I soon found out that it was goign to be a devil, partly because I haven’t much imagination really. I do like a basis of fact. I went on — sometimes blindly.
Part I was not too hard, but by Part II I’d quite abandoned the idea of “Jane Eyre”.
There were many unfortunate marriages at that time and before — West Indian planters and merchants were wealthy before sugar crashed — and their daughters were very good matches.
Some of the owners stayed in England and managed their estates through agents, but some didn’t. Perhaps you know all this.
Well this was the story of on arranged marriage, with the bridegroom young, unwilling, rather suspicious and ready to believe the worst, not liking the smit tropics at al, and the bride poor bride very romantic, with some French or Spanish blood, perhaps with seeds of madness, at any rate hysteria….
So I only borrowed the name Antoinette — (I carefully haven’t named the man at all) and the idea of her seeming a bit mad — to an Englishman.
Of course with Part III, I’m right back with the plot of Jane Eyre, leaving out Jane! I didn’t know how else to end it. I didn’t even know how to explain their entirely changed life, England not the West Indies, quite mad instead of a bit strange…. It could be done by putting it in the third person but perhaps that would lose something. I rather shiver at the idea of doing it again, but I will if you tell me that it would gain a lot in clarity. By it I mean Part III.