I first read Jean Rhys in college, Voyage in the Dark, in a modernism class. It's funny: I wasn't crazy about the class itself (it was fine), but I adored practically everything we read: Mrs. Dalloway, Women in Love, Portrait of an Artist, The Waste Land. And Jean Rhys. I loved Rhys. Particularly her language: so direct and blunt it was disarming -- the only way, really, to communicate life's harsh, absurd cruelties.
These cruelties, for Rhys as well as her protagonists, included poverty, sexual exploitation and alcoholism. A white Creole female living in England, Rhys was in almost every way an outsider. And she wrote about colonialism, sexism, class and morality with unsparring, cool clarity.
For December the book group my friends and I formed (we read lady authors!) picked Rhys' Wise Sargasso Sea, which she wrote in 1966, more than 30 years after Voyage in the Dark. Indeed, when Sargasso was published Rhys had been living in exile, the town drunk in Devon, England. She was, until the late '50s when a fan tracked her down, presumed dead. And then Sargasso ended up being her masterpiece -- a feminist, post-colonial prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre that completely shatters your notions about the characters in that older book. So badass.
Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Rochester's first wife, Antoinette Cosway -- the mad Creole woman in the attic whom, in Brontë's book, Rochester was tricked into marrying and who prevents him and Jane Eyre from being together. Rhys was angered by the classic novel's clichéd treatment of the exotic foreign woman as insane, dangerous and evil, so she wrote a devastating account of how colonialism, racism and exploitation (of one's sex, economic position and family history) could drive a bright yet innocent young woman to madness. Like Rhys, and like Voyage's Anna, Antoinette is an outsider: a white Creole, the daughter of a former slaveowner (now dead) and a woman driven insane by the death of her baby son, an heiress living in poverty and later isolation, an independent woman who has no control over her own destiny, and, finally, young bride of an Englishman who seems impossibly foreign and remote and who marries her for her money. She is exploited by almost everyone around her: by those (the natives, as well as Mr. Rochester) who want her money, and by those who want her for sex. No wonder she went crazy!
A couple of the other women in my book group were frustrated with how helpless Antoinette was. Yet, while Antoinette is largely a victim of the society Wide Sargasso Sea is that Antoinette is not just an innocent, one-dimensional victim: While she is largely powerless, she's also cynical, agnostic, astute and highly sexual -- and these attributes aren't what in the end condemn her to a life locked in an attic in England. And she's actually a lot like Jane in Jane Eyre. Both have troubled childhoods, have a detached, cynical view of humanity and are intelligent and artistic. Both are also -- despite Jane's somewhat puritanical morality -- aware of their sexuality: Remember that Jane, though she at first leaves Rochester when she finds out he is married, she rejects the boring minister who later tries to woo her because she isn't in love with him and returns to Rochester, consumed by her longing for him.
After discussing Wide Sargasso Sea over pumpkin waffles and mimosas, I went to see Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty, about a perpetually broke college student (Lucy, played by Emily Browning) who takes a job as a Sleeping Beauty, a prostitute whose clients pay to do anything to her while she is in a drug-induced slumber. The movie seemed like something a young Jean Rhys would have created if she lived today and made films.
First, Lucy is a contemporary version of the modern Rhys woman: an outsider driven by her poor socio-economic standing, her ambition and her sex. She's also partly a victim of all three of these things. She uses her sexuality in order to get money to allow her to realize her ambitions and rise above her class: Here, her immediate ambition is to finish school (we have no idea what she plans to do after or even what she's studying). Yet -- like Voyage's Anna and Sargasso's Antoinette -- she can only handle so much exploitation and degradation before she breaks.
Yet there is the sense that Lucy is more adept at navigating the ruthless, cold modern world. Her clients, after all, are also victims -- of their sexual urges and desires (there's the guy who can't get it up but pays to talk vile to her exquisite corpse and lick her face), their age, their immense wealth, their loneliness -- and she exploits their needs and shame as much as they exploit her body. There's something sad about these transactions, something tragic and human, which makes them even more unsettling and complex than if they were just paying to have sex.
Then there's the tone: straightforward, cool and detached, like Rhys. (Take the scene where Lucy's future employers prod and examine her fair flesh to make sure she passes muster or the scene where Lucy's madame and her john discuss life and death at the foot of the Sleeping Beauty's bed, composed to look like a painting.) It's refusal to make moral judgements on any of its characters has lead critics to call it frustrating, opaque and empty. Well, it is frustrating and opaque, but that's what gives it its richness.
But despite its clinical treatment of the body, Lucy doesn't just see sex as a means to an end (i.e. money). As cooly as she treats her body ("My body is not a temple," she sneers when her employer says she will not be penetrated during work), there is a sense that she does derive something out of her sexual encounters. She does, after all, get intimate with a few other guys, presumably without asking for cash. And she does, after several jobs as a Sleeping Beauty, become obsessed with finding out what happens to her while she's under the ether. There is something about sex and about human desire that fascinates her, though she can't quite place or understand it.
Also, like Sargasso, Sleeping Beauty is a subversive retelling of a beloved classic, one that exposes its predecessors retrograde, anti-feminist message and shatters the idea that love can conquer even the most insurmountable obstacles (a curse in Sleeping Beauty, an inconvenient marriage in Jane Eyre). And it implicates us too. I think that presenting Lucy as somewhat of a blank canvas (her motivations are vague, her background and character growth scant), Leigh invites the audience -- like her johns -- to project their own ideas, prejudices and desires onto her, which forces us to question how we fill in these gaps and our own ideas about sex and sexuality.