Jane Eyre & Jean Rhys

On this day in 1847, under the pseudonym Currer Bell, Charlotte Brontë sent the manuscript of Jane Eyre to her eventual publisher, Smith, Elder and Co. The novel had already been rejected five times, but Brontë wasn’t close to agreeing with Wordsworth and Poet Laureate Robert Southey, who had advised her that novel writing wasn’t the proper pastime of a lady. Nor did she seem discouraged by her first book, published the previous year: a collection of poetry coauthored with Ellis and Acton Bell (her sisters, Emily and Anne) and selling only two copies. Smith, Elder and Co. accepted the risk (despite suspicions of the masculine pseudonym), and Jane Eyre became an immediate hit, even in the face of those reviewers outraged by a writer who dared “to trample upon customs established by our forefathers, and long destined to shed glory upon our domestic circles.”

The West Indian-British writer Jean Rhys was born on this day in 1890. Her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, is a sort of prequel to Jane Eyre, telling how the West Indian-born Antoinette Cosway became the madwoman in the attic of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall. Rhys published the novel at age seventy-six, after decades of obscurity and hard times. As told in Lillian Pizzichin’s 2009 biography, The Blue Hour, Rhys was herself a candidate for confinement during the writing of her book, her brother so overwhelmed by her poverty, drinking, and aberrant behavior that he wanted her locked up.

Rhys was living in a condemned Devon farmhouse at the time with her invalided husband. The locals came to gawk at her through her windows, or when she came outside, sometimes after pinning on her husband’s army medals, to heave empty liquor bottles at the farmer’s cows. But the local vicar, privileged with a reading of the novel in draft, stuck by her, as did the legendary editor Diana Athill, who perhaps foresaw that Wide Sargasso Sea was going to be a prizewinner, destined for the best-of-century lists. “No one is ever going to know what labour and torment has gone into the years of writing this book,” she wrote Rhys before publication. “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. Does that make you feel better, after all the blood sweat toil and tears?”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.