Jean Rhys

August 24 was a bad day if you were Rome. Pompeii and Herculaneum vanished in A.D. 79, and the Visigoths sacked the city in 410. On the other hand, it was a good day if you were Robert Herrick (1591), who wrote “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” telling them to “Gather rosebuds while ye may,” or the Gutenberg Bible (1456), or A. S. Byatt (1936), or Jean Rhys (1894–or 1890, proving that old bluesmen aren’t the only ones with dubious personal histories). She published several novels and books of stories in the twenties and thirties, then went silent for nearly thirty years.

When she broke out again, in 1966, Wide Sargasso Sea was a stunner: the backstory of the woman who would become “the madwoman in the attic” or Jane Eyre notoriety. As such, it was the first significant novel to do that postmodern thing of directly engaging earlier writers. Before The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Jack Maggs or Flaubert’s Parrot or any of the rest of them. In other words, most of my reading list these last decades. By 2004, there would be two novels on Henry James in the same year. The SAME YEAR! You want someone to credit or blame? Jean Rhys.