- “Le Revenant”: Baudelaire’s Afterlife in Wide Sargasso Sea
In Gustave Courbet’s masterpiece L’Atelier du peintre (1854–55), the ghostly image of a female face appears next to the portrait of Charles Baudelaire (fig. 1). Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s mistress for over twenty years, a mixed-race woman who has been effectively erased from history, was literally erased by Courbet at Baudelaire’s request after a quarrel. Over time, however, her image began to reappear on the canvas. Nearly 170 years later, in a multimedia introduction to the painting on the Musée d’Orsay website, Duval was still omitted: the app allowed us to click on every known historical figure in the painting to hear their “thoughts,” but no tab appeared when the cursor hovered over her faint—but clearly visible—image.1 This is particularly puzzling given Duval’s importance as the inspiration for some of the most famous poems in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.
We can only speculate what Jean Rhys’s reaction would have been to the figure of Duval, but she was certainly interested in the erasure of women from history and in literature. Most famously, Rhys reclaims Bertha Mason, Charlotte Brontë’s “paper tiger lunatic,” from the Gothicizing oblivion of Rochester’s attic, and muses on the forgotten histories of white Creole women brought to England by their husbands.2 Rhys’s Antoinette Mason is a white Creole; Duval was a mixed-race woman of uncertain origin (but possibly Caribbean). The link between Antoinette Mason and Duval is more than an evocative association, however. In fact, as this article will demonstrate, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal is of unquestionable significance to Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading Rhys and Baudelaire together proves to be illuminating: we see [End Page 665] more clearly Rhys’s complex identification of the white Creole woman with blackness; we perceive her use of the Caribbean practice of Obeah and the figure of the zombi under a sharper lens.3 Ultimately, we see the extent to which Rhys’s novel uses the intersection of race and gender to critique the white European man’s exoticizing and racially othering perception of the Caribbean. In using Baudelaire, Rhys places modernist and postcolonial perspectives and techniques in productive counterpoint: she draws on the lush languor of Baudelaire’s poetry and his challenge to staid bourgeois sexuality, but she also challenges that modernism, subjecting it to a critique that needs to be examined alongside her critique of Jane Eyre.
Les Fleurs du mal is a canonical text of French literature and of European modernism; Wide Sargasso Sea is of undisputed importance to postcolonial literature. Both have been endlessly discussed and scrutinized by critics. How can it be that the connection between these texts has been ignored for so long? Rhys knew Baudelaire’s work well and was influenced by him: she owned editions of his poetry in French and in English, refers to him in her correspondence, and transcriptions of poems in her handwriting survive in the Tulsa archive.4 Baudelaire’s theorizations of modernity, of the figure of the flaneur, and of fashion have featured in critical studies of Rhys, but his impact on her work is far more significant than has hitherto been realized.5 In 1962, Rhys told Francis Wyndham that an early title for Wide Sargasso Sea was “Le revenant” (Letters, 213). Marina Warner has argued that the source for this title is Lafcadio Hearn’s Two Years in the West Indies (1890).6 Warner’s broader argument for the influence of that text on Rhys is revealing, but ignores the fact that “Le Revenant” is also the title of a poem from Les Fleurs du mal.7 Rhys had a habit of using titles drawn from French literary texts, and this is no exception.8 Baudelaire’s poem envisions a destructive and masochistic ghostly passion that, as I will show, bears powerful correspondences with part two of Wide Sargasso Sea. Baudelaire’s “Le Revenant” may or may not have been written with Duval in mind and does not come from the popularly termed “Vénus noire” cycle of poems that focus on...