Recently I re-read “Wide Sargasso Sea”, the fascinating novel by Jean Rhys (first published in 1966 when the author was 76) which tells the “back story” of the mad wife in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”.
Set mainly in the vivid landscape of Jamaica in the 1830s, it is a strange, haunting masterpiece, completed by Rhys late in her troubled life. Highly recommended for anyone who has enjoyed “Jane Eyre”.
After my first reading of The Tree of Man, by Patrick White, about twenty years ago, I put it back on my bookshelves uncertain whether or not I had enjoyed it. It was so rough-textured and densely written that it demanded more effort on my part than I was happy to give. But I never forgot the novel, and later when I travelled in Australia I found myself thinking of Patrick White, the great poet of the Australian landscape.
A few months ago I read The Tree of Man again and at last came to terms with it. Certain passages required re-reading, some several times. The Tree of Man is a long book which deals with the daily lives of truly ordinary people who establish a smallholding in the bush which, by the end, the suburbs of a city have almost reached – not the stuff of great literature one would think. Yet White looks at it all through eyes that see so much more than most of us can. He holds up a lens so that his readers can share his vision, but often his meanings are so complex, or deceptively simple, that we must stretch ourselves mentally to share them.
After close on forty years I have just re-read three novels by Richard Hughes: “A High Wind in Jamaica”, “The Fox In the Attic” and “The Wooden Shepherdess”.
I can remember how much I enjoyed them in the 1970s but the stories themselves had blurred and faded in my memory. Re-reading them has confirmed my view of Hughes as a remarkable novelist.
Although Richard Hughes is not a name much heard today, he had a tremendous reputation a generation or two ago and counted among his friends Masefield, Yeats, T.E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas and Augustus John.
His reputation was built on a slender output of novels – only four over a period of forty-four years.
“A High Wind in Jamaica”, published in 1929, broke new ground in the depiction of children and paved the way for Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”.
“The Fox in the Attic” was the first volume of an intended trilogy which was to document the lives of British and German branches of a single family against the background of the ominous political and social developments between the two world wars.
The second volume, “The Wooden Shepherdess”, appeared in 1973 but Hughes died in 1976 before completing the final volume.
Although the story is incomplete, the two volumes stand by themselves and I recommend them highly.
As one critic said at the time: “England has found her Tolstoy”.