June/July/Aug 2009

The Lady Vanquished

Jean Rhys articulated the plight of the abandoned woman

Daphne Merkin


Jean Rhys lived a hard-luck life and wrote, almost exclusively, about hard-luck women. Her pellucid writing, in which shards of pained observation cut a jagged edge in an otherwise fluid style, is so accessible that it is easy to overlook the art—the tight control—behind the seeming artlessness. Like those of Marguerite Duras and Katherine Mansfield, Rhys’s natural psychological habitat was despondency of a particularly female kind—what Mansfield in her notebooks describes as “an air of steady desperation,” hinging on desiring and desirability. With the exception of Rhys’s last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which reimagines Jane Eyre’s Mrs. Rochester, her characters are bewildered women of the demimonde who reside in what she describes as “lowdown” sorts of places: cheap hotels and seedy boardinghouses. Armed with kohl-blackened eyelids and feigned indifference, they dine out on erotic allure that fades even as they banter with the men on whose good humor and money they depend, only to end up sooner or later drunk and alone. These cornered creatures are based on the author herself, and all suffer from the lassitude—the lack of élan vital—that plagued Rhys for most of her life, causing her to note in her unfinished, posthumously published autobiography, Smile Please (1980): “Oh God, I’m only twenty and I’ll have to go on living and living and living.”

Lilian Pizzichini’s The Blue Hour is the second full-length biography of Rhys to appear since her death in 1979 at the age of eighty-eight; the first was Carole Angier’s excellent and tirelessly researched Jean Rhys: Life and Work of 1990. Pizzichini’s title is borrowed from the Guerlain perfume L’Heure Bleue, a scent that was meant to evoke dusk in Paris and happened to be Rhys’s favorite. As Pizzichini writes: “The blue hour was also the hour when the lap-dog she saw herself as being during the day turned into a wolf. . . . Underneath our surface sophistication lurks a predator. Jean Rhys was always concerned with what lay beneath the top notes.”

This sense of being at the mercy of latently hostile forces against which she had to arm herself informed the way Rhys approached the world from childhood on. She began life on August 24, 1890, as the fourth of five children born to a family that belonged to the tiny patrician class of Dominica, a volcanic island in the West Indies—a class that enjoyed a simulated Victorian life among the natives. Rhys, née Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams (the novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford, who became her lover and literary champion in the ’20s, suggested the change to give her name a more modernist ring), lost her mother’s attention to a new sister when she was five and was thereafter looked after by a mercurial native named Meta, whom, she would insist in Smile Please, “couldn’t bear the sight of me.” Meta was a believer in voodoo and obeah, the Caribbean form of black magic, and instilled fears in the vulnerable young girl of vampires, zombies, and werewolves: “Jean spent much of her childhood screaming, crying, or collapsing with terror, and taking weeks to recover in bed.” Until she left for an English boarding school at seventeen, Rhys spent an isolated youth reading and communing with nature; her increasingly removed mother was mystified by her shy misfit of a daughter.

Rhys arrived in a grimy, sunless, and crowded Edwardian city that didn’t live up to her fantasies: “London was disappointing. She could not see her future in its smog-smudged streets.” (One might argue that among Rhys’s problems was a failure to envision her future anywhere she was; she was doomed to be overwhelmed by first impressions.) Rhys attended Perse School in Cambridge, and although she did well in her studies and made some friends, she held on to her West Indian accent with its “lilting rhythms and French patois” and was mocked for talking “like a nigger.” Never one to feel easily at home—Pizzichini describes her as existing “in a permanent state of dissociation”—Rhys was at a loss when it came to basic skills, such as riding a bike, and got chilblains from the freezing dormitory. She stuck it out for three terms, winning the school’s Ancient History Prize, and then, with the support of her “indulgent” father, switched to the Academy of Dramatic Art. After two terms of classes in “fencing, ballet, elocution and gesture del sarto,” her father refused to pay any further, having received a letter from the school that held out little hope for Rhys’s “success in Drama.”

Defying expectations that she would return to Dominica, there to wait on a suitable marriage proposal, Rhys threw herself into the raffish life of a chorus girl. The next few years saw her gradual transformation into one of her own heroines, short on money and long on anguish. She entered into a two-year affair with an older, wealthy businessman she called Lancey; he set her up in spacious quarters, paid for her singing lessons, and listened to her tales of exotic Dominica. Despite Rhys’s dreams of being saved by her lover, Lancey abruptly ended the affair by letter, agreeing to pay her an allowance in return for being left alone. This turn of events led to Rhys’s emotional collapse, setting the pattern for relationships to come: “Lancey’s rejection . . . left her feeling nullified. As such she began her pursuit of disappointing adventures and loves that replicated this scenario of loss and mortification; or else retreated, disconsolate and speechless, alone with the chaos her feelings brought.”

For all her self-destructiveness and nihilism and, there was something resilient about Rhys; she held on to life almost out of spite, to prove she could get the better of her “rum existence,” as she describes the plight of Julia Martin, one of her autobiographical antiheroines. She moved to Paris in 1919 with the first of her three husbands, Jean Lenglet, who “was known to the police of three countries” and with whom she had two children, a son who died in infancy and a daughter who lived mostly with her father after the couple parted in the mid-’20s; they divorced in 1933. Most important, she wrote a clutch of books during those decades—four novels and a collection of stories—that gave voice to her dark, outsider’s sense of human relations, where vulnerable women were pursued and then abandoned by predatory men while society turned an indifferent eye. They were published to admiring but cautionary reviews. No less a critic than Rebecca West singled her out as “one of the finest writers of fiction under middle age” in her review of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930) but pointed out that Rhys was “enamored of gloom” and that her novel was an inducement to suicide. After 1939, in which she published Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys did not publish a novel for almost thirty years, during which time she lived a peripatetic, chaotic existence, which included a stay in Holloway Prison for assaulting a neighbor—and, indeed, was rumored to be dead.

Rhys’s career as a writer received a fresh infusion when a dramatization of Good Morning, Midnight was featured on BBC radio in 1957. (“She missed the eventual broadcast,” Pizzichini bemusedly notes, “because she still had not worked out how to tune a radio.”) Francis Wyndham and Diana Athill, editors at the British publishing firm André Deutsch and long-standing admirers of her work, signed Rhys to a contract that same year for the novel that would emerge, years later, in 1966, as Wide Sargasso Sea. Its author was an elderly woman living in a condemned farmworker’s dwelling in the Devon countryside fitted out with wartime linoleum and a bare bulb; her main visitor was the local vicar, and a bottle a day of whiskey was, as she wrote, a “must.”

After years of obscurity, Rhys entered the ’70s as a literary celebrity: Visitors trekked to her village to pay homage; V. S. Naipaul wrote about her; the queen gave her a CBE. She was writing again—going back and forth between a final collection of stories, Sleep It Off, Lady (1976), and Smile Please—but paranoia and depression remained constants. She worried how she looked in photos, was irritated by the causes of the day such as women’s lib and black activism, and was none the happier for her newfound renown: “Fame and financial security had come too late to make any difference to an old woman. She told her new friends this over and over again. She was too old for this, and they were far too late.” Rhys died on May 14, 1979, in a nursing home, watched over by a young friend, Jo Baterham, who persuaded the attending nurse not to feed Rhys or to replace the oxygen mask she had pushed off her face. A connoisseur of bleakness, the writer had remarked to David Plante (who recounted his vexed relationship with Rhys in Difficult Women [1983]) that “the end would be joy,” and she appeared to welcome it.

The Blue Hour is an admirable effort to document the inner workings of a complex, opaque woman who distrusted words as well as people and believed in the redemptive possibilities of writing more than she let on. That the fascination with Rhys’s fragmented, messy existence and wounded psyche continues to grow—textual and psychoanalytic studies show no sign of abating—attests to the uniqueness of her unflinching vision. She articulated the plight and sensibility of a certain kind of female—the kind who speaks to the inner bag lady in all of us—better than anyone before or since. Still, one wonders what Rhys, who considered her life an “abject failure” except for her writing and who, like Oblomov, preferred sleeping to most anything else (“Sleep is so lovely better than food or thinking or writing or anything,” she wrote in her memoir), would have made of all the fuss.

Daphne Merkin is the author of Enchantment (Harcourt, 1986), a novel, and Dreaming of Hitler (Crown, 1997), a collection of essays.

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