In his new novel, English professor looks at the life of writer Jean Rhys: An interview with Caryl Phillips

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An interview by Susan González for Yale News.

In his newest novel, “A View of the Empire at Sunset,” Yale English professor Caryl Phillipsimagines the life of famed author Jean Rhys — from her early days living on the island of Dominica, through her days feeling like an outsider while she was a drama student and chorus girl in England, to her lonely wanderings while living in Paris and her eventual return to England. The novel ends with her visit with her second husband to her native island, for which she was always homesick but where she was still unable to feel at “home.”

NPR described Phillips’ work as a “mesmerizing, atmospheric story set in the waning years of the British Empire,” and the Los Angeles Review of Books hailed his novel for capturing Rhys’ “eerie way of being in the world.” The New York Times described it as a “novel of acute psychological empathy and understanding.”

Rhys (1890-1979) is best known for her novel “Wide Sargasso Sea,” which was published when she was 76 years old. Her earlier books include “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie,” “Voyage in the Dark,” and “Good Morning, Midnight.” She also wrote short stories and an unfinished autobiography titled “Smile, Please.” Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, she was sent by her family to England at the age of 16 for her education. Her early books often mirror her own experiences as an immigrant in London, where she moved from room to room in boarding houses, feeling increasingly isolated and depressed. An alcoholic, she was dependent financially on a series of men in her life and married three times. The themes of exile, alienation, and loss were common in her novels as they were in her life.

As an infant, Phillips moved with his family from the Caribbean to Leeds, England. He was educated at The Queens College, Oxford University, and quickly began his career as a writer, producing plays, films, and radio and television dramas. He published his first work of fiction, “The Final Passage,” in 1985 and has since authored 10 novels. In addition to “A View of the Empire at Sunset,” these include “Cambridge,” “Crossing the River,” “A Distant Shore,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “In the Falling Snow” and “The Lost Child.” “Crossing the River” made the Booker Prize shortlist in 1993, and “A Distant Shore” was on the Booker Prize longlist in 2003. “A Distant Shore” was also a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics award for fiction and for a PEN/Faulkner Award, and the novel won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book.

Caryl Phillips

Phillips has also edited two anthologies and has written five works of nonfiction. A member of the Yale faculty since 2005, he has also taught at Barnard and Amherst colleges. He has been a writer-in-residence, visiting professor or lecturer, and guest speaker at universities around the world. Last summer, he was a guest speaker at a major conference on Jean Rhys at Sorbonne University in Paris.

YaleNews recently interviewed Phillips about “A View of Empire at Sunset” via email while he was traveling in England. Here is what we learned.

What drew you to Jean Rhys as the subject for your latest book?

I’ve always been interested in Jean Rhys as a Caribbean migrant to Britain who simply never settled. Like many migrants she lost a sense of “home,” but instead of capitulating to a certain grief with this loss she found a way to turn it into art.

Did you conduct research about Rhys’ life to write the novel?

As part of the research for the novel I read many articles and essays about Rhys, and went to speak with her former editor, Diana Athill, who is now nearly 100 and lives in an old people’s home in London. However, the most important aspect of the research was travelling to Dominica and spending time looking at the houses she lived in, the school she went to, and the library where she used to borrow books.

When writing a novel that follows the basic biographical arc of an actual person’s life, do you have any boundaries when characterizing your subject or do you feel free to treat her as you would any fictional character?

When writing about a “real” person, one has to be true to certain facts. For instance, if they never lived in Finland or visited the country there’s no point in placing them there. If they were never married then there’s no point in giving them a husband or wife. However, the interior life is open to speculation, and in this sense one would treat them very similarly to how one would treat a “fictional” character.

What insights do you feel you were able to bring about Rhys’ life in “A View of the Empire at Sunset”?

I’m not sure what insights I was able to bring to Rhys, beyond trying to relocate our thinking of her into a Caribbean context.

She lived a fairly sad life of increasing despair and alcoholism. Was it a challenge to dwell with her for so long in order to write your book?

As a writer, living with characters whose lives are not happy does, I think, inevitably affect your mood a little. But then again, most of the characters we read about have difficult lives, which is partly why we are reading about them. We want to know how (or if) they manage to turn things around.

A View of the Empire at Sunset” explores common themes for you as a writer  — alienation, otherness, colonialism. Does Rhys’ own sense of alienation or not belonging particularly resonate because of your personal experience?

I think that my own sense of “not belonging” probably, to some extent, colors everything I write. I don’t think about this logically before I put pen to paper, but like most writers I do find myself returning to familiar themes.

Given the book’s title, do you consider the novel to be as much about the dissolution of empire as about Rhys’ own dissolution?

Yes, I do think the book is as much about the end of empire as it is about the unraveling of a life. The notion of empire affected both the colonizer and the colonized with an often destabilizing force. This being the case, I’m also interested in how the empire came into being and, of course, how and when it began to fade.

Do you teach about Rhys? If so, how do your students respond to her work?

I sometimes teach Rhys; either her short stories or one of her novels from the 1930s — quite often, “Voyage in the Dark” (1934). Generally speaking, I think students respond very positively to her work.

You prefer her early works to her most famous work, “Wide Sargasso Sea.” Why do you especially like her earlier novels?

I do prefer the earlier, more autobiographical, novels as they are full of an unchecked force and honesty which is present in “Wide Sargasso Sea” (1966), but at this stage of her life I think she was crafting, albeit artfully, rather than sharing a certain type of vulnerability.

You were a guest speaker at a Rhys conference in Paris this summer and spent time with Rhys’ granddaughter, who has not been terribly fond of biographies of her grandmother. Has she read the book, and if so, what did she have to say about it?

I did spend some time with Rhys’s granddaughter in Paris during the summer. She was very kind and complimentary about the novel, but she is right to be wary of biographies of her grandmother. A lot of people are very keen to “own” or “explain” Rhys. It’s the fate of many writers, but Rhys stirs a lot of passions and some “theories” about her are somewhat off the mark. Perhaps because my book is a novel — a self-confessed imaginative engagement that is not masquerading as “fact” — the granddaughter may have felt a little more comfortable with me.

If you were able to have a conversation with Jean Rhys, what would you like to tell her?

All I would say to her would be “thanks” and “would you like a drink?”

What’s next for you as a writer?

I’ve no idea what’s next for me in terms of writing. I’m reading and thinking, but the water has to fill up again in the well. I wish it didn’t but that takes some time.

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