Jean Rhys: Belonging Nowhere

A report by Ian Penman for City Journal. Here is an excerpt. For the complete article click here.

n June 1931, in a letter to her friend and fellow writer Evelyn Scott, Jean Rhys spelled out a recurring, and apparently insoluble, problem that she had with publishers: “I am always being told that until my work ceases being ‘sordid and depressing’ I haven’t much chance of selling.”

Rhys was 40, and her third book had just been published, following The Left Bank (1927) and Quartet (1929). After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931) is the first of her great middle-period trilogy, the altar at which most of her fans still worship. (The other two titles are Voyage in the Dark [1934] and Good Morning, Midnight [1939].) Here is everything we will come to expect from Rhys’s fiction. There is a young woman, alone, a bit down at the heel but not yet down and out. She is staying in a cheap Parisienne hotel, which may look like “a lowdown sort of place,” but its rooms are “cleaner than you would have expected.” The young woman, Julia, carefully measures out her time window-shopping, idling in afternoon cinemas, and drinking in early-evening bars. She worries about money. She worries about her drinking. She worries about men, and also about the passing of time, because she is not as young as all that anymore. She is getting by and making do; like so many Rhys heroines, she is waiting, though for what isn’t altogether clear. It doesn’t sound like a great recipe for an uplifting popular romance, or for serious modernist literature; but somehow (this being characteristic of Rhys) it partakes of both, while belonging fully to neither.

When you first read Rhys, you find an easy, unembarrassed voice, letting you eavesdrop as it chatters away to itself: intimate, instantly confidential, lacking baffles or veils. It’s as if she were sitting and talking to you alone, over the series of drinks you have somehow been pressed into buying her tonight. The more time you spend with this voice, the more you become aware of the craft that has gone into fashioning it, and the world it delineates of dingy bars and tatty boardinghouses, weaselly men and disappointed women, of small measures of love, eked out like mortgage payments—of people with a cupboard of exquisite clothes but no money for food.

In the first two pages of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Rhys itemizes the objects in Julia Martin’s 16-franc-a-night room: bed, wallpaper, sofa, mirror, painting. Everything is logged like a stock check, but the result feels disturbingly emblematic. Unaccountably, there is a terrible feeling of foreboding—redolent of sex, horror, and violence, of a trap set for the self, by the self, and fully sprung. Something unspoken (or unspeakable) is here, like the sudden entrance of a priest or a policeman. And yet Rhys hasn’t sketched in anything like a “subtext.” As she says about the cheap amateur painting: “Every object in the picture was slightly distorted and full of obscure meaning.” It is 1930, and this pert young Englishwoman has preempted Alain Robbe-Grillet and invented the nouvelle roman.

Why did publishers find Rhys’s work objectionable? Some of the opposition was doubtless the result of the casual, ingrained sexism of that time and place: very masculine, buttoned-up, genteel, with an old-school tie. A vaguely class-based uneasiness is probably also involved. In this, as in so many other things, Rhys didn’t fit the ready categories. Her novels attracted a small cult, but publishers were mystified. If what she writes is not one thing or the other, then who were these books for? She falls somewhere between popular and difficult, low life and high society. Publishers thought of women’s writing as something essentially “interior” and domestic, recording a certain moneyed upper-middle- or upper-class realm.

Some of those women writers were, in fact, exceptional artists, but their heroines tended not to face the kinds of problems that Rhys’s did. In her fiction, one regularly encounters a keen sense of money and its circulation, or absence—all the unfair deals and wearisome compromises it invariably necessitates. Rhys’s protagonists are badly paid shop assistants, actresses, chorus girls, and shop models (or “mannequins”), moving in a landscape that is never actually criminal or destitute but still very much the shadow side of modernism.

Rhys’s heroines change their names, addresses, and even countries of residence, but everything in their lives remains the same. Any attempt at escape inevitably ends with the same sense of stasis. While the mood may be drift and vacancy, Rhys’s language is taut and pared. Every word is made to count. In a sentence or two, she can evoke a whole world, as here, in the second paragraph of Good Morning, Midnight: “The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.” “Impasse” is precisely chosen here, hiding in plain sight.

Her writing partook of some of the modernist virtues but also committed the sin of being completely accessible. The language is hard-shelled and deceptively simple; it does not call attention to its cleverness. Rhys is acutely sensitive to disguise and pretense, tones of voice, and “appearances and their deceptions.” Her sensibility feels close to our own time, and not at all date-stamped. If her language isn’t prissily literary, Rhys herself was exceptionally well versed in the canon, reading widely from an early age. She revered Maupassant and Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, as well as various “treasured Russians.” She is one of the great autodidact stylists.

If Rhys had been male, it’s hard to imagine publishers being quite so squeamish about her “sordid” universe, which bears comparison with that of male contemporaries such as Patrick Hamilton and Graham Greene. In high modernism, the man is flattered as flaneur or bon vivant; the woman is called streetwalker or horizontale. Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin aren’t looking for trade; they’re dandies “botanizing on the asphalt”! A woman traversing the same terrain is suspect.

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in 1890, on the small Caribbean island of Dominica, where her Welsh father was a doctor. The young Ella was close to her father but spurned and abused by her mother, who seems to have been jealous of the father-and-daughter bond. The mother doted on Ella’s two elder brothers, at least one of whom later had a “secret” Dominican family. Such things were accepted but never spoken about on the island. From a young age, Rhys seems to have had the gift of sensing such undercurrents—things unsaid but implied, sentences left hanging in the humid air. Good training for a future novelist.

Dominica is what Miranda Seymour, in I Used to Live Here Once, her recent biography of the writer, calls the “wellspring” of Rhys’s art: a “sternly beautiful Caribbean island of green mountains (mornes), tangled forests, rushing rivers, forest pools and impenetrable ravines.” Dominica had been French-controlled until 1763, when the island was ceded to the British. Rhys grew up speaking and reading English and French. She pictured the faraway United Kingdom as a well-lit dream palace—luxurious, welcoming, sophisticated. Seymour: “Living in an impoverished outpost of the British Empire, white Dominicans clung to a romanticised vision of England as the centre of their own diminished world.”

When Rhys finally sailed to England, ostensibly to get an education, she was shocked by what she found. The people, the weather, the culture: none of it resembled her fantasy land. Everything was dull, gray, flat, meager, and lacking in joie de vivre. Most of all, she missed Dominica’s sunlight and warmth: “Also the weather—more like hell than anything you can imagine—a yellow fog very cold. Blasted people wailing hymns outside. You feel as if you’re being slowly suffocated. At least I do.” One minute you’re on a Caribbean island with place names like Capuchin, Goodwill, and Boiling Lake; the next, you’re on the Gray’s Inn Road, looking at “a shop window full of artificial limbs.”

Rhys attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and took what work she could find on the stage. (This was a time when “actress” was still often said with a wink, as a leering euphemism.) She toured in musical comedy as a chorus girl, taking the stage name Ella Gray. Following the end of a serious affair and a subsequent abortion (and after leaving her own Mr. Mackenzie), she wound up in Paris. It was the early 1920s high point of modernism (UlyssesThe Waste LandTo the Lighthouse), and she was in the mythical city of her beloved Baudelaire; but she knew no one and had few resources. Seymour: “Scraps of paper surviving from that bleak period bear the names of various Paris hotels, often in grim areas like the then-notorious wasteland of Place Dauphine.”

She began to write while recuperating from her abortion, and it was from the perspective of the lonely woman in the make-do room, waiting for her remittance money from home. From the beginning, the fiction announces its enduring theme: loss. Loss of home, trust, and security; loss of lovers and others and a losing battle against time. In 1924, she conjured the nom de plume Jean Rhys when her first published story, “Vienne,” appeared in Ford Madox Ford’s magazine the transatlantic review. Ford took an interest in her career (and they subsequently had an affair), but his High Lit mentoring may have mattered less than her own discovery of chroniclers of the lowlife milieu, such as Colette and the now-forgotten Pierre Mac Orlan.

Ford Madox Ford comes across as both a bit of a roué and rather a stuffed shirt; far more interesting is the supporting cast Seymour lines up, which is rich and bizarre. Rhys had a knack of bumping into wonderful eccentrics, helping hands, and smart cookies. Some are minor characters, who only stay for a drink or two. Some manage a whole season, such as the husband and wife who lure her to a ritzy mansion in the south of France. Here are Paul Nash and his “remarkable wife Margaret Odeh.” Here is her soon-to-be-husband, Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, spy, and cabaret singer/songwriter.

Was there something about Rhys that drew such people? In the 1960s, this ability, if that is what it was, would literally be her salvation, attracting the personal intervention she most needed, at the moment she most needed it. The three or four most important men in her life seem to have had little in common; perhaps a certain charm, shading into unreliability, shading into dishonesty, occasionally into outright crookedness.

Lenglet seems to have been the one she truly loved, and they make quite a pair. Crime, fraud, luxury, and riches, followed by bruising privation—their ups and downs have the flavor of a chanson by Piaf or Brel. The two Jeans appear to have had much in common: a tendency to be very up or very down, living life as if it were a glorious fiction, and then thudding to earth with an awful bump; one minute finding themselves reduced to fear and trembling, and then making an unlikely comeback.

After the publication of the sublime Good Morning, Midnight in 1939, Jean Rhys, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. She had always seemed to others to live life elsewhere; now the myth became a reality. She achieved ruination—not actually dead, yet not fully alive, like the tales about zombies she absorbed as a child. Rumors multiplied in the literary universe of tantrums, dustups, drunken shouting matches, penury, and drift. The value of her work was replaced by her mere notoriety. In a 1974 interview with a young female journalist from Women’s Wear Daily, Rhys sums up her entire “disappeared” period with one pithy phrase: “I was having rather a troublesome time.”

As Seymour’s biography makes clear, the drink and penury and lack of appreciation were all true. In fact, Rhys didn’t disappear in any truly dramatic fashion but simply retired from the publishing fray and lived the sort of life many people did at that time in Britain: marriage, debt, divorce, frequent changes of address, and pub afternoons. In one of her letters from this period, a throwaway parenthesis could almost double as a mordant self-portrait: “—(downward career of girl).”

It’s a life that can look charmed or cursed, or both at the same time. Down the years, Rhys’s problems with alcohol may have been overemphasized, but there’s no way around it: she could be a bit of a nightmare when inebriated. She often ended up before the local magistrate for, in the legal parlance, “causing a disturbance.” She is good at describing the precise gradations of getting drunk, and the moods and thoughts (and horrors) that accompany the same. In her fiction, drink can be consolation and transport but also a dark cloud blotting out the light. It was the same in life. Virtually the first words in her Jean Rhys Letters, 1931–1966 are these: “My dear Mrs Kirkaldy, The cocktails did buoy me up—I should say so! I felt very joyous.” Two short missives later: “Haven’t touched a drop for a month. Won’t it be fine when I do. It ought to give me a kick.” And then, finally, she writes to the next correspondent: “I had the horrors about everything for a bit. I mean the complete futility. Nightmarish. But I expect that was my liver and lights giving way under the strain of two bottles of wine per day.”

Seymour amplifies a point that Rhys herself often made. One crucial thing differentiates her from her fictional alter egos: they don’t have writing. This was the guardrail that protected her. It sometimes feels as if the more chaotic her life became, the more luminous and precise her prose became. She took great pride in her writing, but said that, “could the choice have been offered her, she would have preferred a life of only average happiness to the greatest literary triumphs.”

Due to a series of coincidences, in the mid-1960s, Rhys returned to publishing, achieving both literary triumph and a measure of ordinary human happiness. As with other windfalls in her life, this one was not of her own doing but due to the unforeseen arrival of helpful strangers. A woman she didn’t know wanted to adapt Rhys’s writing for a radio play but had no way of contacting the author, or even of determining if she was still alive. The woman, Selma Vaz Dias, placed an ad in the BBC publication Radio Times requesting help in tracking Rhys down. It seems fitting that, as if in a Rhys novel, this providential figure was herself an actress.

In another part of London, Francis Wyndham was also having a Jean Rhys moment. Wyndham was a gifted editor and selfless facilitator—someone who made sense of other people’s writing, how it should be edited, where it might find its most appropriate home. (After Rhys, he performed similar magic for Bruce Chatwin.) Wyndham had a knack for placing people’s work to show it to its best advantage. Personally, he was empathetic, tactful, and urbane, with peerless contacts in journalism and publishing and society. His own writing shared some of the same virtues as Rhys’s: unflashy, scrupulous, limpid; alert to all the subsonic vibrations of the antiquated British class system.

Thanks to the cheerleading and diligent efforts of Wyndham and Dias, Rhys would finally publish, in 1966, a book she had been laboring on for years: the magisterial Wide Sargasso Sea, a kind of Caribbean-set prequel to Jane Eyre. More books of short fiction and an unfinished autobiography, Smile Please (1979), would eventually appear; but it was Wide Sargasso Sea that reestablished her as a serious literary property.

Rhys would eventually fall out with Dias, but a support system assembled itself around the now elderly and physically frail author: Wyndham, Sonia Orwell, Diana Melly, Al Alvarez, and others. These legendary figures were happy to dance attendance on her every whim. When it came to her writing, Rhys was a steely perfectionist, alert to every last pause or period; but in most practical matters, she was lost. “Friends, lovers and relations with sturdier constitutions were always distressed, often irritated and sometimes repelled by the air of helpless passivity with which she made her exigent demands,” observed Wyndham.

The same woman who might joylessly drink away the daylight hours also tried to answer every fan letter. A slightly odd comparison comes to mind here—with another British exile overfond of a drink. In Andrew Lownie’s biography of the spy Guy Burgess, we find this: “[He] was the most persistent person in achieving his own ends that I have ever known. . . . He was persistent as a child is persistent, who always knows it will have its own way if it is willing to behave badly enough; and Guy always was willing to behave badly enough. And in this persistence lay a formidable power of the will, which because of the general disorder and absurdity of his personal life, for the most part went unnoticed.” Change Guy to Jean here, and you don’t need to change another word.

During the last 18 years of her life, Rhys lived in a semi-hovel in the kind of soul-sapping “middle of nowhere” that the British countryside can do so well. It was a small Devon village, full of suspicious eyes, where young boys would throw stones at the crazy old lady. One neighbor believed that she was a witch—perhaps not so surprising, once you’ve seen photos of Rhys, early and late. What leaps out at you are her wide almond eyes: warm, assessing, anxious, amused.

Given that Rhys told people that she felt like “a person at a masked ball, without a mask,” it’s also hardly surprising that she wasn’t much taken with the idea of a biography, no matter how sympathetic. Wyndham: “In her will Jean Rhys expressed the wish that no biography of her should be written unless authorised in her lifetime.” He added that, in his opinion, this stipulation was indicative of “not so much a desire for secrecy as a dread of inaccuracy.” It was also a question, I think, of not wishing to be seen up close without the figurative masks of glamour and makeup or distancing fiction. Throughout her life, there was only one thing she could truly control: her self-portrait, in words.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that she would find much to object to in I Used to Live Here Once. As biographers go, Seymour is sympathetic and judicious. She is alert to all the echoes bouncing between Rhys’s life and work but never presents the work as a mere photocopy of the life. She maps the fine (if blurry) line between all the fictions with their roots in Rhys’s own life, which often feels richer and stranger than fiction.

Rhys’s writing isn’t what you’d call redemptive. It offers nothing like a healing closure. Troubled minds stay troubled. Her characters (both ghostly and inordinately stubborn) don’t have developmental arcs; they merely loop and tarry and recapitulate, as in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie: “She felt that her life had moved in a circle. Predestined, she had returned to her starting point, in this little Bloomsbury bedroom that was so exactly like the little Bloomsbury bedroom she had left nearly ten years before.” In Voyage in the Dark, even the prospect of a fresh start seems to call up only the echoes of a deeply ingrained will to repeat: “When their voices stopped the ray of light came in again under the door like the last thrust of remembering before everything is blotted out. I lay and watched it and thought about starting all over again. And about being new and fresh. And about mornings, and misty days, when anything might happen. And about starting all over again, all over again.”

In the story that gives the biography its title, a Rhys character finally gets to return to Dominica; but just when something like consolation appears imminent, she realizes it’s too late: she is dead, a ghost, a mere chill in the air. In a revealing phrase, Rhys said that she felt like a ghost in her own life. She had been “cursed by a kind of spiritual sickness—a feeling of belonging nowhere, of being ill at ease and out of place in her surroundings wherever these happened to be, a stranger in an indifferent, even hostile, world.” But it also seems a vivid metaphor for being a woman in that time and place. Drinking alone in a bar or walking abroad at night, she was surveilled and noticed; as an artist, she was all too apt to become suddenly invisible.

I Used to Live Here Once feels sunnier and more expansive than the previous Rhys biography, Carole Angier’s Jean Rhys: Life and Work (1985). Angier had to shoulder the burden of revealing all the messy details to legions of new Rhys admirers, like myself. (I remember it being a somewhat shocking read.) Seymour doesn’t avoid the unpleasantness, but she has a lighter touch: she hovers, rather than pounces. Seymour discovers, for example, that Rhys possessed a lovely singing voice, and you start to see (and hear) all her scattered musical references: jazz and blues, songs and melodies; Welsh and French and Creole cadences; vamps of longing and the music of names. Voyage in the Dark was originally titled Two Tunes and, in parts of Europe, was published as Melodie in Mineur. “Forget people—think only of the music,” Rhys once told her granddaughter. There is in Rhys something like the ingrained sadness of blues or fado or deep song, or the melancholy torch singer, alone in a midnight room. What is known in Portuguese as saudade: a nostalgic longing for someone or something once loved and now forever lost.

What haunted her most was a feeling of being ejected from her childhood Eden of Dominica. Seymour writes that the island “haunted her mind and almost everything she wrote. . . . There—not in Devon, or London, nor even in Paris—lay the wellspring of Rhys’s art.” In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, even the pattern of the tawdry wallpaper seems marked by the Caribbean: “A large bird, sitting on the branch of a tree, faced, with open beak, a strange, wingless creature, half-bird, half-lizard.” Late efforts like Wide Sargasso Sea and Smile Please represent, if not exactly a happy homecoming or final resting place, then a settling of accounts. As Angier puts it, Rhys’s writing achieves “a growing up she never managed in life.” Perhaps a form of buried politics can be seen here, having to do with the difficulty of return; the flux of Creole culture experienced as both freedom and pressure, both open horizon and crushing legacy.

On the rare occasions when Rhys spoke about her work, she could be maddeningly disingenuous, claiming that it was just something “done as well as I could with my one syllable mind.” But in one letter, she lets slip something more interesting: “The big idea—well I’m blowed if I can be sure what it is. Something to do with time being an illusion I think. I mean that the past exists—side by side with the present, not behind it; that what was—is.”

Jean Rhys grew up as far from polite English society as it was possible to be, and her writing was not widely known until the late 1960s, when she was nearly 80. And yet, in her last years, she found herself embraced by the literary establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, and in 1978 was invited to Buckingham Palace to be appointed a CBE—a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was one of those seemingly fragile people who survive to a keen and reflective old age. Even when arthritis meant that she had to dictate portions of Smile Please, she always took extraordinary care with her writing. Seymour makes clear that to the end (she died at 88, in 1979), Rhys didn’t grow any less mercurial or easier to deal with, though she loved the attention of her new admirers.

One final twist: for 50 years, Rhys chose to be addressed in private and by friends as Ella. In 1966, after the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, she asked those close to her finally to call her Jean, “because that is who I am.” She may have felt like a ghost in her own life, but the posthumous renown of Jean Rhys shows no sign of fading.

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