Woman, modernist, West Indian: the haunted life of Jean Rhys

Brigitta Olubas (The Conversation) reviews Miranda Seymour’s I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys (Harper Collins) with comparative references to other works on the writer, such as Caryl Phillips’s A View of the Empire at Sunset. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention. Also see previous post The Life of Jean Rhys.]

The life of Dominican-born writer Jean Rhys is at once well-known and mysterious. Her career dipped and soared across both halves of the last century, across changes of name (Ella Gwendoline “Gwen” Rees Williams, Ella Lenglet, Jean Rhys) and changes of location (West Indies, England, Europe).

Her early adult years were full. There had been a career on the stage as a chorus dancer, liaisons with wealthy men, and marriage to a charming Dutch bigamist and fraudster, which took her to The Hague, Paris, Vienna and Budapest. She experienced a flurry of literary fame in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when she was shepherded into print by Ford Madox Ford – their vexed relationship was used by both in their later writing.

Then came oblivion, when her bleak urban tales seemed to chime too cruelly with pre-war and wartime darkness, years when publishers rejected her work and readers thought she must have died.

A brilliant reversal of fortune came with the publication of her best-known work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966): a reimagining – re-dreaming, even – of Jane Eyre as the life of the first Mrs Rochester, a white creole. A raging old age followed. Rhys drank (but also charmed) her way through years of privation, surviving on the tenacious, courageous bounty of friends.

Each reappearance seemed to be as a different writer: a woman, a modernist, and finally a West Indian.

Crossing the water

The details of Rhys’s life were known through two biographies: Carole Angier’s massive and acclaimed Jean Rhys: Life and Work (1985), and Lilian Pizzichini’s breezier portrait in The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys (2009). But its outlines were also familiar through its echoing of the false or late starts, or forced haltings, in the literary careers of so many women writers of the century, cases where literary renown became a casualty of the vagaries of literary taste and domestic obligation.

In 2018, the St Kitts-born writer Caryl Phillips published a novel based on the first 46 years of Rhys’ life. A View of the Empire at Sunset follows Gwen Williams’ return to Dominica in 1936 with her spiritless English husband. It then leaps back to her childhood, her passage from the island to grey England, skips over her Paris years, and ends as she departs a second time. On the boat, she turns away from her husband: “Her island had both arranged and rearranged her, and she had no words.”

The novel turns Rhys’ journey inward, turns it into a chronicle of loss, decline and return. As she drifts through the creaking remnants of her family’s colonial past, the young Gwen is figured by those around her as a far from English child: “It look to me like Miss Gwendolen catch somewhere between coloured and white.”

In a 2018 interview, given as his novel was being published, Phillips spoke at some length about the motivation of his book, the pull Rhys’ West Indian story held for him. He had described this in 2011 as the “umbilical cord [that] often connects the pain of exile to the pleasure of literature”: the shared experience of “crossing the water”.

Phillips had read Rhys’ work decades before. He had admired, though not unduly, Wide Sargasso Sea. But he was compelled by Voyage in the Dark (1934), which revealed “how England can launch a stealth attack on your identity”. The novel had been passed to him by the West Indian critic Kenneth Ramchand – “I think you should read this” – and with it began a “more intimate” relationship with Rhys’ work.

That intimacy is important. It ties Phillips’ novel into a legacy of Caribbean writing about and in response to Rhys. This includes work by writers such as Derek Walcott, Lorna Goodison and Jamaica Kincaid, who valued Rhys’ engagement with the particularities of loss and language and imagination, because they stood “on the periphery of the English-language tradition”.

They could not “presume that those in the middle [could] understand their work, so they [had] to batten down their sentences”. Rhys’ choices of, for instance, “verbs, adjectives and adverbs had to be very clear because publishers in Britain are outside their experience. She saw different sunsets, for example.”

Phillips believed that those different sunsets had not figured in the Rhys biographies. He felt that Angier’s had been written with no sense of “the first 16 years of [Rhys’] life”; she had failed to grasp that Rhys was “a person you have to understand through the Caribbean”.

For all her meticulous research, Angier had never travelled to Rhys’ homeland. So Phillips made the journey himself, immersed himself in the island’s “texture”:

What does Dominica smell like? Not like England. What is the first thing you notice when you go back? The heavy texture of the air. Caribbean nights do not sound like Parisian nights […] There is a different way of feeling the length of the day, the rhythm of your life is just different.

[. . .] Her objections to Phillips’ style and approach notwithstanding, Seymour does seem to have been drawn to the Dominican story that the novel opened up. Just as Phillips’ novel had done four years before, her biography, I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys, turns its attention to the significance of Dominica and the first 16 years of Rhys’ life. In her foreword, she writes that she was drawn to the importance of these not by Rhys’ fiction, but by Smile Please (1979), a late autobiographical sketch, which evoked those years and places.

Like Phillips, Seymour travelled to Dominica, where she saw Rhys’ family homes overgrown with tropical foliage and spoke to some of the same people about the island, its past, and the Rees Williams family’s complex ties there. [. . .]

Opening the biography with the words of the creole song that Jean Rhys sang for a recording in 1963 (a digital version is held with Rhys’ papers at the McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa) sets the scene of Rhys’ life and yearnings beyond the Europe and England with which she has been mostly associated.

It is a brilliant move. The words of the song charge the dark sexuality of Rhys’ writings with the irreducible trace of her early years, the threat of waywardness, the path to the devil. [. . .]

Seymour’s inclusion of this song (along with the translation provided by Sonia Magloire-Akba, an authority on the creole language, whom Seymour consulted in Dominica) provides a compelling ground and context for the markers of otherness that flicker through Rhys’ story. [. . .] But Rhys’ connection to Dominica is not really pursued in the depth it deserves, nor is the influence of her location between cultures and within the colonial violence of her family’s history. These are confined for the most part to the early pages of the book. Seymour chronicles the detail and difficulties of Rhys’ relations with Ford, but she does not note Ford’s use of racialised epithets that tied her to the island wherever she lived (he describes Lola as a “devil” and a “blackamoor”). [. . .]

For full review, see https://theconversation.com/woman-modernist-west-indian-the-haunted-life-of-jean-rhys-187171

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