Long before New York played any role in the world’s scene, Jean Rhys wrote at length about seriously complex female characters who struggled to express themselves in the denigrating society of which they were part – and who tried to come out of it with the least bit of dignity, or even self-esteem. Her location of choice was, for the most part, Paris, and her predominant subject was not so much sex, but rather (bohemian) life, and the city during the roaring twenties and the (still roaring) thirties. Nevertheless, the landscape of the internal worlds of her protagonists, plagued with longings and anxieties, with suspicions, frustrations and self-doubt, appeals to an intangible human sensibility and makes her work transcend space and time, rendering her topics uncannily relevant.
Born and raised in Roseau, Dominica, Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams was sent to England in 1907, at the age of seventeen. Her father was a Welsh farmer and her mother a Creole lady from the ruling white minority. Consequently, her accent, her lineage, and eventually her own identity were considered exotic – alien, even – both in England and Dominica. This ambivalence certainly shaped her personality, and might have dictated the path taken by her intense, though troubled life. At the same time, it sent her literature on a unique course that resists ready-made categorizations: much in the same way as Rhys’ ethnicity was discussed and questioned in Paris in the years between World Wars, her place in the Western canon has swung periodically from complete oblivion to great recognition, from being labelled British to being considered West Indian.
The problem, of course, is that Jean Rhys the writer, just as much as Jean Rhys the woman, crossed boundaries and legitimately manipulated – absorbed – elements from a wide variety of sources. Thus, her writing is both modern in style and overtly conscious of tradition; and while she is as British as Kafka is Austrian, there remains an inexorable Caribbean vein in her that seeps onto her work, to the point where it not only enhances it, but even defines it. Similar connections could be made down the line about anything from her personality to her racial background, which was a major issue at the time, and which she described as white, to the extent where you can be certain about it in the New World. Or anywhere else, she might have added.
Rhys lived a comfortable life, until the death of her father in 1910 forced her to put an end to her Dramatic Art studies in order to make a living for herself. This she did through a series of jobs – chorus girl, model – not fully approved by the conservative standards of respectability in England. After the Great War she married Jean Lenglet, a Dutch writer with whom she travelled extensively throughout Europe, prior to settling in Paris. Her first literary breakthrough came through her acquaintance of Ford Madox Ford, a poor man’s Ezra Pound, whose Transatlantic Review carried Rhys’s first published piece, the short story “Vienne”, in issue, in 1924. Ford, her friend and literary mentor, would also become her protector, when Lenglet faced a spell in prison. This led to Rhys publishing her first collection in 1927, The Left Bank and Other Stories, which was prefaced by Ford himself and which received positive reviews. Predictably, it also led to a tumultuous affair between Rhys, Ford and his passive wife, which was subsequently chronicled in her first novel, Postures (later re-titled Quartet) and in his novel When the Wicked Men.
Although Quartet eventually made it to the big screen in a solid 1981 production that included Alan Bates and Isabelle Adjani, it remains Rhys’ less accomplished novel. The plot loosely follows her experiences in Paris, where Mado Zelli, the protagonist, finds herself lonely and lost once her husband is jailed for one year. The ensuing drama becomes predictable even to those who know nothing about Rhys’ life, as the story moves forward with some pace but little sophistication. What is worse, the characters corresponding to the figures of Ford and his wife oscillate from the trite to the spiteful, while young, innocent Mado tends to slip into a malleable frame of mind that verges on the pathetic. Consequently, the nuances that so suggestively become evident in the behaviour of Rhys’ later female characters and the expectations that are cast upon them remain largely undisclosed in her treatment of the protagonist of Quartet.
Rhys would never fully detach her fiction from her real-life experiences, and perhaps it is precisely this tight control of a simple plot which allows her to delve into the inner worlds of her protagonists with both insight and finesse. Following Quartet, she published After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1938), the best of her early novels. Subtly shaped with a modernist aesthetic, Rhys adopted a sober kind of stream-of-consciousness style to unify a narrative that shifts between past and present with ease and frequency. Sasha Jansen, a middle aged woman in a crisis, comes to Paris for a two-week break from her dreary life. But in Good Morning, Midnight, Paris is not just a city. Rather, it is a subjective place shaped by the emotions it evokes on Sasha Jansen, who has spent the best and worst of times there. Hence, she thinks, she needs to be careful in her “avoidance of certain cafés, of certain streets, of certain spots” that might trigger negative memories or where she might be remembered for the wrong reasons. 
In Good Morning, Midnight Rhys embraces literary modernism emphatically by using an array of contemporary techniques both expertly and maturely. While Paris becomes a central figure in the novel – the co-protagonist, together with Sasha Jansen, one might say – the city is not described in any palpable terms, emerging instead as the foundation of Sasha’s experiences, past and new. Even aesthetic judgements, or statements relating to the weather, depend directly on Sasha’s perspective or location. “I believe it’s a fine day, but the light in this room is so bad you can’t be sure” (pp. 13-4). Consequently, the notions of time and space evinced in the novel gain a measure of relativisation, typical of the Bergsonian spirit of the times. The narrative structure of the novel is disrupted constantly by the thoughts of Sasha Jansen, which regularly lead to phases of her past. While there are specific episodes when these phases work as traditional flashbacks (most notably, although not exclusively, Part Three), the great majority of them are no more than instantaneous transportations to a past moment which dissipate within a sentence. In this sense, past and present interact continuously in a reciprocal relation that not only infuses the present with a certain emotion (happiness, nostalgia), but also affects Sasha’s actions and judgement. Thus, her self-consciousness and her determination to avoid unpleasant situations make her aware of everything and everyone around her, to the point where she sits in a café and feels aggrieved when her eavesdropping lands her on a conversation where someone describes someone else as “la vielle”. Days later, sitting in a different bar and again feeling unwelcome (this is Paris, after all), the connection is made to the prior episode as she wonders whether the girl behind the bar will “say something about me in a voice loud enough for me to hear it?” The girl “says nothing… But she says it all”, in the face of which Sasha remains defiant and gets drunk (p.104).
Yet, in this interaction of past and present it is not only the chronological passage of time which is challenged: at its most extreme, this relation transgresses the boundaries of traditional space. Still sitting at the same café as above, Sasha, three Pernods down the line, sees the road outside walking in through the door to greet her – “Nobody else knows me, but the street knows me.” And when she, in her drunken stupor, affirms that she “won’t walk along that street again”, we cannot assume that she means exclusively the street in her memories (pp. 107-8). After another few drinks, Sasha finally arrives in her hotel room, which is “saturated with the past… It’s all the hotel rooms I’ve ever slept in. All the streets I’ve ever walked in.” (p.109). For Rhys time and space are subjective phenomena perceived by her characters through their senses, not objective realities imposed on the characters above their perception. Consequently, time and space become dependant on the mood and temperament of her characters, to the point where for Sasha “The musty smell, the bugs, the loneliness, this room, which is part of the street outside – this is all I want from life.” (p. 131). The unorthodox integration of indoors and outdoors in a single space in this sentence combines with an emotion (loneliness), a sensation (the musty smell) and an autonomous entity (presumably the bugs exist beyond Sasha’s perception of them) to create one ideal reality, which we can certainly understand, but which remains nonetheless distant from the more traditional sense of the word.
World War II broke out shortly after the publication of Good Morning, Midnight, and Rhys, now in London, disappeared from the public arena. Altogether, critical reception of her books had been positive, but commercially they had not been a great success. She failed to re-emerge after the war, and while protracted silence was not uncommon among intellectuals following the traumatic conflict (Hemingway, for instance, published nothing between 1940 and 1950), it is likely that hers would have been final had it not been for an initiative by the BBC to produce a radio adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight. Secluded in Devon, Rhys must have had to read twice when she saw the newspaper ad looking for her.
And so began the second period of her literary career. Rhys’ most successful novel, and still today her claim to fame, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published in 1966. Widely known as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, this is a finely balanced work that consciously makes use of Bronte’s text to enhance its appeal, but that is quite capable of standing on its own. Structurally, it is Rhys’ most complex piece and the one that ventures farthest away from the format of the short story. The plot follows the life of Antoinette Cosway, the eldest daughter of a white widow and landowner in Jamaica, shortly after the abolition of slavery. Antoinette’s childhood is marked by the resentment felt by the black population towards her and her family. Her mother is saved from complete despondency when she marries Richard Mason, but things still get worse when their estate is burned down by the locals. Sent to boarding school, things regularise somewhat with the passage of time, until she is of age to marry. Her considerable dowry attracts Edward Rochester, but their relationship collapses even before they leave the West Indies.
While the exact knowledge of Jane Eyre and the manipulation of this tradition adds a fascinating level to Wide Sargasso Sea, the more interesting aspect of the novel corresponds to its exploration of the perspective of the other. In this sense, Rhys’ final novel fittingly closes a circle that started with the flat characterisation of the helpless Mado Zelli in Quartet, forty years earlier. However, in Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys is able to paint a more detailed and more trustworthy portrait of the male companion to her protagonist by adopting a first person narrator that shifts back and forward between Antoinette and Edward, giving the reader an insight into the personality of both characters. This results in a bi-polar situation where the worldviews of Edward and Antoinette stand in direct contraposition to each other. Nevertheless, by carefully describing a setting in which Antoinette has never been accepted, or even comfortable, Rhys sets up a reasonably balanced scenario that favours neither of the players. Extracted from the exigencies of the patriarchal environment where he belongs, Edward finds himself in a context where he can be free. “Here I can do as I like”, they tell each other in one of the rare episodes of mirth they enjoy in the book. But freedom comes at a cost for Edward, who is left without the reasserting background of an approving society: indeed, here he can do as he likes, but only because here he is on his own.
As the narrative continues, the patently differing worlds of Edward and Antoinette become more and more distant, to the point where they become irreconcilable. When Antoinette asks Edward if it is true that England is like a dream, instead of being amused he seems insulted by the question. It transpires that to him what seems like a dream is the West Indies, to which Antoinette asks “But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal” (p. 90). His answer uses the same verbal formula but the content of his thoughts perfectly displays the size of the impasse reached by their contrasting worldviews: “How can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?” Ultimately, their failure to communicate reaches as far as language, as their idiosyncrasies become visible in the names they use to refer to simple things such as a thatched shelter, which he calls a “summer house” (there are no summers in Dominica) and she ajoupa (a patois word)(p. 88). Thus, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys matches the destinies of two outcasts, of two others, who nonetheless fail to find any common ground to build a shared existence. In the relatively neutral middle ground of Dominica, Antoinette finds tools to fight against Edward, but as soon as the decision is made to return to England Edward assumes the dominant position, to the point where he refers to Antoinette by the name of Bertha, simply because “it’s a name I’m particularly fond of” (p. 135). By then, Antoinette is already doomed to the miserable existence given to Bertha Mason by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre.
Between 1966 and her death in 1979, Rhys would publish three more collections of short stories and would leave an unfinished manuscript of her memoirs. However, her contribution to world literature was quite complete. In her work, Rhys stated the case not so much of the underdog, as Ford suggested in his preface to The Left Bank, but of the disenfranchised. Naturally, it is no coincidence that the protagonists of her five novels are all female. However, what really brings them together is neither their genitalia nor their sexual inclinations, but rather the hopeless situation in which they find themselves, precisely due to the restrictions set in place by an imposing society. This is a condition that cannot be escaped by the gigolo who picks up Sasha Jansen in Good Morning, Midnight, who “will be up against racial, not sexual characteristics” (p. 157); it is a condition that cannot be escaped by the poor, be that Mado Zelli, or the white girl washing-up the glasses in a coffin of a room in a café in Paris (Good Morning, Midnight, p. 105); it is a condition that cannot be escaped by the West Indian in London – this she knows from experience. Rhys’ critique of society is comprehensive, even if it is not always as effusive about capitalism or racism as it is about patriarchy. And yet, the characters she creates are simultaneously wretched and funny, sad and witty, hurt and harmless. In the construction of these characters, Rhys makes use of Caribbean as well as European elements, combining the crass directness of West Indian speech with the subtle irony of British humour, her knowledge of calypso with her acquaintance with Edwardian etiquette. The result is a remarkably complex world where transgression is the rule – because with every cross-over there is defiance and there is a trade-off. This permeability is precisely what makes Rhys’ work resist labelling and stand out as unique. Ironically, it also makes her seem more current in the fluid world of Post-Modernity than she was in the mid thirties.
ABRIDGED VERSION PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON OCTOBER 17, 2009.
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