Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography
Unstable as water. “No guts,” as the English say…. I would never be part of anything, never belong anywhere…something would always go wrong…. A stranger and after all I didn’t care.
So Jean Rhys reflected when she was put to the torture of attempting an autobiography in her mid-eighties. It was not finished when she died. She was frail in health, alone, drinking a lot, but famous to a younger generation, after being forgotten for twenty years by her contemporaries. Autobiography was a special torture. Not because she thought her private life was her own business but because she had already written it out in her very autobiographical novels and stories. She was being asked to winnow away her remarkable art and reveal, if she could remember them, the “real” facts in a continuous narrative. There was one inducement: she had been angered and hurt by what had been written about her character and drifting life in London and Paris. The judgments were “unfair,” too much had been read into her books, there had been too much gloating on her “vagabondage,” which, in any case, was too romantic a word. Yet “to put the record straight” was a cliché next to impossible for an artist who had been instinctive. She said she could not remember what people had really said. Memory rationalizes and is therefore the enemy of art.
David Plante drew her out skillfully in his talks with her published in the Paris Review in 1978, and now there is Smile Please, the unfinished haphazard string of vignettes which are as near as she could get to her story, to which Diana Athill has written an introduction. The reader will notice that the animation is often generalized. We are lost halfway between “real life” and the novels. The chief merit lies in her asides, in her fits of kindness or temper, and forgiveness: they bring out the stoicism, courage, and honesty of her baffled fatalism. There are many lovers, three husbands (two in prison), all dead. One child only still living. If she had not exerted her will in scrupulous writing, her life (she said) would have been an “abject failure.” Without writing and the labor every sentence cost her she “would not have earned her death.” Her dedication purges and justifies. One has to add that her will to survive was always there. This is plain in her most desolating scenes or her outbursts of violence—so strongly cut short when she had had enough of them.
Jean Rhys was a child of the tristes tropiques. The colonial loneliness and fear were entangled with the lazy happiness of her girlhood life in Dominica. Her forebears had settled there in the slave-owning days at the end of the eighteenth century. They were not well-off. Her father was a hard-working doctor, careless with his money: he was the son of a Welsh Anglican clergyman. The mother had Scottish connections and somewhere there was a link with a mythical …