Jean Rhys was born in the small Caribbean island of Dominica and went to England when she was sixteen, not many years before the 1914 war. Two hundred or even 150 years ago, when the sugar colonies of the Caribbean were valuable and important, the white West Indian in Europe was better known. Smollet satirized jumped-up Jamaican slave overseers taking the waters in Bath; Captain Marryat’s father owned plantations and Negroes in Trinidad; Leigh Hunt was a Barbadian. But by the 1920s, when Jean Rhys began to write, the Caribbean and the Spanish Main belonged to antique romance; and the West Indian needed to explain himself.
Jean Rhys didn’t explain herself. She might have been a riddle to others, but she never sought to make her experience more accessible by making it what it was not. It would have been easy for someone of her gifts to have become a novelist of manners; but she never pretended she had a society to write about. Even in her early stories, of Left Bank life in Paris, she avoided geographical explicitness. She never “set” her scene, English, European, or West Indian; she had, as it were, no home audience to play to; she was outside that tradition of imperial-expatriate writing in which the metropolitan outsider is thrown into relief against an alien background. She was an expatriate, but her journey had been the other way round, from a background of nothing to an organized world with which her heroines could never come to terms.
This journey, this break in a life, is the essential theme of her five novels, Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), both recently reissued, Voyage in the Dark (1934), Good Morning, Midnight (1939),* and, though it is “historical,” set in the 1830s, and stands apart from the others, Wide Sargasso Sea (1967). The Jean Rhys heroine of the first four books is a woman of mystery, inexplicably bohemian, in the toughest sense of that word, appearing to come from no society, having roots in no society, having memories only of places, a woman who has “lost the way to England” and is adrift in the metropolis.
The women she meets are outsiders like herself, thrown off by organized society. They are, inevitably, cruder and less gifted; but they have been schooled by their society in the arts of survival. They have the saws and the supporting philosophy, the folk wisdom about men and money. “It might have been much worse.” “When you start thinking about things the answer’s a lemon…. But it’s no use worrying.” “Even if I have to do without, I still bank half of everything I get, and there’s no friend like that.” Men and money are connected: in this half-world men are the only people with money, and they are at once predators and prey, sexual partners, arbitrary providers of dinners, rooms, clothes. Their jobs remain vague, their larger, legitimate lives unknown. No homes are entered; the metropolis is reduced to a few cafés, boardinghouses, and hotels.
The great events of the world are far away: Jean Rhys’s world is as without dates as Jane Austen’s. In the four last novels there is only one explicit—and startling—date: 1914. Cinemas, when they do appear, are places that provoke private thoughts; there isn’t even the spurious community of radio and television. The society is closed; the isolation of the expatriate, the woman, the outsider, is complete; she exists in a void. “And I felt as if all my life and all myself were floating away from me like smoke and there was nothing to lay hold of.”
The mysterious journey from an unknown island, the break in a life: concrete experience turns into the purest of symbols, and the themes which in the 1930s must have seemed obscure and perverse, deriving from too particular an experience, are today more accessible. But writing exorcises nothing for the writer. The concrete experience remains; what is damaging is damaging.
It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again….Sometimes it was as if I were back there and as if England were a dream. At other times England was the real thing and out there was the dream, but I could never fit them together.
This is how Voyage in the Dark, published in 1934, begins; and the words might serve as an epigraph for Wide Sargasso Sea, published thirty-three years later.
Wide Sargasso Sea is historical. It is the story of the first Mrs. Rochester, the mad West Indian wife in Jane Eyre, and it is set in the 1830s, not long after slavery has been abolished in the British colonies. An order has collapsed and some people are “marooned.” The whites who are weak become “white cockroaches,” preyed on by Negroes and half-castes. Africa shadows the mind, the servile turn vicious (“I knew that the ones who laughed would be the worst“); a world that appeared simple is now seen to be diseased, and is no longer habitable. Across the sea there is England, no longer home: an attic, imprisonment, flames. Wide Sargasso Sea remains in the mind as a brilliant idea for a nightmare; and it completes Jean Rhys’s world. It fills in the West Indian scene and makes more explicit the background to that journey, which turns out not to have been from innocence to darkness, but from one void to another. There is no innocence in Jean Rhys’s world; there has always been loss.
There is passion. “I wanted to go away with just the same feeling a boy has when he wants to run away to sea—at least, that I imagine a boy has. Only, in my adventure, men were mixed up, because of course they had to be. You understand, don’t you? Do you understand that a girl might have that feeling?” The thirty-six-year-old heroine of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie speaks for all Jean Rhys’s heroines. It is easy to run away, but passion is the complication; and passion, as dissected by Jean Rhys, is an ambiguous thing. It is an aspect of loss, of being adrift, of being without money; it is an aspect of dependence.
Anna, the eighteen-year-old heroine of Voyage in the Dark, is a chorus girl without prospects in a provincial touring company in pre-1914 England. When she was a child in the West Indies Anna wanted to be black. “Being black is warm and happy, being white is cold and sad.” Now the journey has been made, and England is indeed cold and sad. On the sea front at Southsea one day Anna is picked up by a man. He does “something in the City.” The full apparatus of Edwardian seduction follows: dinners, private rooms, champagne. From being an observer Anna becomes involved. Her lover is remote but kindly; Anna leans on him more and more; she is learning the habit of dependence. Her perceptions of her lover—totally banal, as he presents himself to her, no more than a discreet sketch for a man—and of her own exclusion from the world do not alter. But she is caught. When she is abandoned she will be damaged. Again and again—like the middle-aged heroine of Good Morning, Midnight, looking only for disengagement and calm—Anna will be a victim.
Passion is not a romance with the self. The Jean Rhys heroine knows sensuousness, a delight in the body, in clothes, in remembered tropical landscapes. But there is no real relishing of the world; at the center there is always something like withdrawal. “It doesn’t matter, there I am, like one of those straws which floats round the edge of a whirlpool and is gradually sucked into the centre, the dead centre, where everything is stagnant, everything is calm.” Passion is dependence, a further diminution of the capacity to survive. And dependence is, curiously, like a drama in the head, something worked up and willful, yet in the end real and necessary: it is the woman’s half-world. Demi-monde: exile and dependence give the words an exact meaning.
Jean Rhys’s novels, written over a period of thirty-seven years, modify one another and make a whole. They record a total experience, with varying emphasis. Wide Sargasso Sea is the vision of nightmare at the end, with the historical setting giving distance, as in a nightmare. Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight, the most subtle and complete of the novels, and the most humane, are the most immediate. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is the most brutal. It doesn’t dissect a passion. It examines solitude and the void.
“Nowadays something had happened to her. She hardly ever thought of men, or love.” Julie is thirty-six. She has been pensioned off by a former lover, Mr. Mackenzie, and for six months or so has been living as a solitary in a cheap Paris hotel, deadened by “a sore and cringing feeling, which was the legacy of Mr. Mackenzie.” Abruptly one day she is informed that Mr. Mackenzie’s weekly allowance to her will be discontinued. Humiliated, hysterical, Julia seeks Mr. Mackenzie out. He isn’t mysterious or very far away. Absurdly, he lives just around the corner; and when he is encountered in a nearby restaurant—the whole scene is marvelously done—he turns out to be a man of fifty, middle class, correct, “of medium height and colouring,” with “enough nose to look important, enough stomach to look benevolent.” Almost Dickensian in that description, hardly an object of passion, a nobody, and perhaps for Julia always a nobody: it is the absurdity of her dependence. Julia’s energy leaves her; the scene that seems to be preparing fades on a feeble climax. She strikes Mr. Mackenzie with her glove, but lightly; and it is she who looks beaten.
This little crisis is at the heart of the novel. All that follows is background. Acting on an impulse, Julia goes to London and puts up at a Bloomsbury hotel, chosen at random. There are people to be looked up: an old lover from whom she will get money; an uncle (shipwrecked himself, living in a Bayswater boardinghouse) with whom she will quarrel; an embittered unmarried sister, imprisoned in suburban Acton by poverty and a family responsibility: an invalid mother who, when Julia arrives, is in a coma and dying. This shred of a family life emphasizes the emptiness and threat outside, and the sisters are uneasy with one another. Pity and concern are submerged by jealousy, brutality, and hysteria. The mother dies; the sisters separate. An embarrassing half-affair—always developing, never consummated—that Julia has been running with a romantic and kindly but self-regarding and timid man finally aborts. So the ten London days pass, “a disconnected episode to be placed with all the other disconnected episodes which made up her life”; and Julia goes back to Paris.
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is lucid, exact, and swift; the writing is exceptionally clean. But unlike the other novels it is written in the third person, with the novelist roaming at will among all her characters, so that the material is at once more “loaded.” The West Indian background is excised. Julia therefore has no past and is without the “hall-marks” of nationality and social background; and her bohemianism, set against the hollow lives of lovers and family, is made to appear as both more defensible and more awful, part of a comprehensive damnation. Julia’s would-be lover returns at the end to his familiar “world of lowered voices, and of passions, like Japanese dwarf trees, suppressed for many generations.” There is a hint that Julia’s unmarried sister, passions unspent, her life all but wasted, is about to pass into the greater aridity of a liaison with a mannish woman nurse. Within and without “the social system” people are trapped.
It is a depressing conclusion, not easy to take; but the attitude will be modified in the novels that follow. For Julia Mr. Mackenzie and his lawyer “perfectly represented organised society, in which she had no place and against which she had not a dog’s chance.” Nine years later, in Good Morning, Midnight, the middle-aged narrator will say something like this, but with a different emphasis:
Well, let’s argue this out, Mr. Blank. You, who represent Society, have the right to pay me 400 francs a month. That’s my market value, for I am an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray, there’s no denying it. So you have the right to pay me 400 francs a month, to lodge me in a small, dark room, to clothe me shabbily, to harass me with worry and monotony and unsatisfied longings till you get me to the point when I blush at a look, cry at a word…. But I wish you a lot of trouble, Mr. Blank, and just to start off with, your damned shop’s going bust.
This is the Jean Rhys tone: the drama, of dependence and defeat, lies all in the head. What is formulated by the narrator is less of a “statement,” more balanced and effective, lighter and truer.
But After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is the writer’s first extended attempt at coming to terms with a chaotic experience; and the brutality of the novel, like the nightmare of Wide Sargasso Sea, is an essential part of the record. The four novels stand together. Out of her fidelity to her experience, and her purity as a novelist, Jean Rhys thirty to forty years ago identified many of the themes that engage us today: isolation, an absence of society or community, the sense of things falling apart, dependence, loss. Her achievement is very grand. Her books may serve current causes, but she is above causes. What she has written about she has endured, over a long life; and what a stoic thing she makes the act of writing appear.
May 18, 1972