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 Papal Count in Cuba and likely mixed race. There were religious anomalies: the emancipated black population of Dominica were Catholics, the Rhys family were Protestants, and the girl was sent as a strict Protestant to a convent school where the white girls were a small minority. A black nurse terrorized her with island tales of werewolves, vampires, and zombies. Her father gave food to the black poor.
The childish pleasures were in charades, fussing with pretty clothes, the lavish tropical colors, the Caribbean sensuousness at odds with Victorian moral injunction and romantic reading. In the early 1900s the novels of Marie Corelli and Rhoda Broughton arrived; the child read Paradise Lost because she was anxious to hear more of the thrilling sorrows of Satan. The nuns gave her French poetry to read. She knew that the duty of a girl was to be pretty and a clever coquette and so prepare for catching a husband. In this preoccupation she was far removed from the news of the emancipation of educated women in Europe or America. Strange notions came from books on prostitution in the local library. She put all her hopes on getting away to glorious England, i.e., “home,” and she was not alarmed to be sent there at sixteen to the exacting Perse School at Cambridge. What she had not understood was that although cheerful fires burned in English houses, according to the novels she had read, the climate was cold and gray, the people withdrawn, self-satisfied, and obdurately without the Caribbean grace.
In the meantime, in Dominica the tolerant father died; poverty and defiance began. The excited girl with the sleepy eyes and the languid figure left Perse after a mere term and went to RADA—the Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She saw herself as an actress. She early became a chorus girl in one of those ill-paid provincial touring companies, on thirty-five shillings a week. There were the girls who had “many friends,” there were the purposeful ones with their expert eyes on a rich husband, there were the innocent. Her account of the traveling company, with its jealousies, its bitchings, its quarrels with landladies, its freemasonry, and the difficulty of knowing how to survive in the long intervals when the show came off the road, is the most interesting thing in the book. She was no actress, and she was sacked.
It was not long before she had a rich “friend”—he lived in Berkeley Square—and indeed a kind one; he was startled by her shy passivity. If he did not love her, he feared for her. She took his money but felt it was a romantic bond, a symbol of love; but she blew up in a rage when he left her and, in the conventional manner of a man of the world, sent her an allowance through lawyers. He had seen she was open to disaster. It was really worse than that: she was down on the ground floor of a paralyzed loneliness. She became—what she was to remain all her life—an early example not of the Bohemian but of the displaced person. At that level, she turned to her first secret writing of a diary; for years it was her capital.
And here one has a clue to her curious position as a writer later on and her original quality. She was not a feminist. She was simply feminine and took the rough with the smooth, without foresight. She mistrusted women. She worked through men, in the old way, carelessly, by instinct. She hated the London of the Bloomsbury rooms and boarding houses which were distinctly not Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury. She had an abortion; it left her indifferent and without guilt. She met a dapper Dutchman who had a number of mysterious interests the police were watching—he claimed to be a diplomat—and he persuaded her easily, against the warnings of her watchful old lover, to get out of London to another tropique: Left Bank Paris. There she became the writer we know and was published, through Ford Madox Ford’s influence. She has little here to say about that imbroglio except to say firmly that the promiscuous old liar was kind.
Her talent, painfully prepared, was praised by a few, but she had no large success. She had esteem, but no money. Money, money, money, she groans. She looked after children in two rich families—the Brontë syndrome—she borrowed, her husband borrowed, and she was either shut up alone in her room or rushing down the pavements as if pursued, wondering where he was and what he was up to. She became clever at knowing the bars where she was welcome and where she was not. It is all in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie and in Good Morning, Midnight, with the fines à l’eau, the Pernods, the telephone calls from lavabos and the mirrors where she put the slapdash make-up on her face.
What we notice is that unlike Katherine Mansfield, that other distrait colonial in France or England, she did not move adroitly into a recognizable “set.” She met Ford, Joyce, Hemingway, etc., but they were on the move. In Paris she was on the fringe and had dropped into a vacancy when she hung about the Dome and the Rotonde looking for jobs in the papers. Her picture of Paris in the Twenties and early Thirties is almost intolerably exact: it is distant from the self-congratulation of that period of moneyed nostalgia and success. Hers is the Paris of failure. And as far as her own novels are concerned, she was unlucky not to write until the mid-Thirties when the Depression and social conscience put the hedonism of the Twenties out of fashion. In a decade a talent is easily written off.
I think the chain of vignettes in Smile Please, often very brief, are best on her London and English life simply because her realism has no nostalgia in it. The place is glum, the people are buttoned up and scraping along meanly. She catches the worried indifference to pleasure, the tyranny of routine and fixed habits. She missed explosions of feeling. In London there were other strangers, longing for a word, to match her numbed loneliness.
There are one or two mysteries. Her Dutchman who once took her to Vienna is caught out, deported, and sent to prison—not for robbery, she protests, but for illegal dealings in currency. Very “unfair”; everyone did that. She marries a publisher’s reader. He dies. She marries his cousin—the poor fellow gets six months in jail for misappropriation. (She has an unwary attraction to the weak or the mauvais garçon.) The last trouble explains the fragment called “At the Rope Maker’s Arms”: it is a pub near the jail where he is “away.” This is not explained but the short piece takes the form of an imaginary trial in which she is accused not of connivance but of her refusal to explain herself.
Jean Rhys denies elsewhere that she “hates men” though many have let her down—Mr. Mackenzie for example. She is not the female victim in the Women’s Lib sense. She says that the strenuous act of will writing calls for purged her unhappiness. After each crash there is a new beginning. What strikes one throughout is the giddy impayable: things like the fuss about clothes and make-up, the mad plunges into buying hats to raise morale; better be hungry than miss a cheap luxury. When money comes, she spends the lot. Yet when her luck was in she hung on to that period piece, the scruffy old powder compact given to her years before, as if it were a talisman. Any girl knows not to bring out a thing like that when a decent man takes you to dinner, and has given you a more expensive one.
She is a sad, bitter, coquettish old fighter who calls for another drink, blows up into one of those rages that console the wronged and, then, is all charm. One particular remark strikes me: she shocked a Frenchman, perhaps a would-be lover, by telling him that she had the faculty of abstracting herself from her body. He replied, very seriously, “How horrible.” But that, surely, has a connection with her cold detachment as an artist. She is not swamped by feeling: she watches it in others.
In his very different way her careless father, the doctor, who seemed to use his extravagance as a veil for his sense of failure, was reflected in her. However that may be, the London and Paris of her time are done to the life—perhaps because all the haters and lovers, double-thinkers and nonentities are visible to us in the room and on the streets. Her eye is as sharp as a needle, herself—indifferent? In one of her novels she mentions a discovery: that there is more than one way of looking at things. Her position as a displaced person was that there was no position. That was what caught the attention of the later generation who came to see her point. Displacement had become a norm.
August 14, 1980