Down & Out in Paris & London

Jean Rhys: Life and Work

by Carole Angier
Little, Brown, 762 pp., $35.00

Jean Rhys was seventy-six years old before she had a literary success. Her first five books—a collection of short stories and four novels, published between 1927 and 1939—had been praised sporadically for their style, disliked generally for their sordid subject matter, and sold hardly at all. Fame of a kind came finally in 1966 with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, which won her what were then two of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards, one from the Royal Society of Literature, the other the W.H. Smith Prize. Rhys refused to go to either presentation ceremony. She pleaded ill health, but the truth was she was too old, too shy, and too distrustful of her fellow writers to cope with the fuss. She was also beyond caring. According to Diana Athill, her friend and publisher, her reaction to the good news was that it had come too late.

She was right, of course. In literary terms, nothing was going to make up for forty years’ neglect. But Rhys didn’t think in literary terms: they figured hardly at all in her life and interests and ambitions. Until her last years, when she became successful and therefore sought after, she met few other writers and with those she did meet she was so formal and shy that they lost interest and rarely tried to see her again. If she had to communicate with a fellow author, she preferred to do so by letter. The 1984 selection of the letters she wrote after 1931 contains none at all to anyone of a comparable literary stature.

The reason is that, although there were times when she wrote obsessively, her real life was elsewhere and writing was secondary to it. “I never wanted to write,” she wrote to her friend Peggy Kirkaldy. “I wished to be happy and peaceful and obscure. I was dragged into writing by a series of coincidences…[and] need for money.” Obscure she certainly was until the last few years of her very long life—she was eighty-nine when she died—but happy and peaceful never, and her belated success was no compensation for the unspeakable mess she made of the business of living. Maybe she thought that if recognition had come earlier a little money might have eased the strain and made the need to behave badly less overpowering.

Carole Angier puts it more starkly: success had come too late, she says, because “by the time it came she had too much to hide.” In her will Rhys specifically asked that no biography of her should be written unless it was authorized in her lifetime. She never gave that authorization. Instead, she began to write her memoirs, published posthumously as Smile Please. Her objections to a biography were partly a matter of principle:

I have not met other writers often. A few in Paris…. Even fewer in England. That does not matter at all, for all of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be…

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