Few books have been as poorly served by their authors as the novels of Jean Rhys. The drinking (two bottles of wine a day, so drunk that she got violent, so drunk that she got stuck in the toilet), the poverty and the helplessness, the tangled affairs and the excruciating loneliness—the story of her life nearly eclipsed her talent. “Jean Rhys was not a modern woman,” wrote her biographer, Carole Angier. “From beginning to end, dependence was her way of life.” Born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Dominica, she moved in her teens to England, where she worked as a chorus girl, nanny, and prostitute. Men supported her throughout her life, especially her second husband, Leslie Tilden Smith. He typed up the writing she left scattered on pieces of paper around the house and reassured her of her genius even after she beat him up.
One summer during college, I read the four volumes of collected Paris Review interviews in order to learn how to be a writer (an exercise that was unsuccessful but that I nonetheless recommend). Rhys’s answers seemed so sad, so pathetic, so dreary: “I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anyone has?… When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write.”
None of this prepares you for the pleasure of reading her novels. What’s extraordinary is how they seem so very alive. Part of this is the language Rhys uses, always simple, mostly short sentences, which add up to short books too. The collected volume I have, arranged by her editor Diana Athill, contains five novels interspersed with Brassai photographs that together come to about two thirds the length of Ulysses. Part of it is also the way that they’re constructed. I know of no other writer who uses so much first-person dialogue, which has a strange effect. Rhys keeps her “I” present and the other characters’ words too, so that reading, you’re not quite in a narrator’s head but not fully out of it either.
In Voyage in the Dark, for example, there’s a scene in which Anna Morgan goes to the house of the wealthy man about to take her on as his mistress. Anna has moved to London from the Caribbean after her father died. She is cold and lonely. Her stepmother cuts her off, so she joins a chorus and does what the other girls do: finds a man to support her. She is naive and needy enough to believe that this might be love:
He was saying, “You’re perfect darling, but you’re only a baby. You’ll be all right later on. Not that it has anything to do with age. Some…
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