The Blue Hour

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Toward the end of Jean Rhys’s life, after one of her many arrests for assaulting neighbors, disturbing the peace, and so forth, a local newspaper published an article about Rhys’s latest clash with the law under the headline “Mrs. Hamer Agitated.” One of the neighbors with whom she was feuding, when informed of Rhys’s identity, refused to believe it, saying that she was an impostor “impersonating a dead writer called Jean Rhys.” Lilian Pizzichini’s biography of Rhys, The Blue Hour, reveal that its subject was a violent drunk. She beat her husbands as well as her neighbors, and she seemed to have a perpetual chip on her shoulder. She suspected others and their motives, even when they tried to help herperhaps especially then.

The biography thus reveals an unpleasant side of an author known for Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and other novels about suffering, vulnerable women. Pizzichini attempts to defend Rhys, arguing that the author had “good reason to be angry” because of the many difficult external circumstances she faced. In taking this approach, Pizzichini sets herself against a previous biographer of Rhys, Carole Angier. For Pizzichini, Angier was too judgmental and sought inappropriately to pathologize Rhys, diagnosing her as a “borderline personality.” Even Pizzichini, though, ends up using words such as “paranoid” to describe her subject.

In fact, a glance at Angier’s 1990 biography, Jean Rhys: Life and Work, reveals thatdifferences in tone notwithstandingthe two biographies are very much alike. Pizzichini suggests that Angier sits in judgment while she, Pizzichini, is sympathetic and understanding. In fact, however, Angier is quite sympathetic as well, though admittedly less prone to explaining things away.

By talking of how Angier’s research uncovered the facts of Rhys’s life and laid the groundwork for later biographers, Pizzichini also makes it sound as if Angier had produced a work of dry scholarship in contrast to Pizzichini’s livelier, more impressionistic approach. It is true that Pizzichini’s narrative is almost novelistic, evoking Rhys as a character and eschewing scholarly methodology. There are no footnotes in The Blue Hour, while Angier provides copious notes in her book. However, Angier’s biography, while perhaps more scholarly, also attempts to be novelistic, adopting a chatty, informal tone marked by the use of the first person.

A close comparison of the two biographies reveals even more similarities. Pizzichini says Angier’s book was “a departure point for my own researches,” but she does not seem to have departed very far from Angier. She tends to report the same incidents, using the same quotations from newspapers and other accounts, and even lifts phrases from her predecessor.

Here, for instance, is Pizzichini’s account of the experiences of Rhys’s first husband after being released from prison: Lenglet spent the next two years tramping around Europe. He became a sandwich man in Lucerne, sold newspapers in Berlin, was a publisher’s courier in Frankfurt, and when all else failed, he scraped a living as a street musician.

Here is Angier’s account of the same incident: He spent most of the next two years tramping around Europe, becoming a sandwich man in Lucerne, selling newspapers in Berlin, carrying books for publishers in Frankfurt; and when he couldn’t get even such lowly jobs, passing round his hat as a street musician.

There are also differences between the two accounts. Angier’s book is more than twice the length of Pizzichini’s. Partly, this is because Angier devotes several chapters to analyzing Rhys’s novels, whereas Pizzichini barely discusses the novels at all: Pizzichini’s focus is almost exclusively on Rhys as a person, rather than as a writer. This approach might have pleased Rhys, who according to Pizzichini preferred being admired as a...

(The entire section is 1613 words.)

The Blue Hour Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 13 (March 1, 2009): 14.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 3 (February 1, 2009): 68.

Library Journal 134, no. 7 (April 15, 2009): 92-93.

Literary Review, May, 2009, pp. 19-20.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 7 (February 16, 2009): 123.

Spectator 310, no. 9432 (June 6, 2009): 37-38.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 24, 2009, p. 5.

The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2009, p. W2.