Jean Rhys Essay - Rhys, Jean (Vol. 2)

Rhys, Jean (Vol. 2)

Rhys, Jean 1894–

A West Indian-born author, now living in England, Miss Rhys is a novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

"Good Morning, Midnight" was first published in England in 1939 and has now been reissued in connection with the rediscovery of Jean Rhys. Although the scene of the novel is Paris in the early thirties, it is not a period piece. It is a classic, as alive today as when it was written.

The book is the first-person narrative of Sasha Jansen, a woman in her forties reaching the end of the line in a chain of emotional crackups. Living on a tiny remittance after having been down and nearly out in London and Paris, Sasha reviews her past in brilliantly evoked impressions, and faces the future in a recession of dismal encounters. Memories of love, desertion and death slosh around in consciousness, together with sordid images of her present-day existence in cheap hotels….

Miss Rhys puts bits and pieces together to create so complete a personality that its abasement and destruction linger with the reader long after he has put down this unforgettable book.

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1970, p. 39.

The reappearance of this first novel ["Quartet"] by Jean Rhys, originally published in 1928 (with, in England, the title "Postures"), is the latest dividend from a revival of interest in Miss Rhys that has recently produced new editions of her other novels. This early work opens the theme—developed in "Voyage in the Dark" and reaching its full power in the beautiful "Wide Sargasso Sea"—of an imaginative, susceptible nature destroyed by the assertive, unyielding world.

The art of Jean Rhys derives from an acute, even morbid, sensibility and perception. It is the private sensations experienced and exchanged by her characters that give her novels meaning; and by extension this is her view of life. Her heroines (there are no heroes) embody not so much a capacity for suffering as a thwarted capacity for joy. Irony is never absent, even when the author is most deeply in sympathy. These attributes, which exclude any ready social message and must be judged independently on quality, in general evoke uneasiness and hostility in contemporary critics; and one may doubt whether Miss Rhys would be receiving the current highly deserved critical acclaim if her works were now being published for the first time. But a literary durability of 40 years can apparently allay the insecurity of even the most assiduous avant-gardists; and readers who have always admired Miss Rhys will be pleased that news of her gifts has at last filtered through to that quarter….

This is a short novel. The word "slight" cannot be used of a work in which so much talent is displayed. Miss Rhys tells her story with the miraculous spontaneity of all her writing, and in the tone of one who keeps calm while reporting a catastrophe. One must be glad that educated poverty has taken less annihilating forms since this book was written; otherwise, "Quartet" is vividly undated, directing our attention to paradoxes and pretensions that have become even more explicit in our present day. The reemergence of this fine novel at a moment when so much fiction tends to be bossy or calculating is in itself a heartening affirmation of what Jean Rhys has to say.

Shirley Hazzard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 11, 1971, p. 6.

Jean Rhys's composite heroine is herself…. The work then is autobiographical inasmuch as each of the principal protagonists is her creator as she sees herself….

Few authors have more instinctively understood how best to distil the essence of their experience and Weltanschauing through the filter of their imagination. Asked in a Transatlantic Review article to what extent her books are based on personal experience, Jean Rhys replied 'Life's one thing, a book's another'. Her own books are a series of cracked looking glasses in Looking Glass House, through which life is held, wriggling and naked, on the hypnotised gazes of terror-stricken Alices….

The viewpoint then, remains consistent in essentials over forty years of publication. Neither do the circumstantial details vary greatly. All the books, save Wide Sargasso Sea and some of the stories, share a modern urban background. Not only does the same central female visionary confront the same hotels and boarding houses, cafes and restaurants, streets, studios, prisons and hospitals, whatever pages she strays into, but the men turn up for one thing only and depart while the going is good. Likewise the plots, which relate the love lives of women alone without adequate financial and temperamental resources to make themselves independent. Reduced though they are to a minimum, they are often so similar as to be interchangeable….

Surely, one might suppose, the cumulative effect of all this gloom and despondency in book after book, is wearisome in the extreme? Too much melancholy never did anyone any good. And, of course, one would be right. Were the books by another writer. Lesser talent, given such ingredients, would have succumbed to the inherent dangers—the temptations to dramatise into invective on the one hand, and to debase into sentimentality on the other. Yet intuitively, and apparently without the slightest temptation in either direction, Jean Rhys has avoided all the traps and emerged supreme aesthetic mistress of her despair.

How has she done it? Why is it that no matter how often one encounters her sad and sorry themes and paranoid attitudes, one is never bored or depressed? The answer is a pair of scales, in one pan the blighted vision, in the other a technical astuteness as rigorously disciplined as the other is deeply felt. If either were removed the scales would lose their artistic balance; together they maintain perfect equilibrium.

Laurence Cole, "Jean Rhys," in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, pp. 20-1.

It is not hard to understand why [Jean Rhys] is held in high regard, though it is very strange that this regard was so long in coming. It may have something to do with her placelessness—writers with nationalities usually get a more sympathetic reception…. [After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is] a story of haunting despair, beautifully written and deftly fitting the dimensions of art.

Paul Theroux, in Book World (© The Washington Post), February 13, 1972, p. 6.

[The] journey, [a] break in a life, is the essential theme of [Jean Rhys's] 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 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…. There is no innocence in Jean Rhys's world; there has always been loss.

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…. 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….

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.

V. S. Naipaul, "Without a Dog's Chance," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), May 18, 1972, pp. 29-30.

Wide Sargasso Sea is both an imaginative tour de force and a novel valuable in its own right. It places the earlier novels [Postures, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, and Good Morning, Midnight] in a new perspective which shows that Jean Rhys is not one of the also-rans but a master of her genre. In her novels she depicts the character of one particular type of woman, while exploring certain human themes and constantly attempting to develop a close relationship between style and content….

Although each novel [of the four mentioned above] centers upon one woman, the four individuals are manifestations of the same psychological type—so much so that if we read the novels in the order of their internal chronology, we find in them one, fairly sequential story, albeit the principal figure suffers a change of name from novel to novel…. This figure of degraded womanhood is not static, but develops from novel to novel, the development being, at least in part, Rhys's movement away from autobiography toward an ever more complete, imaginative rendition of the single character….

Rhys seems only gradually to have learned which of her own experiences properly belonged to the character whom she was to sketch over and over in her novels. She also learned to conceal this recognition and, in a calculated play for verisimilitude, to give the impression of complete subjectivity. If we wish to appreciate Jean Rhys, we must sidestep our first impression that we are reading her autobiography and examine the novels as imaginative works. Only then can we see her most important literary achievement: the portrayal of a psychological type never before so accurately described. These complete descriptions make the character more than a psychological type: she is rather woman in one of her archetypal roles….

These women are forever alone outside the realm of everyday society and cut off from the ordinary patterns of life. In them we see a literal meaning of the term demimonde, for theirs is only a partial existence. They know that they are alive because they suffer and because money passes through their hands. The respectable world views such women as commodities to be bought and hostages who must pay their way. As Maudie says in Voyage in the Dark, "Have you ever thought that a girl's clothes cost more than the girl inside them?… People are much cheaper than things"…. In this understanding of life lies the origin of one of Rhys's most important themes, that personal identity is determined by economic wealth…. This attitude appears to link Rhys with that realistic tradition which Defoe and Richardson represent, and certainly her stress upon this theme brings her obvious romantic impressionism into line with the harsh realities of modern economic life. But she goes further than any of her predecessors…. The Rhys woman reasons that, since her physical existence depends upon money, everything else does too—character, morals, ethics, even religious values. And since she knows too that money is merely an artificial thing, that which men give to women when they make love to them, or when they send them away, she cannot respect that respectable society which values it: she describes those persons who have a devil-may-care attitude to money as chic. Herein lies Jean Rhys's twentieth-century development of the realistic tradition….

Her five novels are models for anyone who wants an original understanding of life and of human nature, and who desires the aesthetic pleasure one finds in a perfect correlation between technique and content.

Elgin W. Mellown, "Characters and Themes in the Novels of Jean Rhys," in Contemporary Literature (© 1972 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 13, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 458-75.