Jean Rhys Essay - Rhys, Jean (Vol. 4)

Rhys, Jean (Vol. 4)

Rhys, Jean 1894–

Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, West Indies, and has lived in England since 1910. She is a novelist and short story writer whose work has been called "among the most original and memorable of our time." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

After Leaving Mr. McKenzie, originally published in 1930 (one is tempted to say before its time), depicts with cool mordancy what it is like to try to cope as a woman, irremediably past a petted prime, in a world for the comfort of men….

Perhaps it is because she is a woman, a lady, that Miss Rhys eschews the strongest colors in depicting Julia Martin's "humiliation" after leaving Mr. McKenzie….

The very style of writing fights back against a smug dominant masculinity. Uncle Griffiths is pictured as a "large and powerful male," with subliminal suggestions of a gorilla, and is neatly brutalized as a man in whom selfishness and neurotic fear of penury are killing sensitivity and compassion…. By the same token, Horsfield, a hesitant potential successor to McKenzie in Julia's life, is shown enjoying an elegant, vegetable comfort in his "world of lowered voices, and of passions, like Japanese dwarf trees, suppressed for many generations." After Leaving Mr. McKenzie becomes a proleptic document for women's liberation, passionate without polemics, plain without immodesty, a cameo of helpless female dignity in a world where it does not amount to much to be a man.

Michael Cooke, in The Yale Review (© 1972 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1972, pp. 607-09.

To my mind, [Jean Rhys] is, quite simply, the best living English novelist. Although her range is narrow, sometimes to the point of obsession, there is no one else now writing who combines such emotional penetration and formal artistry or approaches her unemphatic, unblinking truthfulness. Even the narrowness works to her advantage. She knows every detail of the shabby world she creates, knows precisely how much to leave out—surprisingly much—and precisely how to modulate the utterly personal speaking voice which controls it all, at once casual and poignant, the voice of the loser who refuses, though neither she nor God knows why, to go down. Because of this voice, the first four novels read as a single, continuing work. They have the same heroine—although she goes by different names—the same background of seedy hotels and bedsitters for transients in Montparnasse and Bloomsbury, and they recount the single, persistent, disconnected disaster of a life in which only three things can be relied on: fear, loneliness and the lack of money….

[The] world Miss Rhys creates [seems] strangely unprecedented, glassy clear yet somehow distorted, as though she were looking up at things from the bottom of a deep pool. She makes you realize that almost every other novel, however apparently anarchic, is rooted finally in the respectable world. The authors come to their subjects from a position of strength and with certain intellectual presuppositions, however cunningly suppressed. She, in contrast, has a marvelous artistic intelligence—no detail is superfluous and her poise never falters as she walks her wicked emotional tightrope—yet is absolutely nonintellectual: no axe to grind, no ideas to tout….

"Wide Sargasso Sea" is her only novel to be set in the past and with a heroine not immediately identifiable with the author, except in her being, like all the others, one of those who are defeated as though by natural right….

It is a hallucinatory novel, as detailed, abrupt and undeniable as a dream, and with a dream's weird and irresistible logic. It is also the final triumph of Miss Rhys's stylistic control, her persistent search for a minimal senuous notation of distaste. Despite the exotic setting and the famous, abused heroine, there is no melodrama. Her prose is reticent, unemphatic, precise, and yet supple, alive with feeling, as though the whole world she so coolly describes were shimmering with foreboding, with a lifetime's knowledge of unease and pain.

The purity of Miss Rhys's style and her ability to be at once deadly serious and offhand make her books peculiarly timeless. Novels she wrote more than 40 years ago still seem contemporary, unlike those of many more popular authors. More important, her voice itself remains young. She was about 30 before she began to write—apparently having other things on her mind before that—yet the voice she created then, and still uses, is oddly youthful: light, clear, alert, casual and disabused, and uniquely concerned in simply telling the truth.

A. Alvarez, "The Best Living English Novelist," in The New York Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1974, pp. 6-7.

Jean Rhys is a writer of extraordinary delicacy who has been too long neglected except for a small group of cognoscenti….

The thin, faded, intellectually sensitive heroines delineated by Francoise Sagan are prefigured by Rhys in more precisely wrought prose, better sustained and consistent, richer and more horrifying for the roundness….

There are a number of fascinating technical and stylistic innovations in Rhys's work which I've not seen elsewhere, and always a feeling of fidelity to reality, even if that is a somewhat colder and seamier reality than one would care to know.

The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), June 6, 1974, p. 35.