Rhys, Jean 1894–1979
Rhys, an English novelist and short story writer, was born in the West Indies. The Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 after a silence of twenty-seven years, led to a reprinting and reassessment of her earlier work. Her timeless narratives focus on lonely, passive, dependent women, whose lives parallel the author's in certain aspects. As a young woman, Rhys immigrated to England, was unsuccessful in a show business career, married but found herself abandoned in Europe, became a protégé of Ford Madox Ford, and disappeared from the public eye after World War II, but was reintroduced when the BBC broadcast her Good Morning, Midnight in 1958. See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
The possibility of being substantially right in [one] way while being specifically wrong entails a stable world and a steady viewer…. Jean Rhys is many miles from such confidence, and her subdued, hesitating heroines live under something like the reverse [of this] rule. They and their tormentors can be specifically, superficially right a lot of the time, and still get the whole of the substance wrong; and Rhys herself is anxious not to claim too much for her own broken and threatened perceptions….
[Jean Rhys's characters] have insights, but they have no means of sharing them. They can't find the right expression, and there is no one who will trust a word or a gesture in spite of its poverty. On the contrary, all communication is constantly entangled in a mass of misinterpretation. (p. 30)
There are no links in Rhys's fiction between a person's experience and the meaning that experience is likely to have for others. It's not that no two people see the world in the same way, although that is also true in her novels. It is (a narrower, more intense question) that no one else can see me the way I see myself. "The real secret," a girl thinks in another earlier story, might be "to be exactly like everybody else," for then the self as a separate, suffering entity would disappear. This is not a consummation to be wished, but it would bring a form of peace, and between this undesired peace and their chronic, beleaguered self-consciousness Jean Rhys's heroines live out...
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Probably the most gratifying literary rediscovery of the 1960's was the revival of Jean Rhys…. And, thanks to that, we now have those fine, somber Rhys novels of the 1930's—largely about the lives of lonely women submerged in the depths of great cities….
Sean O'Faolain once remarked … that the art of the modern short story lies half in not-telling. It is the good reader's art to supply the silent half, quickly and accurately, for himself. And this is the best clue to understanding the 16 new stories in "Sleep It Off, Lady." (p. 7)
[No] thumbnails of plot can transmit the particular tang of Jean Rhys's style or her splendid ability to choose what is said and to let the unsaid speak. The fact that the scenes themselves come from the West Indies or London Or Paris of decades past has no real bearing—these are very modern stories written with a quick, young sensibility. (p. 50)
Robie Macauley, "Things Unsaid and Said Too Often," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1976, pp. 7, 50.∗
["Sleep It Off, Lady" contains] brief, nourishing stories about the ways in which people injure and comfort each other…. [No] matter where [her stories] are set, they all are gossipy, deceptively artless, and honest in an unusually subtle way about the meanderings of people's emotions…. [In] several stories ("Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose," "The Chevalier of the Place Blanche," "Night Out 1925") Miss Rhys sniffs around the edges of sexual gamesmanship with the keenness of a dog on its favorite morning walk. It is probably the range of imagination that impresses one most: almost every story is filled with conversations that are so right in tone that one wonders how the author could have got under the skin of so many different sorts of people. And whether she is writing about seedy roués, aging spinsters, or hysterical secretaries, she manages to convey the quality of a whole life in a few pages. (p. 98)
"Books: 'Sleep It Off, Lady'," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII. No. 47, January 10, 1977, pp. 98-9.
Nearly all [Jean Rhys's] short stories and novels centre on a proud, sensitive woman, timidly putting out a hand for love and friendship and being continually rebuffed. For most the bottle becomes the only solace. The title story [of Sleep It off, Lady] starkly reflects this theme. Old Miss Verney, living alone in her country cottage could be Sasha Jensen of Good Morning, Midnight thirty years on. The vaguer fears of the younger woman are now concretised for Miss Verney into a large rat, real or imaginary, in the dilapidated garden shed. Forcing herself to replace a dustbin near the shed the old lady slips and cannot get up. A local girl leers at her, refusing her appeal for help. 'Sleep it off, Lady', she jeers, referring to the village gossip that Miss Verney drinks. Paralysed with fear, terrified of the rat, she is left alone in the dark. The postman finds her dead there next morning. The doctor says she died of shock and cold. He was treating her for a heart condition, he says.
This nightmarish quality of alienation—the difference between what one knows and feels and what others see and understand—permeates not only the other stories but all the author's work. Madness, guile, deceit, are never far away; yet at the heart of all her characters there is a core of innocence that prevents them from degenerating into sodden sluts or mean-minded maniacs. The world, she implies, is too ready to sneer, to think the worst...
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Jean Rhys is usually content to sketch the possibilities of her fictive situation, and the result is anecdote…. (p. ii)
My sense is that the work [in Sleep It Off, Lady] is not so much the material of short fiction as the fragments of several unfinished novels—one about childhood in the West Indies, another about adolescence and early maturity in finishing and dramatic schools, a third about night life in London (including the Battle of Britain), and the last about the rigors of old age.
One of the best of Miss Rhys's stories ("Insect World") contains this line: "Almost any book was better than life." Her characters tend to take that view of reality, and they have the feeling that they are play-acting in a strange world which will soon take on the actuality of their expectations. (p. iv)
George Core, "Wanton Life, Importunate Art," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXV, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. ii-x.∗
Although Wide Sargasso Sea was set almost entirely in the Caribbean, its first critics were more interested in its links with the Victorian classic, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), for it told the story of Rochester's mad wife kept in the attic of Thornfield Hall. The point that Jean Rhys' book was a radical revaluation of Jane Eyre and its European attitudes from the perspective of a West Indian Creole was largely missed. (p. 111)
As Proust knew, memory can intensify and make clearer childhood experience, and it is no paradox that Jean Rhys' novel furthest in time from her Caribbean life should also be her most profoundly West Indian. The speech rhythms, the total imaginative context, from the sense impressions to the minutiae of social relationships, have an accuracy that give particular pleasure to those intimate with the Caribbean, and this is validated by the relevance of the themes to aspects of West Indian culture. Jean Rhys' vision is not that of Edward Brathwaite, although in important ways the two do overlap—notably both reject European materialism in favour of the vitality of the black folk culture. Yet Caribbean culture can never be narrowed to one perspective. (p. 112)
Jean Rhys' early writing about the Caribbean has a wide range. Some of it is vivid recreation—mixing cocktails for her father in the holiday house, or portraying an illiterate Roseau newspaper editor. Other pieces are short stories, Chekhovian in their depth and economy. "The Day they Burnt the Books" encapsulates not only a conflict between mulatto and European, but between two ways of life. (p. 113)
Imaginatively, perhaps the most remarkable achievement among her Caribbean stories is "Let them Call it Jazz"…. In it, Jean Rhys writes—in dialect—from the point of view of a black girl from Martinique, living in Notting Hill, London….
In its evocation of black emotional warmth and essential awareness of musical rhythm, the story has an unassuming relationship to the insights of negritude. (p. 114)
[Voyage in the Dark] was the first-written of all Jean Rhys' novels, and is still her favourite. It bears the same kind of relationship to Wide Sargasso Sea as Dickens' autobiographical David Copperfield bears to Great Expectations. Not only is one the mature reworking of the other, but what the earlier work lacks in symbolic objectivity, the first-written makes up in the freshness and poignancy...
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Although some articles on Rhys have appeared in popular magazines, she has received little critical attention, especially from women, despite her exceptional technical skill and the relevance of her subject matter to the women's movement. Is Rhys's relentless portrayal of passive, helpless heroines simply unpalatable to feminist critics? Or, perhaps more seriously, does Rhys's unremitting pessimism become an artistic failure that drives us to dismiss her vision despite her insight and control? Both questions, I believe, may be answered in the negative if we relinquish our expectation of a surface realism and adopt a psychological framework to explain the perversely self-destructive reactions of Rhys's heroines....
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