Rhys, Jean (Vol. 19)
Rhys, Jean 1894–1979
Rhys was an English novelist and short story writer born in the West Indies. The Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 after a silence of twenty-seven years, led to the 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 protégée of Ford Madox Ford, and disappeared from the public eye after World War II. She was reintroduced in 1958 when the BBC broadcast her Good Morning, Midnight. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 85-88.)
A. C. Morrell
Jean Rhys's world, as seen in her three volumes of short stories, is a unified one. In every story a central consciousness, whether narrator, implied narrator, or protagonist, perceives and responds to reality in essentially the same terms. Rhys has said of her work: "I start to write about something that has happened or is happening to me, but somehow or other things start changing." One might argue that thus is all fiction forged. But in Rhys's work, the autobiographical beginnings are responsible for this central consciousness which we may take to be Rhys's own; the other things that "start changing" are her patternings of experience into a coherent world-view. Rhys is not at all interested in creating individual characters. She does create again and again a society of types acting out the attitudes and assumptions which keep that society intact. Her stories have the strong cumulative effect of a sorrowful, scornful anatomy of essential evil. (p. 235)
"In a Café" [from her first collection, The Left Bank,] is a good early example of Rhys's central consciousness as observer rather than participant; [the story] fully prefigures her later arrangements of ideas, and is skillfully wrought. (pp. 235-36)
In "Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose" [from her third collection, Sleep It Off, Lady,] two possibilities for women are presented to Phoebe. One is the respectable, conventional life she has been taught to...
(The entire section is 1363 words.)
[Jean Rhys's Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, a] slight, initially rich and finally sketchy book is partly an autobiography; partly an attempt to put some of the record straight, after certain rumours about her first husband's honesty and her relationship with Ford Madox Ford; and partly an apologia for her inability to write her 'life' in the conventional sense. Jean Rhys is saying that, having used up her life in her stories, what more can she give, or what more do we need to know?
Unfortunately for her, as for certain other writers, it is the very excellence of the artistic realisation of so much that had happened to her which has given us this no doubt greedy appetite for the raw material which went into it….
Although there is something in Jean Rhys's male-exploited femininity which brings Colette to mind, she was naturally non-autobiographical, and having to put her life in this kind of order when she was in her eighties and often very ill created unusual strain. Had not her friend, the young novelist David Plante, become her amanuensis, and Diana Athill suggested to her how the book could be formed from a series of vignettes which would closely resemble fragments of her fiction in style and treatment, she could never have attempted something so uncongenial. The result is tantalising rather than satisfactory. It is like having in one's hands, for a few minutes only, an album full of strange and...
(The entire section is 277 words.)
[Jean Rhys] must have been one of the most autobiographical novelists there has ever been, and it is impossible not to believe that the psychological truth about her life is in her novels, as well as an unusually large proportion of facts, even if she changed these about a little….
So in a way [her autobiography, Smile Please,] is disappointing. If you agree that Jean Rhys was a great writer, then, of course, it will also seem important, as everything she wrote must be….
But it has a strange sting in its tail that cannot possibly be called exquisite or objective.
Gabriele Annan, "Turned Away by the Tropics," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4005, December 21, 1979, p. 154.∗
(The entire section is 128 words.)
In Rhys's autobiographical fragment [Smile Please], as in her fiction, life is outside, an indefinable and elusive otherness. Whether she longs to lose herself in a man, a place or an event, the woman can only put herself in the way of it, waiting for it to brush past and leave her even emptier of herself than before.
Smile Please shows that Rhys's passion for loss came from the beauty and corruption of the island of Dominica, where the whites died young or went mad or drunk from the illegible intensities of a paradise which wasn't theirs…. In Smile Please, Rhys admits she wanted to be black, to be free from repressive white history, but eventually she came to hate the blacks for taking back the island which was the vessel holding her past. After such a vivid, poisoned youth, Rhys could never be a native anywhere…. (pp. 253-54)
Smile Please doesn't illuminate the differences between Rhys's felt life and her fiction. Instead it is a stylistic and narrative coda to her novels and stories, Rhys's last chance to rework incidents and perceptions which she had already written several times. There is no octogenarian setting the record straight, that last infirmity of noble minds, because on the evidence of Smile Please, the life that counted, the life of feeling, appears to have already been absorbed into the fiction. Many names, phrases and sentences about Rhys's girlhood in Smile...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
[Jean Rhys's life is] a terrible story but an uncommon one in our century, which is more notable for the falls from glory that follow on a too eager appreciation of writers than for the neglect of talent, and it makes the publication of Miss Rhys's autobiography ["Smile Please"] an event of more than ordinary interest. What about this survivor? Who was the woman who wrote those remarkable novels in the first place? For remarkable they were and are—lean, hard, as frightening as they are exact in their quiet statement of emotional desolation.
But more than curiosity about the personal history of so gifted an author, legitimate as that is, is involved in our interest in the life of Jean Rhys. Miss Rhys is an obsessed writer whose novels move scarcely at all beyond their central characters—all of them, despite their altered names, the same woman at different stages of experience—or their theme of female victimization. We now have it in Jean Rhys's own words—"People have always been shadows to me…. I have never known other people. I have only ever written about myself"—but it was never difficult to guess that she was herself the subject (or is it the object?) of her fiction. There was the possibility and hope that her memoir might help us understand the mysterious process by which she transformed such an extreme of self-absorption into her lovely art.
But unfortunately this book with the nice title, "Smile...
(The entire section is 911 words.)
It is sad to have to report that, after reading "Smile Please" and comparing it with Miss Rhys's autobiographical novels, one gets the impression that the novels give a much truer picture of her. While Miss Rhys herself edited her life for the novels, time and disillusionment edited that same life in "Smile Please" and the second distortion is greater.
There's a fine vignette, for example, in "Good Morning, Midnight," in which the heroine goes into a shop to buy a hat. Because her life is out of tune and because she is who she is, Miss Rhys's character cannot settle on a choice. When a sales girl says "Hats are very difficult this year," the remark becomes the perfect metaphor for the woman and her situation.
How much better this is than hearing Miss Rhys say that she was always a stranger, someone who never belonged anywhere….
"Smile Please" reads as if the author knew that she had said it all better before. Or, to put it another way, it is as if the novels had used up all her life and she had nothing left but a bitter silence….
Anatole Broyard, "Books of 'The Times': 'Smile Please'," in The New York Times, Section C (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 28, 1980, p. 21.
(The entire section is 217 words.)
There are two explanations for Jean Rhys's extraordinary obscurity. One is simply the life she lived. (p. 28)
As a literary life it was, one may say, unusual; and it separated her entirely from the centers of literary power, where reputations and careers are made.
The other explanation has to do with her motive for writing. Surely no other modern novelist has been so completely without literary ambition…. "I never wanted to write at all," she said in one interview, "but of course I did discover that if you write you can forget, and so I did it again and again," and in another, "I wrote because it relieved me." This may sound a bit self-dramatizing, but I think it was true—she was one writer who wrote out of private necessity, to exorcise her demons.
One has a strong (and natural) impulse to read her novels simply as one continuous chronicle of a disastrous private life. They are all told from the point of view of a young woman who is always the same young woman, and they follow the line of Jean Rhys's own life, from the Caribbean childhood to the bohemian years in London and Paris, and they include the same disasters—the abortion, the dead child, the affair with Ford. Jean Rhys has encouraged such an autobiographical reading by referring to her heroines, in interviews, as "I."
Yet at the end of her life she expressed annoyance that readers were taking her novels as a direct...
(The entire section is 1127 words.)
Jean Rhys thought that it was "idiotic to be curious about the person" of a writer, so when she embarked upon [Smile Please] at the age of eighty-six, she did so only to clear up the misunderstandings that invariably arose from her admittedly autobiographical novels…. [She has] left us the best kind of personal account. Fragmentary, impressionistic, and often quite guarded, Smile Please is always incandescent with the fascinating personality and unusual life of its author….
The second half of Smile Please, an account of Rhys's early adult years, has been drawn from a diary, drafts, and notes which she was gathering, and is absolutely clear on one point: though Rhys may have been guilty (as she accuses herself) of most of the mortal sins, she was never threatened by the worst, "coolness of heart." Through glimpses of her [life as a young woman] …, we begin to see not the outlines of a depressive character but the quirks and passions of a uniquely loving woman.
The only disappointment in this autobiography is that there is not more of it.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Life & Letters: 'Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 245, No. 6, June, 1980, p. 92.
(The entire section is 208 words.)
[Jean Rhys's] heroines may be called Anna Morgan, Julia Martin, Marya Zelli, Sasha Jensen, but they are always Jean Rhys…. They are victims, of whom it would be beside the point to say that they are passive, acquiesce in their victimization, for, despite their ability to walk the boulevards of Paris and to buy an occasional hat, they are prisoners, and a novel like Good Morning, Midnight, in its claustrophobia, in its dispassionate recording of its protagonist's efforts to keep alive through another day, brings to mind Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn…. I suspect that readers, particularly women, respond so strongly to Rhys's novels because they express indelibly one aspect of the female condition—the limitation, the dependence, the despair. There is nothing exhilarating about these novels except the art with which they are made, the art which was in fact, in Rhys's life, the only triumphant response to a dreary record of experience. (p. 597)
I do not mean to imply that these novels slavishly follow the events of Rhys's life, or that they record all there is to tell about that life. She was an artist with a rigorous sense of what the shape of her novel demanded, praised quite correctly by [Ford Madox] Ford…. (p. 598)
Her autobiography was to be a repository of fact.
In pursuit of fact, Rhys demonstrates how not to write an autobiography. (That she was very old and frequently soused...
(The entire section is 777 words.)
Though many facts seem not so much got down as left discreetly floating [in Jean Rhys's "Smile Please"], this truncated effort at self-revelation is attractive, to us if not to its author, in part because of its slim, provocative fragmentariness. In truth, the fragment, the sketch, the unfinished canvas, and the shattered statue are all congenial to an age of relativity, indeterminacy, and agnosticism. Most of the oppressively complete books that labor for our attention would benefit, we suspect, from a few reductive blows of the hammer. In the case of "Smile Please," the hammer was applied by Miss Rhys's habitual reticence and perfectionism, and by the furies that made all her attempts at composition in later life difficult.
Even so, admirers of Jean Rhys's amazing fiction—amazing in its resolute economy of style and in its illusionless portrait of a drifting heroine; a portrait that the recent gush of female confessionalism has not rendered any less stunningly honest and severe—will find much to surprise and delight them. The laconic sketch of her growing up as a member of the white minority on the small West Indian island of Dominica has the emotional fibre without the exotic coloring of the doomed heroine's girlhood in her novel "Wide Sargasso Sea." In both versions, the unreachable mother is a cruel keystone, a hard absence…. In "Wide Sargasso Sea," the mother's curse is beauty and madness, passed on to the daughter. In the...
(The entire section is 551 words.)