Study Guide

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys Essay - Rhys, Jean (Vol. 76)

Rhys, Jean (Vol. 76)

Principal Works

The Left Bank and Other Stories 1927

Tigers Are Better-Looking 1968

Sleep It Off, Lady 1976

Jean Rhys: The Collected Short Stories 1987

Postures [also published as Quartet (novel) 1928

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (novel) 1931

Voyage in the Dark (novel) 1934

Good Morning, Midnight (novel) 1939

Wide Sargasso Sea (novel) 1966

My Day: Three Pieces (autobiographical sketches) 1975

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (autobiography) 1979

The Letters of Jean Rhys (letters) 1984

Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels (collected novels) 1985

Criticism

Coral Ann Howells (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Howells, Coral Ann. “‘There Is No Penny and No Slot’: Jean Rhys's Late Stories.” In Jean Rhys, pp. 124-46. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

[In the following essay, Howells elucidates the defining characteristics of Rhys's late short fiction—particularly her central themes of gender and colonialism—through an examination of five of her stories.]

If I live I will call my next and last book There is no penny and no slot and if you pinch that title or variations I'll climb up to your window and give you nightmares. (This is a joke.)

(Letter to Selma Vaz Dias, 30 August, 1963)1

It seems fitting that as Rhys did not call her last book ‘There is no penny and no slot’ my last chapter dealing with her late stories should dare to adopt her title and the deconstructive perspective it implies. These stories individually and collectively refute traditional ideas of order as falsifications (her own word is ‘lies’), insisting instead on the unaccommodated remainders which will never fit into any system and which by their very existence call any system into question. It is the same dissident narrative voice which told those ‘other stories’ in her first collection back in the 1920s. However, there is a shift of emphasis here, for many of the stories in Rhys's last two collections adopt a decentred perspective as they dismantle the cultural fictions which persuade ‘everybody’ to believe in ‘the non existent penny and the invisible slot’ (JRL, p.239). None of these stories is about women in love for that old centring fantasy has been dispersed; instead, they are about figures (mainly women) who are isolated and alone, though again they are the dissident voices which challenge the grand narratives of patriarchy and imperialism.

Taking my cue from Rhys, I do not propose to treat either Tigers Are Better-Looking or Sleep It Off, Lady as a whole, for these collections themselves were assemblages put together from across the range of Rhys's published and unpublished work over many years.2Tigers Are Better-Looking was made up from a collection that was ready for publication in 1945 (JRL, p.40), though when it appeared in 1968 there were alterations and an interesting echo from the 1920s in a selection of nine stories (and an extract from Ford's Preface) from The Left Bank and Other Stories. Sleep It Off, Lady was even more of a miscellany, containing some stories written in the 1920s and some published as recently as 1975. As Rhys wrote to her agent Olwen Hughes:

I've discovered some stories I thought I'd lost—some that I wrote in Paris and one free translation. Not good enough. There is one called ‘The Insect World’ which might do—about this last war—but it's rather long and I've lost the first page which was important and I can't remember it.3

This last collection was finished with the help of Gini Stevens from Deutsch, for Rhys was by then so infirm that she could work only for short periods and by dictation. It was Ms. Stevens who typed and retyped successive versions in order to get the stories into the form in which Rhys would agree to publish them. In June 1975 she wrote to her old friend Oliver Stoner:

The stories are finished—after a fashion. You can't imagine my relief. Also a lost feeling.4

I shall discuss five stories from these two collections, and two others which resisted even that accommodation. (One of them, ‘I Spy a Stranger’, Rhys's editor, Diana Athill, rejected as ‘too bitter to be included’). My choice of stories and order of arrangement are designed to illustrate significant Rhys positions in relation to gender, colonialism and modernism, the three elements through which, as I have argued, her writing was determined. In two of the stories I quote extensively from early drafts in the Jean Rhys collection in the McFarlin Library in order to trace details of Rhys's writing processes and to show the significance of her successive revisions where the transformations of writing reshape autobiographical record into fictional artefact.5 Many of these stories interweave sexual politics with the politics of colonialism, while several of her London stories make connections between a modernist urban poetics and the alienated female condition. Rhys presents figures and states of feeling that resist classification as she ranges through a dazzling variety of short story forms that include fragmented multivoiced narratives and some that imitate the classic modernist structures of epiphany, only to resolve themselves in moments of dislocation and loss. Indeed, several may be described as structures of disarrangement, where disrupted narrative becomes the means of subverting traditional concepts of order and authority.6

‘Let Them Call It Jazz,’7 Rhys's Holloway Prison story told in the voice of a black West Indian woman in London, links gender and colonial politics to the urban environment through its female counter-discourse which is always discredited and finally silenced.8 Another London story, ‘Tigers Are Better-Looking,’9 told this time from a disaffected male perspective, again links gender politics to feminised urban poetics, where a Bloomsbury journalist experiences London from an alienated female perspective. But the carnivalesque nightmare vision is brief; failure is rejected as a feminine flaw, and by the end the traditional rhythms of the system are re-established. In contrast to this multivoiced male ventriloquist act is ‘The Sound of the River,’10 a story about a woman's silence which is swallowed up in the deafening subtext of her confrontation with death. I include two Caribbean childhood stories, ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose,’11 which represents the late resurfacing of Rhys's traumatic adolescent sexual encounter with Mr. Howard, and ‘The Day They Burned the Books’12 where a different aspect of colonial encounters is figured in the confrontation of mutual hostility between whites and blacks. This story demonstrates the deeply problematic colonial relation with European traditions, but whereas that story flashes out into a final elusive epiphany, ‘Temps Perdi’, another Caribbean story,13 resists any moment of resolution at all. Instead, through a series of seemingly unconnected anecdotes, the narrative presents a devastating historical analysis of power politics from the point of view of colonial and female victims. The World War II story ‘I Spy a Stranger’14 demonstrates the same brutal process of ‘othering’ conducted in England itself, where explicit connections are made between male misogyny and the war mentality. The woman who engages in the sexual battle on the domestic front is silenced by the very procedures which were instituted to suppress dissidents who threatened national security; she ends up as another mad woman in an attic. No wonder one of Rhys's last stories was called ‘Who Knows What's Up in the Attic?’ Her female narrator's answer is significant for what it leaves out: ‘Not I for one. I wouldn't dare look,’15 though of course Rhys does look at the female figures like Antoinette and Laura who have been shut up there.

‘LET THEM CALL IT JAZZ’

After her brief Holloway Prison experience, Rhys wrote to Peggy Kirkaldy:

Dreadful Holloway. They have a song there that haunts me, the gals I mean, in fact the whole place haunts me, but what can I do? I feel I ought to write but nobody would publish the stuff.16

Nevertheless Rhys did write about it in 1960 in what she called ‘stylised patois’. Selina Davis's story is presented as emblematic of the immigrant woman's position in urban culture where every effort is made to marginalise and silence her. In a London which is inhospitable, dishonest and unjust, Selina is robbed of her money, persecuted for her failure to conform to English social convention, and locked up in Holloway for being ‘drunk and disorderly’ and ‘causing a disturbance’. However, instead of prison breaking her, it constitutes Selina's salvation for it is there that she hears an anonymous woman singing from the punishment cells: ‘She tell the girls cheerio and never say die’ (TABL [Tigers Are Better-Looking], p. 64). This song is the miracle which gives Selina new hope. From that point on, she resumes power over her own life; refusing to be a victim she becomes a survivor instead.17

Told from Selina's point of view, this is a strong statement of female defiance against English racial prejudice and social exclusion, though the gender politics are by no means simple. When Selina says, ‘Don't talk to me about London. Plenty people there have heart like stone’ (TABL, p.47), the most flinty-hearted in her experience are not the men but the women—landladies, neighbours and prison officers. Yet it is a woman's song which saves her and it is through her friendship with another coloured girl that she manages to find her niche in London society. If it is a man who offers her shelter, it is also a man who steals her Holloway song from her. It would seem that gender politics are more intricately registered in this story than racial politics, which work on a much simpler pattern of binary opposition, from the Notting Hill landlady's accusation, ‘These people terrible liars’ (TABL, p.53) to the woman next door's remark, ‘At least the other tarts that crook installed here were white girls’ (TABL, p.57). It is against English hostility to racial and cultural difference that Selina struggles to make her lyric protest.

The story is pervaded by the sound of women's singing—first of all, Selina's songs in the suburban garden in south London which are so unacceptable to her neighbours, and then the Holloway song which is at the centre of the story. These songs constitute a code of female resistance to authority, as Selina's songs of defiance echo her grandmother's Caribbean patois songs and as the Holloway song bears witness to the women prisoners' solidarity. Singing challenges the imposition of limits, and it is this celebration of excess that the system strives to silence. It is when Selina goes outside into the garden singing and dancing barefoot that her confrontation with the neighbours occurs: goaded by their whispered taunts, she throws a stone through their stained glass window. From their point of view her behaviour is socially unacceptable and to be suppressed by law, but Selina sees it from a different perspective:

Sometime I think, ‘I'm here because I wanted to sing’ and I have to laugh.

(TABL, p.63)

But if it is a song which has got her into prison, it is also a song which saves her:

It's a smoky kind of voice, and a bit rough sometimes, as if those old dark wall theyselves are complaining, because they see too much misery—too much. But it don't fall and die in the courtyard; seems to me it could jump the gates of the jail easy and travel far, and nobody could stop it. I don't hear the words—only the music.

(TABL, p.64)

This is Selina's miracle of deliverance, as her language with its Biblical overtones suggests:

One day I hear that song on trumpets and these wall will fall and rest … I know now that anything can happen, and I don't want to stay lock up here and miss it

(TABL, p.64)

Having come to life again, she manages to invent an acceptable persona for herself by learning English social codes, adding as a damning indictment of the system that she has learned to lie, and that is the reason why she survives in London. But this survival is at a price, for Selina is silenced (‘I never sing now,’ TABL, p.67) and finally she is robbed of her last possession. Her precious Holloway song is taken from her by a man who hears her whistling it at a party; he jazzes it up and sells it, then sends her five pounds with thanks, as she was ‘quite a help’. The story ends with Selina's see-saw of emotions under this assault, as she contemplates her loss. Selina no longer cries out in protest at injustice; instead, she shrugs eloquently, which is her silent triumph over misunderstanding and also her recognition of social realities:

Even if they played it on trumpets … no walls would fall so soon. ‘So let them call it jazz,’ I think, and let them play it wrong. That won't make no difference to the song I heard.

I buy myself a dusty pink dress with the money.

(TABL, p.67)

‘TIGERS ARE BETTER-LOOKING’

In contrast to this colonial woman's story with its measure of acquiescence and indifference, the very title of Rhys's other London story, ‘Tigers Are Better-Looking’ with its ‘streak of disaster-defying humour’18 highlights a savage criticism of the predatory masculine social ethnic of the modern city. This nightmare carnivalesque version of London is refracted through a male narrating consciousness, when Mr. Severn, a Bloomsbury journalist, suddenly finds himself suffering from a shift in vision which allows him for a brief time to share the perspective of those others in London who have to survive outside the protection of the social system. The narrative is structured around the two kinds of carnival in which he participates: on the one hand, the prescribed social festivity of King George V and Queen Mary's Silver Jubilee in May 1935, and on the other, the subversive London night-time carnival whose promiscuity and fragmented exchanges offer an alternative vision of social reality.

This multivoiced narrative begins with a splitting open of the norms of social discourse in the letter of rejection that Mr. Severn receives from his lover Hans: ‘“Mein Leib, Mon Cher, My Dear, Amigo,” the letter began’ (TABL, p.68). With its polyglot opening and dire criticisms of pretentious London society, the letter goes on to its memorable accusation against the meanness and ferocity of Mr. Severn's countrymen:

I got the feeling that I was surrounded by a pack of timid tigers waiting to spring the moment anybody is in trouble or hasn't any money. But tigers are better-looking, aren't they?

(TABL, p.68)

However, it is the final term of abuse that collapses Mr. Severn's facade, for Hans's most vicious blow is to call him a ‘tame grey mare’, and Mr. Severn finds himself suddenly cast into the feminine and as a result adopting a cross-gendered view of London. Instead of writing his weekly column for the Australian newspaper and projecting the imperial voice to the colonies in his account of the Jubilee celebrations, he finds himself adopting a sceptical viewpoint, dismantling the fictions of royalty and empire,seeing the King and Queen as ‘victims bowing to victimised’ and as ‘bloodless sacrifices’, rephrasing ‘The Sun Never Sets on the Empire’ as ‘somewhere the sun is shining, even if it doesn't shine on everybody’ (TABL, p.69). To see from the tame grey mare's point of view is to be disabled from writing at all.

Hoping to find relief from his feeling of rejection and professional failure, Mr. Severn first goes to the pub, then embarks on his ‘Nighttown’ experience with two female companions, wandering from Shaftesbury Avenue to Soho through Rhys's peculiarly depressing nightclubs with their high prices and bad music.19 It is here that Mr. Severn's drunken and distorted vision refracts Hans's accusations through his own experiences of the grotesque and the absurd. First he draws caricatures on the tablecloth which reduce human faces to bestiality:

Pictures, pictures, pictures … Faces, faces, faces … Like hyaenas, like swine, like goats, like apes, like parrots. But not tigers, because tigers are better-looking, aren't they?

(TABL, p.74)

When he is thrown out of the club, he gets into a fight, shouting, ‘Tally-ho! What price the tame grey mare?’ (TABL, p.76) He then finds himself, together with one of his companions, an Irishwoman named Maidie Richards, in prison for the night on charges of being drunk and disorderly.

For the first time Mr. Severn is forced to contemplate his kinship with those helpless others who scribble on prison walls their garbled messages of defiance, love and hopelessness, and as he lies down with his face to the wall, he sees ‘on a level with his eyes, the words “I died waiting.”’ (TABL, p.78). He has a sudden glimpse of what living in London might mean for a woman like Maidie Richards as her word ‘adapted’ suddenly swings into focus, ‘Adapted to the livid sky, the ugly houses, the grinning policemen, the placards in shop windows’ (TABL, p.81). This is the prelude to Mr. Severn's moment of epiphany, a moment so devastating that he retreats from it in shock as he does from the woman who has made him see it. For Maidie Richards goes too far when she identifies herself and Mr. Severn as doubles. Her image of the ageing woman bears a resemblance to the ‘tame grey mare’ which is too close for comfort, and Mr. Severn recoils from her as his male mechanism of recovery springs into action: “‘Good-bye,” said Mr. Severn, giving her a black look and ignoring her outstretched hand. “We” indeed!’ (TABL, p.81)

After a break, the last part of the story presents a London daytime vision of normalcy as Mr. Severn walks back to his flat, counting his steps along Coptic Street. Incongruities shift back into harmony and his vision is ‘reframed’ as he contemplates the street from his window. In a last eruption of the carnivalesque spirit an old gentleman carrying a walking stick suddenly transforms himself into a street clown, ‘balancing the stick on the end of his nose, walked backwards and forwards, looking up expectantly’ (TABL, p.82). But faced with the blankness of the houses, he is forced back into a pose of respectability and ‘vanished round the corner.’ Just as the old street performer vanishes, so does the Joycean cacophony:

‘Who pays? Will you pay now, please? You don't mind if I leave you, dear? I died waiting. (Or was it I died hating?) That was my father speaking. Pictures, pictures, pictures. You've got to be young. But tigers are better-looking, aren't they? SOS, SOS, SOS … You've got to be younger than we are …’ Other phrases, sauve and slick, took their place.

(TABL, p. 82)

The rhythms of convention close over Mr. Severn's jagged insights. The story ends with the confident sound of his typewriter tapping out the word ‘JUBILEE’, though the narrative itself has unleashed a host of contradictory voices within London society in the mid-1930s which threaten to undo ‘penny in the slot’ responses and which challenge the ‘swing’ of legitimised social discourse.20

‘THE SOUND OF THE RIVER’

‘The Sound of the River’ is another story about transgressing borderlines, but this time the boundaries are drawn between human and non-human, life and death. This is the story of a woman's fears and forebodings which find their affirmation in the sudden dreadful knowledge that the man in bed beside her is dead. As the distillation of a subjective state, the narrative presses beyond the limits of language, resorting to a figurative texture of natural imagery as it maintains a delicate balance on the edge of otherness.

The story has its autobiographical basis in Rhys's response to the death of her second husband Leslie Tilden Smith from a heart attack on 2 October 1945, and the ‘first draft’ exists in the form of a letter which Rhys wrote to his daughter Mrs. Phyllis Smyser a week later telling her about her father's death.21 This letter is important for its statement of personal grief and as a model of what Rhys elides and condenses in the process of transforming fact into fiction. Interestingly, this account tells a different version of events: it is as if the story filters out details, telescoping the woman's feelings around the death and leaving her much more isolated and unprotected than Rhys actually was at the time. Prefacing her account with the words, ‘I'll try to tell you exactly what happened,’ Rhys goes on to tell Phyllis Smyser that they were staying in an isolated cottage on Dartmoor when one morning her husband complained about a terrible pain in his chest. Rhys went out to telephone for a doctor, but without success. When she returned she heard a strange groaning noise and discovered that her husband was unconscious. Running back to the phone, she managed to call a doctor and then returned to the cottage in time to take his hand in hers as he died. In a slightly different version which she wrote to Peggy Kirkaldy, she said, ‘He died really while I was trying to telephone for help from the nearest house, so we didn't even say goodbye.’22 She was able to get help from three people passing by, who waited with her till the doctor arrived; they also contacted her brother Colonel Rees Williams who came to assist her with funeral arrangements the next day. Rhys refers to her ‘dreadful forebodings’ during the preceding few months but adds, ‘Dreams and forebodings are vague...

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Teresa F. O'Connor (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: O'Connor, Teresa F. “Jean Rhys, Paul Theroux, and the Imperial Road.” Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1992): 404-14.

[In the following essay, O'Connor delineates the connection between Paul Theroux's short stories “Zombies” and “The Imperial Ice House” and Rhys's unpublished story “The Imperial Road.”]

Toward the end of her life Jean Rhys offered many of the private papers and manuscripts still in her possession for sale through the booksellers Bertram Rota, Ltd. Their catalogue listed an unpublished story, “The Imperial Road,” with the notation: “Miss Rhys has stated that her publishers declined to include this story in...

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Helen Tiffin (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Tiffin, Helen. “Rite of Reply: The Shorter Fictions of Jean Rhys.” In Re-Siting Queen's English: Text and Tradition in Post-Colonial Literatures, edited by Gillian Whitlock and Helen Tiffin, pp. 67-78. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992.

[In the following essay, Tiffin asserts that a few of Rhys's short stories—“Again the Antilles,” “The Day They Burned the Books,” and “Rapunzel, Rapunzel”—enact the recuperative strategies found in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea.]

The ascription of the genesis of Wide Sargasso Sea to Jean Rhys's desire to recuperate Rochester's mad Creole wife from Charlotte Brontë's “imprisonment” of her in Jane Eyre...

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Sue Thomas (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Thomas, Sue. “Modernity, Voice, and Window-Breaking: Jean Rhys's ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’.” In De-Scribing Empire: Post-Colonialism and Textuality, edited by Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson, pp. 185-200. London: Routledge, 1994.

[In the following essay, Thomas utilizes Rhys's “Let Them Call It Jazz” to discuss the tension between the West Indian colonial milieu of her writing and the modernist European perspective and places the story within an historical and feminist context.]

Like Mary Lou Emery's, my project on Rhys negotiates the ‘tension between the two spaces or contexts of Rhys's writing—the West Indian colonial context and the modernist...

(The entire section is 5018 words.)

Veronica Marie Gregg (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Gregg, Veronica Marie. “The 1840s to the 1900s: The Creole and the Postslavery West Indies.” In Jean Rhys's Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole, pp. 135-43. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Gregg offers thematic analyses of two of Rhys's West Indian stories: “Again the Antilles” and “Fishy Waters.”]

“AGAIN THE ANTILLES”

“Again the Antilles,” first published in 1927, is also grounded in the specific political and historical context of postslavery Dominica. The short story covers the period from the 1830s to the 1900s. Dominican politics and...

(The entire section is 3292 words.)

Helen Carr (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Carr, Helen. “Writing in the Margins.” In Jean Rhys, pp. 21-6. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1996.

[In the following essay, Carr discusses Rhys as an autobiographical writer.]

Although I have criticized those autobiographical readings of Rhys's work which identify her literally with her heroines and reduce the scope of her work to an individual plight, an autobiographical writer is of course what she is. The stories which appeared in The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927) are mainly vignettes based on her experience in Paris, a couple go back to her Dominican childhood and ‘Vienne’ draws on an early period in her marriage to Jean Lenglet....

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Cheryl Alexander Malcolm and David Malcolm (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander and David Malcolm. “Jean Rhys's Art of the Short Story.” In Jean Rhys: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-14. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Malcolm and Malcolm outline the defining characteristics of Rhys's short stories.]

NARRATORS AND NARRATION

One of the most striking aspects of narration in Rhys's short fiction is the variety of narrational devices that it employs. Rhys uses both female and nongendered narrators; the narrational tone ranges from the ironic (“Tout Montparnasse”) to the detached (“Kismet”) to the passionately engaged (“Let Them Call It Jazz”...

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Sanford Sternlicht (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Sternlicht, Sanford. “The Left Bank and Other Stories.” In Jean Rhys, pp. 22-31. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.

[In the following essay, Sternlicht arranges the stories of The Left Bank and Other Stories into several classifications, which are based on the settings of the stories.]

Rhys's first book, The Left Bank and Other Stories, is a collection of stories, published with an extraordinary self-serving preface by Ford Madox Ford, an egregious act of gender imperialism more than 20 pages long, with only 5 about Rhys. There is no story in the collection titled “The Left Bank”; that is really the title of Ford's preface: “Rive...

(The entire section is 4232 words.)

Elaine Savory (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Savory, Elaine. “Brief Encounters: Rhys and the Craft of the Short Story.” In Jean Rhys, pp. 152-76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Savory traces Rhys's development as a short story writer and describes her revision process.]

I will post you the story tomorrow nearly three weeks too late … Its not right yet, too slow at the start too hurried at the end …

(Letter to Francis Wyndham, 6 March 1961)

I will finish Leaving School & Mr. Ramage A bit sentimental perhaps, and the West Indies as they were sound unreal, but...

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Sue Thomas (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Thomas, Sue. “An Antillean Voice.” In The Worldling of Jean Rhys, pp. 49-65. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Thomas places Rhys's Antillean narrative voice in The Left Bank and Other Stories within the context of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Dominican travel writing and the judges the effect of gender, class, ethnic, and racial stereotypes on Rhys and the reception of her short stories.]

In the preface to The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927), Jean Rhys's first book of fiction, Ford Madox Ford praises “the singular instinct for form possessed by this young lady,” a quality “possessed by...

(The entire section is 8297 words.)

Thorunn Lonsdale (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Lonsdale, Thorunn. “Literary Foremother: Jean Rhys's ‘Sleep It Off, Lady’ and Two Jamaican Poems.” In Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English, edited by Jacqueline Bardolph, pp. 145-54. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Lonsdale analyzes the reference to Rhys's “Sleep It Off, Lady” in Olive Senior's poem “Meditation on Red” and Lorna Goodison's poem “Lullaby for Jean Rhys.”]

Jean Rhys's influence as a literary foremother is acknowledged through intertextual links made by the Jamaican poets Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison in their poems “Meditation on Red” and “Lullaby for Jean Rhys” respectively. Senior...

(The entire section is 3656 words.)