Rhys, Jean (Vol. 6)
Rhys, Jean 1894–
Jean Rhys, born in the West Indies, is a British novelist and short story writer. A. Alvarez has said that her fictional world seems "strangely unprecedented, glassy clear yet somehow distorted as though she were looking up at things from the bottom of a deep pool." He considers Miss Rhys "quite simply, the best living English novelist." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
Jean Rhys's limitations do not have the look of being self-imposed for an esthetic aim. They have the look of being the effects of an obsession. She has one character and one subject: the tribulations of her heroine in a cruel world of selfish men and respectable women.
In four novels and a collection of short stories written during the 1920's and 30's, the heroine differs from novel to novel and from story to story in name and incidentals, but not much. In "Wide Sargasso Sea" (1966) she reappears as Mrs. Rochester, Jane Eyre's husband's other wife. In "Tigers Are Better Looking," a collection made up of eight stories first published in the 1960's and nine stories rescued from "The Left Bank" (1927), the heroine and her tribulations are with us once again, unchanged after 40 years, even when in one story she is put into the body of a man and in another put into the body of a black woman from the West Indies.
This heroine has a past, but no future. She grew up in the West Indies and never feels at home in London and Paris, where she hangs out. Her father is dead, her mother an invalid, her other relatives insufferable. She has been married, but her husband left her and her baby died—because of his selfishness, because of the lack of money, because of the swinishness of respectable people. She has worked as a chorus girl and as a model, but not for long. Now an unassigned "feeling of foreboding, of anxiety, as if her heart were being squeezed," never leaves her.
She fears madness, and with cause. She entertains thoughts of suicide, but hasn't the courage. She is an insomniac, a taker of long walks, and a doubter of her own existence. "Who am I, and how did I get here?" she asks in one book. "What am I doing in this place and who am I?" she asks in a second. "I have no pride—no pride, no name, no face, no country. I don't belong anywhere. Too sad, too sad," she says in a third. (pp. 5-6)
She is no feminist. More than men, she hates only other women—"God how I hate women"—and the whole of conventional humanity. "If all good respectable people had one face, I'd spit on it." Their swinishness justifies her behavior; she has merely learned "to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong." She is impossible, but unapologetic: "If I hate, I've a right to hate." Even her sympathy for underdogs is spurious, an indirect way of getting back at top-dogs. These underdogs are no more than stand-ins for the heroine, as the top-dogs are no more than pretexts for her malaise, as the men are no more than reflections in her jaundiced eye. Jean Rhys's heroine is the sole occupant of the world in which she lives.
I do not like this heroine or the fiction in which she appears, although I probably should. The prose is sharp, rapid, without affection; and there are moments of clammy fascination, moments when the author gets you to share her obsessions. Maybe I am becoming claustrophobic. Certainly the heroine's self-pity becomes annoying, if only because her author does not see around it. There is no distinction whatsoever between the way the heroine sees herself, other people, her situation and the way Jean Rhys sees them. The heroine's self-pity and self-absorption wash back over the image we form of the author. Just the same, it is good to have the fiction in which this heroine is reproduced with such loving fidelity. The proof of the fidelity is that after having read the fiction, you realize how often you have met its heroine and just why you wish you hadn't. (p. 6)
George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1974.
A noted critic, A. Alvarez, recently wrote of Jean Rhys that she is "the best living English novelist," a statement which on the face of it seems to be one of those smug cultish remarks destined to please a handful of aficionados, and to mystify or frustrate people who like to be in the know but find that the know continually eludes them.
Yet it is a bold, perceptive remark. One wonders why nobody has seen this, or said it, sooner and more often? It might be because Rhys has after all written comparatively little, and her writing has come to notice mainly in the last decade, nearly 50 years after some of it was written. Or it might be because she is a woman and writes mostly about women; a more cautious and conventional critic would have said "best living English female novelist," a qualification that would be neither necessary or appropriate. An early admirer of her work, Ford Madox Ford, feels her subject is "passion, hardship, emotions" and that "the locality in which these things are endured is immaterial." And so, of course, is the sex of the people who endure them.
In the interests of strict accuracy, the critic might have omitted the adjective "English," for Rhys is not exactly an English writer but something more cosmopolitan and alienated. Like Ford himself, and like his friend Joseph Conrad, she belongs to a distinguished group of expatriate, somewhat French novelists-in-English, to whom England itself seems a little suspect, chilly, strange. Rhys was born in the West Indies, and did not go to England until she was 16. In England, and in Paris in the 1920s, she tried to earn a living by being a chorus girl, model, writer, wife; she was acquainted with Ford and other influential figures; her work was admired. Ford predicted that her ashes would be laid in the Pantheon—not a typical fate for an English writer.
Her actual fate was perhaps even more strange. After her last novel was published in 1939, she stopped writing, disappeared and was forgotten until 1966, when she triumphally reappeared on the literary scene with the brilliant novel Wide Sargasso Sea. She was greeted almost like a ghost come back to collect her long-withered laurels, and she began to work with new force….
[Tigers Are Better Looking] reprints some early sketches from her Paris period, first published in 1927, and several more fully realized pieces first published in the 1960s but set in the earlier period. "Down and Out in Paris and London" might have served her for a title if Orwell had not used it; she is the chronicler of the seedy, cold and cruel. It may seem at first reading that her range, though perfectly handled within its limits, is nonetheless a limited range: her territory is, as Ford noted, the Left Bank of the world—"its gaols, its salons, its cafes, its criminals, its midinettes—with a bias of admiration for its midinettes and of sympathy for its law-breakers."
Yet there is a sense in which this nether world is the demimonde where the human heart really lives, and it is this which gives Rhys her power and her significance. Reading these stories is like touring a gallery of Impressionist paintings; we understand the message in the eyes of the absinthe drinker, in the weary shoulders of the woman with the flatiron. Rhys is an Impressionist writer, getting her effects with phrases like vivid brushstrokes. The magnificent story "Outside the Machine," for example, might be a painting of a hospital ward in which the figures speak, and say all that need be said about cruelty, hope, pain, poverty, the search for oblivion.
In all her stories, a person is faced with the ruthless imperatives of society—the need for money first, and then for respectability. All of life is controlled by a "perpetual covert threat…. Everything's based on it. Disgusting. What Will They Say? And down at the bottom of the page you see what will happen to you if you don't toe the line. You will be slain and not spared. Threats and mockery, mockery and threats…. And desolation…." Yet how uncannily strong, how charming her renditions of this principle. (p. 1)
Rhys's characters passively wander or defiantly do the wrong thing. The reader new to her world may at first want to shake them, or advise them, or defend them, but he never can; they are too bruised by life, and they don't have a shilling to put in the gas meter, and if they did they would blow it on a drink or a new blue hat, or just maunder on, dazed and depressed…. [On the other hand, that] people do, after all, put a better face on things no matter what, is perhaps the essence of her view of life.
The stories in this volume should serve as admirable introduction to the even more finely sustained novels, especially … Wide Sargasso Sea, an extraordinary feat of imaginative sympathy, in which Rhys fuses her own English and West Indian experience.
After the acclaim in England for this powerful, strange novel, Rhys's early novels—After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight—have been reprinted to wide acclaim. In each of them, Rhys takes up a story where another novelist might have left off. An ordinary writer might recount how Julia goes to Paris and forms a liaison with a man there, but in Rhys's novel, "after leaving Mr. Mackenzie," Julia is back in London, broke, desperate alone. In Good Morning, Midnight the heroine is seen after her life has already disintegrated, husband run off, baby dead. Most of life, after all, takes place after the curtain goes down on moments of high drama. Jean Rhys has the courage to look behind the scenes, and an extraordinary power to paint what she see there. (pp. 1-2)
Diane Johnson, "Overdrawn at the Left Bank of the World," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 3, 1974, pp. 1-2.
In Jean Rhys' four early novels, all published before World War II and now being reissued to great critical praise, the same story is repeated, each time with greater depth and technical assurance. Rhys' characters—Marya Zelli of Quartet, Julia Martin of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Anna Morgan of Voyage in the Dark and Sasha Jansen of Good Morning, Midnight—are, as [other critics] have shown, a composite, the same woman at various stages of physical and psychological development. (p. 22)
[It] is in Good Morning, Midnight that Rhys' vision is clearest. To this point, the power of her prose was its ability to project the stingingly witty attitudes, the singular voice, of her characters. Yet the third-person narration of the first three novels was not a complete success. The focus wavered, and the customary distance of an omniscient technique staved off the truth. Good Morning, Midnight, in its first-person narration, literally and figuratively embraces the abyss. (p. 23)
These four books are like separate panels in a narrowly confined, coldly etched landscape painting. Rhys' women move from place to place, making pilgrimages toward warmth: their histories can be read in the succession of barren rooms they briefly occupy. The weather, the wind, and sun especially, are barometers of their inner lives. Money is the stickler; with it these women are sporadically happy, for it postpones hunger, buys coal for the fire. Without it their nails sharpen and the hour between the dog and wolf is no longer confined to the end of the day.
Rhys' short stories provide connective tissue for her four novels, filling in gaps in the ongoing saga. Not merely minor pieces, they are important additions. The first eight tales in Tigers Are Better Looking were previously published as Tigers, etc. in England in 1968; they were written after Good Morning, Midnight during her "underground period." The remaining nine were chosen from the 22 "sketches and studies of present-day Bohemian Paris" that comprised Jean Rhys' first work, The Left Bank, published in 1928.
The last nine stories are less accomplished and give the collection an anticlimactic finish. Still, these glimpses of left-bank existence are directly in line with Jean Rhys' mature work. The problem is one of focus. The basic materials are at hand, but the distinctive viewpoint has not been fully materialized. The women are spectators not participants. Except for "Hunger," a controlled, malicious, horrifying discourse on not eating for days, the reader is far from the center of the experience. But familiar faces arise….
But it is the first eight stories that matter most. The title of the collection, we are told by the jacket copy, "comes from the opinion which many of Jean Rhys' characters share, that respectable people are alarming as tigers, but 'tigers are better-looking, aren't they?'" It's a wicked, all-purpose title, deadly serious in its humorous approach to social position….
Perhaps I have made this collection sound limited in scope and repetitous in manner. It is not. It is acidly humorous and more varied in technique than one would imagine. Jean Rhys has found new ways to tell her basic story. Much of what she first did in the '20s and '30s has become routine fare in present-day fiction, so that her works may not seem so remarkable to us now; a historical perspective is a pre-requisite…. (p. 24)
Robert Leiter, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 7, 1974.
In the current Jean Rhys revival, only one book still remains out of print—"Voyage in the Dark" (1934). It shares a theme with her other novels of the twenties and thirties—"Quartet" (1928), "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" (1930), and "Good Morning, Midnight" (1939)—and even with "Wide Sargasso Sea" (1966), a rather different affair from its predecessors: for most people, love and the act of love are the greatest accusations they ever make against the falsehoods of society; we are one thing as lovers and something totally different as working, social, and political creatures. The disparity is as old as Adam and Eve, but the truly innocent (as distinct from the merely chaste) cannot bear it, and that notion is either central or implicit in all the novels. Sins of the flesh, therefore, are often not sins at all but their opposite: innocence, unbelieving, trying to restore itself. What the world makes of this kind of virtue is something else again, and there is not one Rhys heroine (each a species of a generic one) who does not innocently, and somewhat lazily, come up against the Philistines. They are masked sometimes as bohemians but are not to be distinguished from her chief enemies—the bourgeoisie and the authorities. Respectability is the great antagonist. It is also the despised haven….
The connection between love and money may be Miss Rhys's most original contribution to the history of emotional exploitation. For everything in society is geared to revealing power as masculine and to hiding the thousand subtle ways by which power uses money to enslave. And hers are novels of subjugation: the fat cat and the underdog tied together by invisible threads, subjugation either by addiction—sexual obsession or drink—or by the manipulation of passivity. Sensuality is at war with will and can be worked on, from varying distances, to escape the worst of human conditions—isolation. The aging gamine whom Miss Rhys pursues through these books with a relentlessness as cool as it is remarkable, considering the unmistakable autobiographical flavor, slowly goes to pieces…. Sensuousness in these books is comforting—perhaps their only comfort. And their chief psychological state is uneasiness. Miss Rhys writes of this with an acuteness other writers reserve for madness, and she sees the strong connection between these states of mind. To hate the respectable world and to be dependent on it, to be rebellious and helpless at the same time, produces resignation and rage; there are no more uncomfortable bedfellows. (p. 161)
These are novels of dispossession written by someone with a strong sense of place. If all this sounds like "privileged despair" (to use Kenneth Tynan's phrase), it doesn't read like it. Every centimetre of torture is carefully measured out, and with an exactness and a lack of sentimentality all the more painful for being temperamentally unavoidable….
"Wide Sargasso Sea"… is a spell-binding book, labelled … a "Gothic," but it bears about as much resemblance to the genre as "The Turn of the Screw" does to the ordinary ghost story. Good as it is, something too theatrical attaches to it. For the first time, Miss Rhys uses the landscape of her childhood as more than a contrasting backdrop; its tropical color and languor are released as if they had been held under pressure for a long time. But she has fused it with something bookish, and what might have been the most personal of the novels is the most literary. (p. 162)
[In "Wide Sargasso Sea"] the passivity of the earlier heroines takes on a different cast. Not only is there an exaggerated notion of the male's powers to complete but magic accrues to certain acts and gestures that will soothe and heal. Clothes are very important in this respect, and so are makeup and mirrors—strange little throwbacks, once they are looked at this way, to a world far more primitive than Paris or London. It makes us realize, perhaps for the first time, how dominant the idea of fear is in Miss Rhys's work. It is as if behind the scenes in the first four books a world had been withheld which doesn't explain action or motivation but which colors them in a new and revealing way. (p. 165)
Though "Wide Sargasso Sea" is the most dramatic of the novels, it is the least telling in the Rhys canon precisely because the heroine does go mad…. Miss Rhys's specialty is neither action nor madness but the precipitants that precede them. The suicide at the coastline, not the floating corpse, is her real subject. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is an ingenious tour de force, but it is not the genuine Rhys article. For the earlier novels—and particularly "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" and "Good Morning, Midnight"—are unlike anything else in English. They bear a close allegiance to the tight French short novel expanded to its limits, rather than the cumulative drama of buildup and crisis. Colette comes to mind, but briefly. The music-hall flavor suggests a connection, but there is a finer sense of social institutions in the English writer and a far less developed concern for the natural and the familial…. Colette is basically a joyous writer and Miss Rhys a despairing one.
The difficulty of saying how or why her books seem so original may be a sign of their authenticity. They seem peculiarly timeless for works focussed on such particular times and places as the twenties and thirties in London and Paris. A casualness of style, a natural sense of form suggest either the consummate letter writer or an arduousness belied by their surfaces. They are novels of streets and rooms as unforgettable as maps if one had to navigate by them, yet they manage inside their small frames to be significant. They have the quality of the best books by seeming to have written themselves, and, reading them, one flinches at truth after truth. (pp. 165-66)
Howard Moss, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 16, 1974.
Just this year A. Alvarez, writing in the New York Times, called [Jean Rhys] "the best living English novelist." That's a tall order for a woman who says she drifted into writing and never does it when she's happy, only when she's sad, to rework pain into manageable melancholy. She also has only one heroine, herself, a woman who says over and over, like a dusty record with a stuck needle: "Take me as I am. I couldn't care less." Her rudderless, come-what-may attitude, and the obscene drift of the world into war, kept her from publishing anything for nearly twenty years. She was lost from view and then quite suddenly found, and taken up as a woman who understood women. Deafening applause comes late in the day for Jean Rhys, now eighty and finding old age as terrible as she knew it would be.
Tigers Are Better Looking combines stories written after 1939 with selections from her first book of stories, The Left Bank, published in 1927 under the sponsorship of Ford Madox Ford. The excellence of this early work, mostly concerning the Paris she knocked about in, should have won her a secure reputation. It didn't, perhaps because she hid her careful art behind an offhand manner; or it could have been that the world wasn't ready to learn about woman as underdog unless that dog had a pet's winning ways. Miss Rhys's underdogs bite, most particularly the hands that feed them.
Miss Rhys was discarded by Ford … and went on to write four marvelous, largely overlooked novels, ending with Good Morning, Midnight, which appeared in that worst of years, 1939. The war brushed her books aside, although they had earned a modest critical reception—along with a few sniffs at her sordidness. (p. 81)
[In] 1957,… the BBC did a radio version of Good Morning, Midnight, and she was rediscovered, by herself as well as others…. Wide Sargasso Sea … was hailed by many as a masterpiece. And yet, bursting as it is with marvels, particularly its depiction of an uneasy Jamaica after the emancipation of the slaves, it seems feverish and strained. Miss Rhys is better out of crinolines and into those chic little dresses her luckless heroines of the twenties and thirties covet so hungrily.
The success of Sargasso brought hardcover and paperback reissues of earlier novels. Nowadays they are clutched to the bra-less bosom of many a young women's rights activist, although her heroines are passive, distrustful of other women, only too eager to be kept by a man, forever searching the mirrors of their compacts to count the damage, to wonder if they still have a face they can borrow on. They never have a bean, but they take taxis or are put into them by blue-eyed, hard, successful men who are somewhat relieved to see them go: Obviously, these women are not to be emulated by anyone who wants to take charge of her own life. But they and the men who saunter away from them are depicted with a dead-eyed accuracy that can be useful to an honest cause.
Miss Rhys hates cant. Not even the reader is spared her contempt for hypocrisy. In the story "Hunger," she describes what it feels like to go without food for several days, and concludes: "I have never gone without food for longer than five days, so I cannot amuse you any longer."
Her women are pretty but untrained, with no way of their own to satisfy their upper-middle-class tastes. (Miss Rhys, who is admittedly all her heroines, was both a chorus girl and a mannequin.) Although ornamental, they are clumsily unable to take proper advantage of rich men momentarily attracted by a girl's good looks. Her heroines have the unfortunate habit of falling for their protectors and actually wanting to go to bed with them in the security of love—which wasn't the way the game was supposed to be played. Jean Rhys was one of the first women writers, at least among the Anglo-Saxons, to say without equivocation that women like sexual love. (pp. 81-2)
Voyage in the Dark [is] her third and perhaps best novel, because it convinces throughout that everything in it had to happen exactly as it did. There is none of the cleverness which on rare occasions trips up the author—one of her few failings….
She leaves out and she leaves out and she leaves out. Uncannily, her work is the richer for it. Scolded by Ford Madox Ford for not saying enough about the topography of Paris in The Left Bank, she is thought of now as one of the most evocative writers about that city. (p. 82)
Good Morning, Midnight is as wounding as jagged glass. It marks some final inner shattering.
The new stories in Tigers Are Better Looking at times achieve a broader humanity. (p. 83)
Miss Rhys has always made clear the swinishness of respectable men with their well-padded, rudimentary hearts. Yet there is not all that much difference between Jean Rhys women and some modern men. Both sexes have been known to resort to drink, lovemaking, novel-reading, and moviegoing to get over bad patches that cost them sleep. There are men, fully as passive as her heroines, who sit in bars off Madison Avenue, staring in the mirror behind the bottles, wondering what went wrong and what in God's name to do about it, and knowing there is nothing to do at all. (pp. 83-4)
Ralph Tyler, "Luckless Heroines, Swinish Men," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), January, 1975, pp. 81-4.
British writing is so habitually dependent on social poise and tone, on knowing, usually rather too precisely, what can be taken for granted, that we tend to be more astonished than perhaps we should be at the appearance of an English writer who takes nothing for granted. Every so often someone comes along whose prose style is so alert and fresh, so remote from the mainstream idiom of English social fiction, that it seems miraculous that they should be able to write like that and be British too. Jean Rhys is such a writer, though her West Indian background has helped to exile her from the fatal knowingness that goes with being English. (p. 81)
Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), June, 1975.
The work of Jean Rhys is nothing like that of O'Hara, but it evokes the time about which he wrote best. I am not as familiar with Miss Rhys's corpus as her publishers tell me I ought to be, so I am unable to place the stories in Tigers Are Better Looking in any except the most general context. The full-fleshed narratives which comprise the first half of the book are for the most part about England in the twenties, the Bohemian demimonde of which, one presumes, Miss Rhys was a part. These are followed by sketches of Paris during the same era. Most of the time Miss Rhys is fully successful, but most of the time she does not risk very much…. Anger erupts here and there but without violence or raised voices;… there are few tears. In their coolness, a kind of disengagement from life that is not the same thing as understatement, most of these stories fulfill their limited aims.
In "Outside the Machine" Miss Rhys takes on a major project and carries it brilliantly through. An English girl goes to a French hospital for surgery, and the ward in which she recuperates is Miss Rhys's Ship of Fools. The individual fear of the patients and their determination not to show it, the attempts to maintain some kind of privacy under the very worst of circumstances, and the acts of hatred and of kindness that are engendered by common suffering accommodate themselves perfectly to Miss Rhys's restrained approach. Within the ward are the old and the young, the good and the bad, the usual variety. Some speak obscenities, some are cheerful, some are obstinately silent. All is circumscribed by the English girl's point of view, and the scene achieves a surreal quality because Inez is afraid and in pain and on medication. The story moves perfectly according to the author's loose method of doing things. We make our ways through our lives by solving our problems, enduring our misfortunes as they arise, hoping always for the peace that recedes before us. So it is with Inez: after the operation ensues pain; after pain, the realization that she has no money and will have to leave the hospital. An old lady in the next bed gives her funds, and this action makes an ending that is absolutely organic to the story. Those who cannot themselves escape take a small consolation in sending others in their places. So it is here, and the story is moving and believable. There are other fine moments in Tigers Are Better Looking, but no other single piece quite so fine. (pp. 539-40)
Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Summer, 1975.
There is a certain parody of melodrama … throughout Jean Rhys's novels that has been misread as melodrama itself—the heroine begging for rent money from some brute who demands a kiss in exchange. But her victims are not strictly "heroines," and their oppressors are not purely "villains." Although one of her women wishes that "all … respectable people had one face" so she could spit in it, Rhys herself often shows us the respectable ones—the men with incomes, and the intact women—trapped by their own caution like large, powerful northern animals alone on ice floes. If Jean Rhys has, as Ford Madox Ford wrote of her, "an almost lurid!—passion for … the underdog," she never makes a mascot of that animal. At times she seems to be skillfully and purposefully exhausting our compassion for her woman and her way of life—its moments of listless content, its cycles of drunkenness and abjection. She even encourages our sympathy with her oppressors. We begin to behave defensively, to dissociate ourselves, as we do from the drugged and derelict on the streets of our own cities. Why does Rhys court our disgust in this way? Because sympathy for the underdog is, like charity, too cheap, too makeshift an emotion. She is interested in something more radical: "Victims are necessary," says Marya in Quartet, "so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong." They are also necessary, Rhys reminds us, so that the strong may discover and understand the brutality inherent in all privilege. (p. 50)
[One] of the most terrifying aspects of Jean Rhys's heroine is the debasement of her solitude—a solitude which was, at its outset, audacious and brave, but which she has acknowledged as a defeat, even as a punishment. She has submitted to a squalid complicity with her predators—their company, their protection, their money—in exchange for the pleasure she can give them as a victim.
The position the woman takes when she grovels seems almost pornographic. It reminds me of the woman in The Story of O, who wears a mask her master gives her—a mask which excites him to brutality—a mask which she discovers she cannot and perhaps no longer wants to take off.
That mask is beauty itself. Jean Rhys's woman has been, like the Modigliani nude which so fascinates her, a white, wonderfully lovely body in a mask. She has existed for the pleasure of the spectator. No one has noticed her mind because she has never really been—or been perceived as—an individual. (p. 51)
Quartet is more aesthetically off guard than the other books. It has all the faults and youthful excesses of its heroine, Marya Zelli, who will, in time, become the polished sufferer of Good Morning, Midnight. Yet even through its sentimentality, it is unbearable and raw, as if one were watching a play in which the young actress, in spite of her bad lines, were tangibly suffering on the stage—suffering from the cold, from exploitation wages, from sarcastic reviews, sordid dressing rooms, and the monotonous insecurity of her own existence.
One of the strongest impressions one gets from Quartet is that Jean Rhys mistrusts other women…. Like Lois Heidler in Quartet, who helps her husband dominate and subdue Marya, they are their masters' trusties. Where there is a sisterhood in her books, it is a sisterhood of the fallen—touching but also some what macabre. Jean Rhys's greatest tenderness is reserved for the bravado of old whores and for the stamina of young models and artistes, flaunting themselves before indifferent customers. (p. 52)
Good Morning, Midnight ends with a series of rapidly executed reverses which are, in a sense, the climax of all four novels—the last act of a tragedy. It is a modern one, whose suffering isn't resolved in loss or death, but by the sterner moral of ambiguity….
Wide Sargasso Sea … is a gothic "romance" about Mr. Rochester's first wife, the madwoman in Jane Eyre whom Charlotte Brontë had described as "a Creole heiress." In many ways the heroine, Antoinette Cosway, is the grandmother of the heroines of the earlier books—as if her blood in them were responsible for their beauty, their isolation, their instability.
It is a voluptuous piece of writing, extravagantly so, as if, after all the gloom and restraint of Europe, to write this had been dessert. But there is, for me, something disappointing about Jean Rhys's retreat into the 19th century. The figures in Wide Sargasso Sea are stranded in their roles—even in their lots—as starkly as character from Greek tragedy. They confront, but never connect with each other; they are acting out something as ritual as a revenge. One cannot properly speak of them as being conscious. And that, after Good Morning, Midnight, is a regression.
Judith Thurman, "The Mistress and the Mask," in Ms. (© 1975 Judith Thurman), January, 1976, pp. 50-2, 81.