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.)
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 expect: in it, chastity is a woman's sole guarantee of marriage, jewels, servants, children, freedom, and respectability. On the practical level, Phoebe is mistaken to believe this way is not possible for her: her virginity is intact. Intuitively, however, she is correct: her chastity is gone forever. Her great mistake is to believe that the life reserved for wicked, unchaste women is her, or anyone's alternative. (p. 238)
"Till September Petronella" is from Rhys's middle volume, Tigers are Better-Looking…. It features Petronella, who could well be Phoebe ten years later, alone in London. The action of this story is more complex and extended…. [Unexplained] actions seem random and meaningless. The significance of "Till September Petronella" is revealed in Petronella's vague half-thoughts, in what is said, and in the gradual accumulation of symbolic detail. (p. 239)
[It] is a fully-realized story unified by time, place, and symbols. It begins in Petronella's room and ends there two days later. References to the arts provide the allusive backbone of meaning…. These are like signposts in a foreign country in a language Petronella has begun to understand. By incorporating these references, Rhys is making a point about the mythical, religious, and artistic bases of behaviour in the culture to which Petronella must adapt.
"I Used to Live Here Once" is the last story in [Sleep It Off, Lady]…. It is a tiny story, less than two pages long, which, because of its location in Rhys's oeuvre gives the impression of a finale. It relates a brief, emotionally significant incident during Jean Rhys's return after many years of exile to her old home in Dominica. (p. 241)
When [the main character] approaches the boy and girl on the lawn of her old home she calls "Hello" several times to them, says "I...
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[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 absorbing pictures in which one longs to bury one's head for hours.
Ronald Blythe, "A Girl from Dominica" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Ronald Blythe), in The Listener, Vol. 102, No. 2640, December 6, 1979, p. 789.
[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.∗
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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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