The Letters of Jean Rhys

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816

The charming and pleading voice Jean Rhys employed with marvelous wit, tact, and power in her letters should send readers to her fiction, where her ironic and playful verbal creativity and her meticulous critical and editorial judgment produced some of the greatest prose of the modernist period. Like many collections of authors’ correspondence, The Letters of Jean Rhys teases readers who wish to know more about the process of literary creation. The glimpses onto Rhys’s desk, the references to her eclectic and enthusiastic reading of other authors and to her extensive cutting and revising of her own manuscripts, only begin to reveal the secrets of her art.

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It is misleading to suggest, as Francis Wyndham, her literary executor, asserts in his introduction to this volume of letters, that Rhys’s correspondence can convey her personality or her life story. This selection of letters begins only in 1931, excluding her experiences in London and Paris in the 1920’s. It continues in another form the narrative begun in Rhys’s autobiography, Smile, Please (1979), which covers her early life but gives less information about the 1920’s and stops at 1930. Even within the years covered by this selection, 1931 to 1966, there are chronological gaps imposed by missing or excluded letters, and these omissions certainly disqualify any claim to a comprehensive life. There are no letters to Jean Lenglet, her first husband. Excluded are those written before 1931, to Ford Madox Ford, to Edward Garnett, to the admirers and critics of her first published work. Missing are any letters written between spring, 1941, and fall, 1945, during World War II. Omitted are the letters written after 1966, after the publication and successful reception of her best novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). The editors have various good reasons for these omissions: Some of the letters are lost, some will not be released by their owners for publication, some are boring or incoherent; nevertheless, the resulting book of letters cannot be read as an artist’s biography.

Through spontaneous as well as calculated notes to reviewers, publishers, editors, patrons, and friends, Rhys projects her complaints, her thanks, and her apologies with the skill of a performer and a creator. She creates brilliantly entertaining comic sketches in which poor Jean Rhys is the victimized heroine. Her cold and damp England, hostile to artist and outsider, is only partially real, yet the reader willingly suspends disbelief. It is possible that the walls of Rhys’s various dwellings always dripped, wet from leaking pipes or from the rain. It is verifiable that two of her husbands were white-collar criminals, convicted of violating laws regulating the flow of paper money (illegal currency exchange and fraudulent check writing). It is certain that Rhys won the admiration and loyalty of many literary lions, including the two editors of this book: Francis Wyndham and Diana Athill (Diana Melly). An intentionally farcical and sometimes revealing portrait of the artist does emerge.

What was Jean Rhys like, as a friend? She was difficult. Her long memory cherished acts of kindness as well as betrayals. Her short memory glossed over her alcoholism and her self-destructive choices—though perhaps this revision of her character is aided by the editors’ selection of letters. One suspects that she lost friends not simply because they suddenly turned against her, but because they could not forgive or forget her insults. In this selection of her letters, Rhys usually absolves herself of responsibility for the consequences of her own difficult behavior. One suspects that for months at a time she was desperately lonely. She lived isolated from the literary culture that had once lionized her. One suspects that she managed money with no calculation and little skill. She lived on advances, small allowances, loans, and credit. From the selection of letters included in this volume, it is impossible to weigh the effects on her of alcohol, of amphetamines, of hallucinogenic drugs, and of recurrent attacks of flu, all mentioned by Rhys as valid reasons for her tiredness and for her repeated failure to meet her writing deadlines.

Reading these letters as a partial self-portrait of the artist, one must be careful not to accept the made-up face as reality. Anne Tyler, in The New Republic review of the letters, assumes that she now can sum up Jean Rhys: “Whining, raging, rationalizing, self-deprecating, she emerges from these pages as a charter member of the ’Of course it rained’ school.” Even though Tyler’s response may easily be supported by ample evidence drawn from the letters, it obviously simplifies the voice of the artist. One can hardly imagine a similarly dismissive appraisal of another alcoholic, self-excusing, non-typing, complaining, and, at times, paranoid letter writer, who also happened to be a great modernist fiction writer: James Joyce. Neither Joyce nor Rhys would have been an ideal spouse or a reliably loyal friend, but those criteria are irrelevant to their literary achievements.

Two mistaken impressions can now be corrected: that Jean Rhys abandoned fiction writing during her middle years, or that she wrote spontaneously, almost unconsciously. During the thirty-five years covered by these letters, Rhys completed three major novels: Voyage in the Dark (1934), Good Morning, Midnight (1939), and the novel generally acknowledged as a masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea. She also completed several short stories published in the collection Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), and she wrote radio plays for BBC productions of her fiction. She was not unproductive, despite her own repeated apologies for unfinished work. Even though she did not publish between 1939 and 1966, Rhys did not suspend her writing for any period longer than a year, judging from evidence in this collection of letters. When her personal relationships failed or dissolved, her writing did not cease; indeed, her writing was, in otherwise unbearable times, her lifeline.

The war years in Great Britain silenced many writers; from this collection of letters, one cannot judge what Jean Rhys the writer did during those years. The brief allusions Rhys makes to contemporary politics—a Jewish friend who was forced to flee Berlin, the terrible war in Spain—indicate that she kept herself informed and that she responded emotionally to the horrors of Fascism and violence. She certainly knew that her former husband and her beloved daughter remained in Holland during the Nazi occupation; she discovered that they were active in the Resistance; she learned that her first husband was imprisoned in a concentration camp. The effects of this on her character or her writing are impossible to evaluate without consulting letters omitted from this volume.

In a letter of October, 1945, as Rhys writes to a friend of the sudden death of her second husband, she also mentions her work in progress on a novel and her recently completed collection of short stories. She connects her work to her struggle against grief. On March 9, 1949, she first defines her idea for that same novel-in-progress, which she eventually completed and published as Wide Sargasso Sea. From the scanty evidence supplied in this volume, it appears likely that Rhys continued to write, in isolation, during the 1940’s. For a writer such as Rhys, who had been celebrated and congratulated by the leading literary critics of the modern period, it must have been disheartening to endure the silence and the inattention of the war years and the postwar slump. When she read, in the November 5, 1949, issue of the New Statesman and Nation an inquiry requesting information about the author of Good Morning, Midnight, she responded. That inquiry initiated her friendship with Selma Vaz Dias, who, by performing adaptations of Rhys’s fiction in BBC dramatic readings, resurrected a reputation that had died. In 1949, the discovery that she had readers who were enthusiastic and sympathetic about her work certainly helped her resume regular composition.

Like most modernistic writers, Rhys wrote self-consciously. She substantially and compulsively revised her work before publication, making major structural changes, experimenting with various narrators, and cutting to improve the style. She wrote alternative endings for her novels. She used poetry writing as a technique, which enabled her to solve some knotty problems of characterization in her fiction. She rewrote some fiction as drama; she drafted plays which she later revised into novels. All literary modes were open to her. She polished her prose so extensively that the process of writing seemed, at times, interminable to her and to her editors.

Critics interested in new literary analysis of her work may glean valuable information about the writing process from Rhys’s comments on Wide Sargasso Sea. She began her novel to correct Charlotte Brontë’s unsympathetic portrait, in Jane Eyre (1847), of the first Mrs. Rochester. Rhys set her novel in her native West Indies, in 1840, and she investigated the historical details for her novel as carefully as some of the nineteenth century realist fiction writers had. Beginning with her resistance to Brontë’s characterization, Rhys explores the behavior of a West Indian girl and her English husband, invents a plausible psychology for each, places them in the cultural and historical contexts that shape their characters, and wrestles with fair treatment of protagonist and antagonist. In the letters on the composition of Wide Sargasso Sea, her professional craftsmanship and her artistic dedication are compelling.

Given the evidence in these letters, it is not possible to regard Rhys as a marginal, isolated British West Indian writer who, under the patronage of Ford Madox Ford, managed to get a few novels published. Her literary contacts, both personal and intellectual, were extensive and wide-ranging. For much of her life, she lived in poverty that was not genteel; she did, however, enrich her life by reading. When her finances fell so dismally low that she was forced to sell her library to pay for food and lodging, she grieved over the loss. She treasured the few excellent booksellers and lending libraries that she found outside London, in the various locations where she lived. Her favorite gifts to her daughter and her granddaughter were books. As she writes about her daily life in her letters, she mentions names and titles: Guy de Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort (1889), George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1930), Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays and novels, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934), Georges Bernanos’ Journal d’un curé de campagne (1936), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934), J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). She read more widely than most members of the lost generation, and she understood what she read, to judge from her brief but perceptive comments in her letters. Her own fiction deserves reassessment within the modern European literary tradition.

A woman who could call herself attractive to an albatross commands attention. A reader who could recognize that James Joyce’s prose voice in Anna Livia Plurabelle (Finnegans Wake) imitated grand opera provokes intelligent discourse. A writer as self-aware, as perceptive of other writers, and as inventive as Jean Rhys the novelist invites critical admiration.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

The Atlantic. CCLIV, August, 1984, p. 109.

Booklist. LXXX, May 15, 1984, p. 1288.

Book World. XIV, October 7, 1984, p. 7.

Horizon. XXVII, July, 1984, p. 58.

House and Garden. CLVI, July, 1984, p. 18.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, June 15, 1984, p. 573.

Library Journal. CIX, June 1, 1984, p. 1126.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 4, 1984, p. 4.

The New Republic. CXCI, September 10, 1984, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 30, 1984, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, June 1, 1984, p. 55.

Vogue. CLXXIV, August, 1984, p. 222.

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