The Letters of Jean Rhys
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.
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:...
(The entire section is 1816 words.)