“She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.” (Jean Rhys, Quartet)

This is a further (mini) contribution (not my usual two-work blog post) to Jean Rhys Reading Week, hosted by Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal and Eric at Lonesome Reader. Do check out their blogs and join in!

Jean Rhys

This time I’m looking at Sleep It Off Lady (1976) which is Rhys’ final collection of stories, published 3 years before she died. The stories are presented in a chronological order of the age of the protagonist, so it almost feels like a dipping into and out of someone’s life at various points; from the two young sisters living in Dominica in the first story Pioneers, Oh Pioneers to the young woman in Paris in Night Out 1925, to the elderly woman living alone in the titular penultimate story.

This approach is not dissimilar to her longer fiction, such as Good Morning Midnight, which used stream of consciousness to build up a picture of a life from fractured parts. All the things I enjoy in Rhys’ longer fiction are evident in her short stories. For example…

Her humour used to highlight a serious issue – such as mental illness encountered by repressed Edwardian Brits in the colonies:

“‘If,’ said Mr Eliot ‘the man had apologized to my wife, if he’d shown the slightest consciousness of the fact that he was stark naked, I would have overlooked the whole thing. God knows one learns to be tolerant in this wretched place. But not a bit of it. He stared hard at her and came out with: ‘What an uncomfortable dress – and how ugly!’ My wife got very red.  Then she said: ‘Mr Ramage, the kettle is just boiling. Will you have some tea?’” (Pioneers Oh Pioneers)

Her unblinking look at sexual politics which degrade women and empower men. This takes an even darker turn when she documents the sexual assault of a twelve year old (this is written very sensitively and not at all gratuitously, but neither does it let the reader off the hook – we can’t ignore what has happened):

“He talked of usual things in a usual voice and she made up her mind that she would tell nobody of what had happened. Nobody. It was not a thing you could possibly talk about. Also, no one would be believe exactly how it had happened, and whether they believed her or not she would be blamed.” (Good-bye Marcus, Good-bye Rose)

And her startling observations that disconcert yet articulate something fundamental:

“But it was always the most ordinary things that suddenly turned round and showed you another face, a terrifying face. That was the hidden horror, the horror everyone pretended did not exist, the horror that was responsible for all the other horrors.” (The Insect World)

I’m so glad I took part in Jean Rhys Reading week as it encouraged me to explore this writer much sooner than I otherwise might have done.  I’ve no idea why, having rated Wide Sargasso Sea so highly when I first read it in my teens, I allowed Rhys to slip off my radar. Her writing seems drawn directly from her life yet she is able to explore themes that you don’t need to be an ex-colonial, chorus girl, artist’s model, thrice-married Parisian who is friends with Ford Madox Ford to find meaning in (at least I assume so, since that’s basically my life in a nutshell).

“Very widespread now – heart condition.” (Sleep It Off Lady)

I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of her work, I only wish there was more of it.

 Jean Rhys  (1894-1979)

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27 thoughts on ““She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.” (Jean Rhys, Quartet)

  1. Again, I wonder why there has been no Rhys in my reading history.
    The quote from Good Morning Midnight brings to mind a particular scene in the movie version of Room With a View, where Cecil is leading the ladies on a country ramble and the come across Freddie et al bathing in a pond. It’s that perfect Edwardian humour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel the same – I’ve no idea why, until #Reading Rhys came along, I’d only read Wide Sargasso Sea. Jacqui posted that Penguin are reissuing her collected stories soon, so hopefully she’ll get a lot more attention.

      I’d forgotten about that Room With a View scene – you’re so right – the horror of unexpected nudity 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m going to have to head to the library to hunt down Rhys – nothing available on Kindle and when I had a look at my bookshop today, nothing there either (perhaps the reissued Penguins will take a while to filter to Australia??).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Delighted to see an extra post from you as part of our #ReadingRhys week, thank you! I like you way you’ve highlighted some of the different facets of her work, especially the touches of bleak humour she uses every now and again. It’s a very particular flavour, almost ironic in some ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why I love her so much: ‘her startling observations that disconcert yet articulate something fundamental’. You think you know what to expect, how her characters will react, what they think, and then they surprise you and make an observation which is at once so subtle yet so savage and profound.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wide Sargasso Sea has been on my list for ages, and I don’t know why I haven’t picked it up sooner as well as this author’s other works. She sounds amazing. I wish I hadn’t been so busy this past week, it would have been fun to take part in this!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A bit late to the party but I’ve just finished my first of hers too, Voyage in the Dark – heart-breaking really, to see dreams so dashed, having left the idyll of island life in Dominica, only to find her status knocked down so low in the country of her dreams and fantasy’s, to be perceived as one thing on the outside and to be so foreign and misunderstood underneath. It’s a book that cries out to be discussed as I think is much of her work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve got copy of Voyage in the Dark, I’m really keen to read it after ReadingRhys week. I totally agree, she deserves much more attention and discussion than she receives. Her work is so affecting and she’s so brilliant at articulating outsider experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

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