If I was being facetious (which I never am 😉 )I might compile a Jean Rhys checklist:
- Heroine is displaced, either in France from the Caribbean or in England from Caribbean and/or France
- She is emaciated and constantly on the brink of starvation
- For some reason, getting a regularly-paid job never occurs to her
- And so she has casual employment as a model/actress/any job vaguely associated with prostitution in the early 20th century
- She uses men for financial gain and is in turn used by them
- She has a judgemental landlady
- She owns at least one piece of really expensive clothing left over from a better time
- She self-medicates with alcohol
- She is highly sensitive but weirdly passive, so things don’t generally go well
Not including Wide Sargasso Sea, this seems to be the form things generally take in a book by Rhys. Yet I’m happy to keep reading her because she writes with such precision and insight, and at moments is capable of absolute brilliance. Here are two novellas by her.
Quartet (1928, 144 pages, originally published as Postures) is a fictionalised account of Rhys’ affair with Ford Madox Ford.
“ ‘I bet that man is a bit of a brute sometimes,’ thought Marya. And as she thought it, she felt his hand lying heavily on her knee.”
Marya’s husband Stephan has been put in prison for fraud and she is left alone in Paris. She seems to have been both aware and unaware of the nature of his business.
“Stephan disliked being questioned and, when closely pressed, he lied. He just lied. Not plausibly or craftily, but impatiently and absent-mindedly. So Marya had long ago stopped questioning. For she was reckless, lazy, a vagabond by nature, and for the first time in her life she was very near to being happy.”
She will bring this dissonance into the affair that she has with a man named Heidler. On the one hand she seems to know that she is being manipulated not only by him but by his wife Lois. On the other hand she still seems to plunge into this situation, living with them both and sleeping with Heidler, making herself both materially and emotionally vulnerable. A lot remains unexplained. We’re not entirely sure why Marya does what she does, although Rhys suggests, as she does in her other writing, that morals are a luxury not everyone can afford.
“Poverty is the cause of many compromises.”
Marya may also have done it just for the sheer hell of it. Heidler and Lois seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and so it could be that Marya wanted any experience rather than a mundane existence:
“Her life swayed regularly, even monotonously, between two extremes, avoiding the soul-destroying middle.”
Certainly this may explain why she falls in love with Heidler when he seems so thoroughly horrible.
Quartet is morally ambivalent; Marya seems deeply unhappy for the entire book and she is powerless, so it is hard to judge her even though I felt frustrated at her seeming lack of agency. Rhys simply presents people and situations, and asks the reader to assign their own values.
“The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance.”
Quartet was adapted into a film in 1981 by Merchant Ivory. I’ve not seen it but the cast is stellar:
Secondly, Voyage in the Dark (1934, 159 pages). Anna is freezing in England, unable to acclimatise after a life spent in the Caribbean. She is orphaned and earning a living as a chorus girl in a touring theatre company. Life is a procession of dingy B&Bs and while she gets used to England, she misses home:
“the smell of streets and the smells of frangipani and lime juice and cinnamon and cloves, and sweets made of ginger and syrup, and incense after funerals or Corpus Christi processions, and the patients standing outside the surgery next door and the smell of the sea-breeze and the different smell of the land-breeze.”
She meets an older man, Walter, and they begin a relationship. Although she is not being manipulated to the extent of Marya in Quartet, Anna is also powerless in the relationship. She is young, naïve and penniless; Walter is none of these things.
“Perhaps I’m going to be one of the ones with beastly lives. They swarm like woodlice when you push a stick into a woodlice home. And their faces are the colour of woodlice.”
When the relationship breaks down, Anna spirals into despair. She drinks too much, is depressed and has to seek a backstreet abortion.
“I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone one to another. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall.”
It’s difficult to say why I don’t find Rhys utterly bleak. Her protagonists are always despairing, but I think for most there is hope. They cling onto something, and while that may be an entirely unsuitable lover or a destructive circumstance, they have a determined streak, even if they allow themselves to be buffeted by forces they could have easily avoided. Rhys is also a writer that constantly brings me up short with startling images, like this one of trying to communicate with a lover who won’t listen:
“It was like letting go and falling back into water and seeing yourself grinning up through the water, your face like a mask, and seeing bubbles come up as if you were trying to speak from under the water.”
Reading these two novellas means I’ve now read all of Rhys’ novels and short stories and I’m truly sorry to have reached the end. She may only have one main theme, but it is a richly explored one that rewards careful reading.