The many confrontations of Jean Rhys


Virginia Woolf dreamed, in “A Room of One’s Own”, of a new type of female writing, in which one could read, say, Chloe and Olivia, working together in a laboratory, and perhaps eventually encounter the radical phrase and Bechdelian” Chloe loved Olivia. “A Room of One’s Own” was published in 1929, the same year as the American publication of “Quartet”, although, as far as I know, Woolf never read Jean Rhys. But I like to think that, if she had, she might have been stopped by the new reality of, say, this: “Julia sat down at her usual table, put her newspaper in front of her, and read while she ate.” Or – more bitter observation – of Anna Morgan, eighteen years old, returning to her first sexual experience, with a man almost twenty years her senior: it would hurt so much.

It’s natural to think of Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys as literary allies, near-contemporaries doing pioneering work at the same time, both adept at building productive lives in the shadow of trauma. But, although Woolf was always a prominent figure, Rhys disappeared from literary existence so much that in 1949, when an actress, Selma Vaz Dias, tried to contact her about the possibility of developing a dramatic adaptation of “Good Morning, Midnight”, she had to resort to a personal announcement appealing to information about the whereabouts of the novelist. “Very tactless of me to be alive,” Rhys later commented.

Vaz Dias eventually managed to create a radio play of the novel on the BBC; she also befriended Rhys and encouraged her to start writing again. It was at Vaz Dias that Rhys first spoke of the project that was to resurrect his reputation: a reframing of “Jane Eyre” from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s crazy Creole wife. He would draw inspiration from Rhys’ childhood in Dominica to imagine the woman’s early life in Jamaica, her arranged marriage to the abusive Mr. Rochester, and the events that led to her being locked away in her attic. Rhys worked on the book in his 60s and 60s, in a precarious state of health and devotedly coaxed by two editors, Diana Athill and Francis Wyndham. Eventually published in 1966 as “Wide Sargasso Sea,” her fifth and final novel became a key text in feminist and postcolonial literature.

In truth, Woolf and Rhys might as well have come from different planets. No one would have had the slightest doubt, hearing the crystal sound of Woolf’s accent, where she was nestled, socially; Rhys was much harder to place and spoke with what Seymour calls “a seemingly ineradicable island melody”. Woolf was born just around the corner from Kensington Palace and, despite her best efforts at Bloomsbury, could never forget her; Rhys was born on a small Caribbean island and seems to have spent her life trying to remember a place that was never quite like her.

Dominica, once a colonial possession of France, was ceded to the British in the early 19th century. Rhys, who was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams, the fourth of five children, is from the equivalent of white aristocracy. His father was a Welsh doctor who arrived in 1881; on his mother’s side, Rhys’s great-grandfather, a Scotsman named James Lockhart, had twice served as governor of Dominica, enriched by his possession of sugar mills and slaves. Lockhart had had two enslaved mistresses, and young Rhys was “dissuaded from befriending any of the darker-skinned Lockhart cousins”, writes Seymour. Rhys herself was a white creole, a term that simply refers to a person of European descent born on the island. But, despite the privilege inherited from his family, his status was ambiguous and uncertain. The ancestral silver had almost disappeared, and at the time of Rhys’ childhood fewer than a hundred Dominicans were white, out of a population of nearly twenty-nine thousand.

For a sensitive child, the confusion of privilege and insignificance, of innocence and historical misdeed, must have been excruciating, surely aggravated by the violence of her upbringing. In an unfinished memoir, “Smile Please,” published just after her death in 1979, Rhys says she appreciated the many ways her father supported and protected her. But the house was mainly run by Rhys’ cruel mother, Minna, and a sadistic nanny, Meta. Minna whipped her daughter on any pretext, or not at all, favored the girl’s two older brothers, and did not encourage her to read. Meta played demeaning jokes at her young charge. She was not allowed to slap the child, but, writes Rhys, “she defended herself by grabbing my shoulders and shaking me violently.”

Seymour powerfully evokes the world from which Rhys never really escaped, that of prejudice, abuse and the shameful offspring of abuse, complicity. In the late thirties, while writing “Hello, Midnight,” Rhys filled the pages of an exercise book with memories of childhood trauma: not only her mother’s brutality, but also the abuse by an older, shadowy man known in the text as Mr. Howard. She was fourteen when she met Mr. Howard; he and his wife were family friends. The abuse was physical (he fondled her breasts) and psychological (he talked about making her his sex slave). She later insisted on the “mental seduction” of these events, and, with fatalistic irony, her own shameful preparation, the strange familiarity of the scene: “Pain humiliation submission is for me. It matched everything I knew about life with everything I had ever felt. It fits like a hook fits an eye.

Researcher Patricia Moran, in her book “Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Trauma”, wrote subtly about how this “seduction” seems to have worked as a “form of acknowledgementfor Rhys, a “confirmation of his own sense of self.” Certainly, Rhys’ writing is tirelessly drawn to scenes of recognition and retreat, to intertwined relationships of identity and power. “As a hook corresponds to an eye” – the very absence of borders of his Dominican world, the erotic proximity of Black and White, paradoxically reinforces the electric distinction of borders.

In his work, Rhys desires darkness and shy away from it. In “Smile Please”, she reveals a childlike desire to go black, how she would run to the mirror in the morning to see if the miraculous transformation had happened. Yet she vengefully describes the hated Meta as “very black” and remembers fighting back during the nanny’s violent shaking by shouting, “Black Devil, Black Devil, Black Devil!”

The same is true between the sexes. In Rhys’ fiction, men and women attract and repel each other like switched magnets, and learn nothing from this doomed back and forth. Tough-minded Laurie tells Anna, in “Journey in the Dark”, “If you give people a handful, they’ll always take it.” The heroines of Rhys know this truth very well but always end up providing people, usually men, with an easy grip.

In 1907, about to turn seventeen, Rhys left Dominica for England, where she was sent to a distinguished girls’ school in Cambridge. She had simply traded an island world for a larger one, and belonged to neither. She found England cold, grey, dark; her classmates made fun of her Caribbean accent and called her Antilles. She did well academically, but her ambitions were theatrical and soon, supported by her father, she enrolled at Sir Herbert Tree’s Theater School in Bloomsbury, the institution now known as RADA. But when her father, struggling with school fees, inquired about his daughter’s prospects and the school principal told him she would never be a serious actress (the Caribbean accent “ineradicable again seems the culprit and the stain), he withdrew his support. A more shy girl would have gone home. Rhys, now eighteen, went to a London theatrical agency and landed a job as backing vocalist on the summer tour of a two-act musical titled ‘Our Miss Gibbs’.

Thus began his hazing at the hands of the demimonde. She had a new name (Ella Grey) and a new identity, but the chorus girl was an inevitably vulnerable figure – young, attractive, poorly paid. A lucky few, Seymour tells us, were picked by wandering aristocrats (one became the Countess of Dudley), but the fate of most of them must have been closer to Rhys’ own experience, the one that she more or less gave to her protagonist Anna Morgan: being picked up – and ultimately dumped, of course – by a wealthy elderly man who was essentially paying for a mistress. Rhys’ first lover was the forty-year-old son of the Governor of the Bank of England. He put her up in nice lodgings, gave her a large clothing allowance, took her to expensive dinner parties, and when she became pregnant, paid for an abortion. In his memoirs, Rhys treats this last event with cutting serenity: “After what was then called an illegal operation, I stayed in a flat in Langham Street. I did not suffer from remorse or guilt.

Money – getting it, losing it, never having enough – runs through Rhys’ life like a watermark through a pound note. She married three times, but her husbands were relatively poor, or criminals, or both; the first and third served time in prison for financial misdeeds. To read her fiction and her biography is to realize that the marriage market for women was hardly less desperate in Rhys’s time than in Jane Austen’s time. A woman without money could become a chorister or governess. (Rhys also dabbled in the latter.) But how could she become a writer, if what was needed was her own bedroom and the five hundred pounds a year prescribed by Virginia Woolf? The heroines of Rhys’ first four novels all live about five pounds from the gutter. In great need of money, they constantly offer “handfuls” to men who seize them greedily. One of these patrons, the repulsive Mr. Horsfield, in “After I’ve Left Mr. Mackenzie,” rightly assumes that Julia Martin comes from “the vast crowd that wears the label ‘No money” from the cradle to the grave”, then concludes that “this one had revolted”. But Julia doesn’t really rebel – she wants Mr. Horsfield’s money and just gives him a hard time. Rhys’ heroines rebel only insofar as they persist in seeing and describing, without illusions, the walls of their prison; in this important sense, Rhys’ works are significant acts of protest. Although his wives don’t step out of the sexual patronage economy, the novels do. To be allowed to read the manner in which Mr Horsfield takes Julia back to her hotel room and, in a gesture of queasy erotic largesse, slips her two banknotes – “He put them in his hand and closed his fingers over them gently” — significantly adds to the stock of reality available. As the next killer line does: “When he did that, he felt powerful and dominant.” One of the most poignant scenes in Rhys’ fiction occurs in “Journey in the Dark,” when Anna’s friend Maudie, a fellow chorister, tells her about the man she wants to marry, a suburban electrical engineer she fears losing. :


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