Nobody writes like Jean Rhys. Comes near it.
She defies categorization. If you read her books, Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight and After Leaving Mr. Mackensie, for example, you may find yourself unable to think of any other books to compare them to—except another book by Jean Rhys.
She may be best known for her book, Wide Sargasso Sea, a follow-up to Jane Eyre. But that book is not what I think of when I think of Jean Rhys’ writing.
Born in Dominica in 1890, she died in England in 1979, having lived her life mostly in literary obscurity. Much of her writing concerns women who are desperate and in despair, usually after a love affair gone wrong, and usually broke and in very reduced circumstances. Rhys never flinches. She stares it all in the eye with her deceptively simple prose, and writes about fear and loneliness and loss of dignity with great searing bravery. This is not about being selectively confessional—and aren't all confessions selective? This is about standing naked before the reader.
Every time I read this passage from Good Morning, Midnight, I wonder if I will ever have the guts to write like her, with such cold-eyed candor. The heroine, down and out, is thinking about her situation:
“On the contrary, it’s when I am quite sane like this, when I have a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realize how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something….Never mind, here I am, sane and dry, with my place to hide in. What more do I want?...I’m a bit of an automaton, but sane, surely—dry, cold and sane. Now I have forgotten about dark streets, dark rivers, the pain, the struggle and the drowning….Mind you, I’m not talking about the struggle when you are strong and a good swimmer and there are willing and eager friends on the bank waiting to pull you out at the first sign of distress. I mean the real thing. You jump in with no willing and eager friends around, and when you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter.”
In later life, when fame and honors were bestowed, she said, simply, "It has come too late."
But there are the books.
Thank you for this inspiration, Richard. Just what I needed.
Thanks for this post, Richard. It is remarkable that Rhys's exceedingly difficult life was fodder for her steely determination to WRITE, which she did so brilliantly. I'm rereading Wide Sargasso Sea, an utterly gripping book. Thank you too for the pithy excerpt from Good Morning, Midnight, which I look forward to rereading (I read her books so long ago). Have you read the piece about Jean Rhys in the recent New Yorker?