Monday, April 23, 2007

For all the fools and all the defeated

And the dreams that you have, alone in an empty room, waiting for the door that will open, the thing that is bound to happen ... Good Morning, Midnight (1939)

Jean Rhys (1890-1979), born in Dominica in the West Indies, seems to have always existed on the periphery of literary greatness. Few seem to know her but those that do often love her work (I am one of those devotees - we are an ardent and devoted sect). I was reminded of her again when reading Heather O'Neill's book Lullabies for Little Criminals as she cites Rhys as one of her influences. Her work has been described as "more or less autobiographical" and often dealt with the theme of a helpless female, an outsider, an alcoholic, who is "victimized by her dependence on an older man for support and protection". More biographical info is available on the link above.

Lovely, troubled, and nomadic, she flitted restlessly throughout England and Europe. She moved to England at the age of sixteen and studied briefly at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Rather than return to Dominica when her father died she worked as a chorus girl in a touring musical company and then volunteered in a soldiers' canteen during WWI. In 1920s Paris she was, for a time, under the patronage of the writer Ford Madox Ford. Perhaps that is too gentle a euphemism but he did seem to be genuinely supportive of her both emotionally and financially for a time. Their relationship is immortalized in her 1939 novel After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (for his version of the affair see When the Wicked Man (1931)). If you look into the biblical phrase from which that title is derived you might have a sense of his take on the whole relationship.

She was thoroughly modern in that she did not cloak the often mercenary nature of men and women at their worst in their pursuit of sex, money or status. Her writing reflected her immense sorrows and losses unflinchingly. In Good Morning Midnight, the protagonist Sasha says, while she is being humiliated by a supervisor in the small shop where she works briefly, in a long interior monologue, "You have the right to to pay me four hundred francs a month. That's my market value, for I am an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray ... We can't all be happy, we can't all be rich, we can't all be lucky ... There must be the dark background to show up the bright colours."

Earlier she cries, at the sight of an older balding woman, a prospective customer, fitting various pieces of costume jewellery, combs and feathers to the remains of her thinning hair, while the woman's daughter impatiently urges her to leave, embarrassed by her vanity perhaps. Sasha bolts from the room and cries senselessly "for all the fools and all the defeated". Mistreated, rootless, victimized ... these are often words used to describe Rhys' life and that of her characters (often they appear interchangeable). One can't help but see the scrawny, abused kitten that Sasha takes in in the novel Good Morning, Midnight as a metaphor for Sasha herself even as the kitten, shooed away by the exasperated Sasha eventually, is almost instantly killed by a taxi.

But Rhys is more than these things. She is brave, wounded by, but unafraid of, society's judgments, truly fearless. It's fair to say that the plots and sentiments are disconcertingly similar and bear the stamp of bitter experience. The same lost women seem to haunt every novel and the short stories. Marya's husband Stephan is imprisoned for fraudulent activities and she is taken under the wing of the well meaning Heidlers in Quartet (1929), a not so veiled nod to to what actually happened to Rhys when her French-Dutch husband was imprisoned in the 1920s. Her affair with Ford began then while he was married.

Julia Martin searches for love after her relationship with Mr. Mackenzie ends (again the lover is patterned on Ford Madox Ford) in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931). In Voyage in the Dark (1934), the book chronicles the misadventures of Anna Morgan, a West Indian born girl who comes to England and becomes a chorus girl. Tigers are Better Looking (1968), a collection of short stories, depict women living in despair, often recovering from failed romances and too much alcohol.

Only one character that I've come across in Rhys' oeuvre, Antoinette Bertha Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) modeled on Bertha Rochester from Jane Eyre, destroys the template by immolating herself while locked in Rochester's house. And she almost succeeds in destroying Rochester himself. Perhaps this was fitting as this is the book that received the most acclaim for Rhys after a life of relative obscurity.

Rhys' work remains dark, disturbing and true. Perhaps she suffered too much from what she described as:
"The perpetual hunger to be beautiful and the thirst to be loved which is the real curse of Eve." ~ from the short story "Illusion", The Left Bank (1927)