Posts Tagged ‘Jean Rhys’


One of the best things about social media is how it allows us to share our enthusiasms and discover new ones.

Over on Twitter just lately I have been very much enjoying the #NeglectedLadyNovelists tweets from writer Judith Kinghorn – and the conversations resulting from them. Now I do like a good bit of Twitter banter.

I found the World cup of #NeglectedladyNovelists particularly good fun. Several rounds and a semi-final have come and gone – with Twitter folk having to vote for who they consider the most neglected of the lady novelists in each round. Now, I have always taken my democratic responsibilities very seriously – and so I naturally thought very carefully over my choices. For women writers of a certain period – whether neglected or not – are very much my thing. It was really, really hard – and sparked a bit of debate – for instance in group 1 we had Elizabeth Taylor pitted against Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann, while in group 3 the choice was between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flora Mayor, Storm Jameson and EM Delafield, to me it seemed quite impossible to choose. In each group there were at least two writers I wanted to vote for. In all seriousness I want all these writers to enjoy a resurgence in popularity, that is why I love Persephone books and the VMC publications of the 1980 and 90s so much.

I began to wonder how people were voting – surely if we were looking for those women writers who have become truly neglected then I would have expected the likes of Flora Mayor, EH Young or May Sinclair to have made it through to the final. May Sinclair made it to the semi-finals but neither of the other two did terribly well. It’s hardly surprising that people ended up voting for writers they loved most – and I was guilty of this myself. I couldn’t help but vote for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann as I love them so much. I do, also consider them to be rather neglected, however in truth some of their novels are still in print. Virago still publish three or four Rosamond Lehmann titles – and Selina Hastings’ biography of her is also available. VMC print on demand editions of some Sylvia Townsend Warner novels are available – as well as some NYRB editions (though why they felt it necessary to change the title of Mr Fortune’s Maggot is a mystery) – so are these writers truly neglected? Knowing all this I cast my votes – perhaps wrongly. In truth it is perhaps those writers who work is only to be found on second hand book sites, and on the shelves of (very good) second hand bookshops that are truly neglected – so in some rounds I voted with my heart and not my head. I do feel a little guilty – but at least it has got us all talking about these wonderful women writers, and that can’t be a bad thing. I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Taylor despite my great love of her writing because I can’t honestly say she is as neglected as she once was – that is definitely a good thing. How many of these writers’ works can be found in high street bookshops though is another matter – easily bought from a certain online seller perhaps – but how many times do readers get a chance to idly pick up Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rosamond Lehmann in their local branch of Waterstones I wonder?

When I start thinking about the list of #Neglectedladynovelists I would compile – it begins to get very long. Two writers I have been enjoying during this past week would definitely be on the list; Pamela Frankau and Pamela Hansford Johnson, both very good writers and excellent storytellers.

Many of the other novelists considered under that hashtag however – are exceptionally good writers, women who really did have something to say – they were not merely the tellers of good stories – although they did that too. When I consider the likes of Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, Antonia White and Winifred Holtby and others I am reminded what amazing, varied lives, they all lived. They each had so much to tell us – worlds to show us, so much to say – of course I want more people to read them.

I have wondered before how it is that some writers fall out of favour – while others endure – fashion and tastes change I suppose, and new writers come along. It is sad how many wonderful writers get forgotten during that process – when it comes to books I might sometimes be swayed by a pretty new edition, but I don’t much care about fashions. It is probably unrealistic to expect lots of these writers to be re-issued in shiny new editions – the cost for a publishing company would I suspect be prohibitive.

Still no reason why we who love these #NeglectedLadyNovelists shouldn’t continue to scour the bookshelves of second hand bookshops and celebrate our finds on our favourite social media sites. That way these wonderful voices will still be heard – at least by some of us.

Should you still want to get involved in the chat – the final of the world cup of #NeglectedLadyNovelists is at the end of the week. Make sure you are following @Judithkinghorn if you don’t want to miss it.

The original list has now been whittled down to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys – both truly wonderful writers – but I wonder if you can guess where my vote will be going? If neither of them take your fancy (and why wouldn’t they) who would be your choice of most NeglectedLadyNovelist?

(Incidentally, Sylvia Townsend Warner will be the Libraything Virago Group’s author of the month in December – and I am going to be re-reading Lolly Willowes as I have persuaded my very small book group to read it in December.)


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My second read for #ReadingRhys week was Good Morning, Midnight, a novel exploring the same kinds of themes as her first novel Quartet which I reviewed earlier this week. Published more than ten years after Quartet, it shows Rhys still concerned with the fate of the single, lone woman, vulnerable and isolated.

Good Morning, Midnight is every bit as affecting and powerful as Quartet, for the life Rhys portrays is bleak. Here is the world of the dispossessed, the powerless, the damaged and those who damage. It is a world of shabby, colourless rooms in hotels where no one would stay if they had any other choice.

Our narrator is Sophie (Sasha) Jansen, a woman a little older than Marya in Quartet, she has returned to Paris from London. She has failed at a series of unsatisfying jobs since leaving her former profession of mannequin. Early in the novel we witness Sasha abruptly leave her job as a shop assistant in a dress shop. She seems powerless to stick up for herself, walking away with barely a murmur. Everything she might say remains locked inside.

“You, who represent Society, have the right 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, there’s no denying it. So you have the right to pay me four hundred francs a month, to lodge me in a small, dark room, to clothe me shabbily, to harass me with worry and monotony and unsatisfied longings till you get me to the point when I blush at a look, cry at a word.”

Now she is considering drinking herself to death and dying her hair blonde.

Sasha’s room is a sad, dispiriting place. Her neighbour who strides around in a long white dressing gown un-nerves her, but really this room so representative of her life, is just one in a long series of such rooms. Needing to appeal to friends in England for money, the fur coat she wears the only sign of better times.

“A room is, after all, a place where you hide from the wolves. That’s all any room is.”

Sasha’s story moves back and forth in time, her perspective shifting from her time in London to her time in Paris, from the time she was married, to the time she is alone again. Her life in Paris moves between a variety of cafes and bars, places where she is known, some she wants only to avoid, and places where she encounters the men with who only succeed in making her lonelier than ever. We find her sobbing in public, uncomfortable in the presence of strangers. Yet her position toward the bottom of this society lends her an empathy with the dispossessed or vulnerable people she meets. Perhaps in them she recognises something of herself.

“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.”

From the start we sense a tragedy lurking in the past, and a hopelessness in her future, Sasha is a woman who is lost, she feels out of step with society. Continually telling herself that she must do this or that in order to be like everyone else, she manages nevertheless to be always out of step with the society she sees around her. The men she meets now or has in her past are men who can only ever hurt her. Men like her husband Enno, and drifters like the gigolo and the Russian artists she encounters.

readingrhysIn many ways Good Morning, Midnight hasn’t very much in the way of plot, but it doesn’t really require one. Rhys’s portrayal of desolation is tinged with dark humour, but it is the hopelessness which remains. Sasha is one of the faceless members of society that those whose lives are going well don’t really notice, she exists only on the edges.

As with Quartet I found Rhys’s depiction of a broken woman to be brutally poignant. Sasha’s voice is cynical and immediately chilling.

Strangely, perhaps I finished this novel sitting in a café bar alone, eating my evening meal and waiting for friends (I was early, I always am). It was a suitable place, although the novel itself ends – for me at least – with a shudder, that may haunt me for a little while.


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When Jean Rhys reading week was announced by joint hosts Jacqui and Eric, I suggested Quartet to my very small book group. We’re meeting on Wednesday evening to discuss it – smack bang in the middle of #ReadingRhys week – perfect timing.

Quartet was Jean Rhys’s first novel, coming a year after a collection of short stories she had produced with some help from writer Ford Maddox Ford. It is the first of four novels which are said to be highly autobiographical. Rhys’s unhappy love affairs and her time living in Paris seem to have influenced her writing. Around the time that Rhys was writing Quartet – she was living in Paris with Ford Maddox Ford and his common-law-wife (as it was then termed) Stella Bowen. The couple are fictionalised here in the characters of the Heidlers.

Marya Zelli is a young Englishwoman, married to Stephan, a Pole, the two are, superficially at least happy, Stephen ekes out a living for the two of them in Paris somehow. They live a disorganised kind of life, Marya never asking questions to which she may not want the answers, never questioning where their small amount of money comes from. Despite being twenty-eight – Marya frequently seems much younger.

“Stephan was secretive and a liar, but he was a very gentle and expert lover. She was the petted, cherished child, the desired mistress, the worshipped, perfumed goddess. She was all these things to Stephan – or so he made her believe.”

When Stephen is arrested, and then imprisoned for theft, Marya is left penniless, with no way of making a living, and it appears no one to help her. H J and Lois Heidler are a well to do couple, they are keen to take Marya under their wing, inviting her to move in with them. Marya is unsure, reluctant – she appeals to her husband on visiting day, he tells her to take them up on their offer. Marya is a woman who frequently seems unable to make decisions for herself, everything she does in this novel is directed by one of the other three people in the quartet of the title. readingrhys

Soon after going to live with the Heidlers, Heidler makes advances to Marya, and she finds herself becoming more and more drawn to him, almost despite herself. Strangely, Lois Heidler is completely complicit in her husband’s pursuit of Marya. Marya is alone, penniless, with no resources she is torn between wanting to flee the peculiar and unsettling situation she finds herself in, and the knowledge that she has nothing else.

“ ‘I’ve realised, you see, that life is cruel and horrible to unprotected people. I think life is cruel. I think people are cruel.’ All the time she spoke she was thinking: ‘Why should I tell her all this?’ But she felt impelled to go on. ‘I may be completely wrong, of course, but that’s how I feel. Well, I’ve got used to the idea of facing cruelty. One can, you know. The moment comes when even the softest person doesn’t care a damn any more; and that’s a precious moment. One oughtn’t to waste it. You’re wonderfully kind, but if I come to stay with you it’ll only make me soft and timid and I’ll have to start getting hard all over again afterwards. I don’t suppose,’ she added hopelessly, ‘that you understand what I mean a bit.”

Marya is trapped into this ménage à trois, a victim of the society in which she lived. A society where women with no money and no husband or family are prey to the wealthy and or disreputable, who may not have their best interests at heart. Marya considers her lot alongside that of the prostitutes, she appears accepting of the idea of her body, and sex as being her only asset, not once does she consider any other possible way of living.

Marya becomes Heidler’s mistress, he and Lois direct everything she does. They advise her to leave Stephen to not visit him in prison. Yet, Marya does visit her unreliable husband, every week but one, for the entire year he is locked up. Marya knows that when Stephan is released he will be expelled from Paris, and now she is becoming increasingly dependent upon Heidler – needing him, in a way that suits him perfectly. The Heidlers are manipulative and unpleasant, their motives difficult to understand – perhaps they’re not important. Marya is helpless, incapable of changing her course, listless and depressed, she is also hard to sympathise with.

“He was still looking steadily at her. His eyes were clear, cool and hard, but something in the depths of them flickered and shifted. She thought: ‘He’d take any advantage he could — fair or unfair. Caddish he is.’ Then as she stared back at him she felt a great longing to put her head on his knees and shut her eyes. To stop thinking. Stop the little wheels in her head that worked incessantly. To give in and have a little peace. The unutterably sweet peace of giving in.”

In this novel Jean Rhys shows herself a master of imagery and place, the world of 1920’s Paris is brilliantly recreated, a world of café bars, restaurants and Paris streets in winter. The whole novel is wonderfully cinematic. There’s a mood, matching the dark heart of this novel which is intimately poignant and quite disturbing. The ending shocked me, there’s a pessimistic realism to it that made absolute sense however – I’ll say no more than that.

Quartet is a wonderful first novel, beautifully written and atmospheric, I was forced to read it quite slowly for various reasons, I’m rather glad I did. I have read Wide Sargasso Sea two or three times, and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, but I am now looking forward to exploring more Jean Rhys novels, starting with Good Morning Midnight, which I hope to review at the end of the week.


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“There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

Wide Sargasso Sea, a book I had read twice before and of which I had very good memories was chosen by my book group, so I was pleased to have an excuse to re-read it. Although – as is often the mysterious way with books we’ve loved in the past – I found I no longer had my old copy with its lovely vibrant cover, so I bought a new edition, with a rather less vibrant cover.

Set against a backdrop of lush, Jamaican plantations suffused with tropical colour, there is a languid rhythm to Rhys’ prose which seems to echo the land in which we find ourselves.

Jean Rhys’ inspiration for this novel was of course the nineteenth century classic Jane Eyre (one of my favourite books). Bringing the madwoman out of the attic, and exploring the woman of whom we catch only glimpses of in that famous, earlier novel. In this novel Rhys explores the imagined childhood, adolescence and young womanhood of ‘Bertha’, showing us how, struggling to find her place within an oppressive patriarchal society driven by questions of race, she came to be the mad woman in the attic at Thornfield Hall. From early privilege in Jamaica, to poverty; we watch Antoinette’s final descent into ‘madness’ and incarceration.

Born into the suffocating colonialist society of early nineteenth century Jamaica, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway was allowed to run rather wild as a young girl. The daughter of a former slave owner – Antoinette grows up in a world where colour is at the heart of all communities – it dictates who has the power – who is accepted and who isn’t. As she grows up Antoinette begins to realise that her position as a creole is a difficult one, belonging to neither the white European world or to the black Jamaican community. Antoinette’s father is dead, and eventually her beautiful, vague mother re-marries Mr Mason, who has a son from his first marriage; Richard – a man with who readers of Jane Eyre will be familiar.

A fire at the family home has catastrophic consequences, her mother is traumatised, taken away to get better and Antoinette is sent to a boarding school. Antoinette has little contact with her mother after that, and eventually she too dies, and Antoinette’s fate is in the hands of her stepfather and his son.

A marriage to a wealthy Englishman is arranged – a marriage Antoinette has doubts about herself – doubts she allows her fiancé who she barely knows to brush aside. Antoinette has a particularly close relationship with her old nurse Christophine, who is openly distrustful of the Englishman – who Rhys never actually names, the reader is left to assume his identity. During this section of the novel the perspective shifts between Antoinette and her husband. He is a man immediately at odds with his surroundings, suspicious of the local community – he is ripe to be swayed by rumour and conjecture.

“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”

Daniel; a local mixed race man – claiming to be Antoinette’s illegitimate half-brother, writes spiteful little notes to the Englishman, slowly dripping the poison necessary to add credence to his already raised suspicions. Daniel speaks of madness in the family, allows Antoinette’s husband to believe himself to have been deliberately deceived. He re-names his new wife Bertha – a name he claims to prefer – a name Antoinette dislikes, as so often her opinion is not listened to or acted upon. Her, name and her voice taken away by men, her mental state questioned – how easy it becomes to call a woman mad.

Antoinette, already emotionally vulnerable, and with her trusty nurse’s suspicion ringing in her ears, is devastated by her husband’s betrayal of her, and the apparent failure of her marriage. Becoming paranoid her behaviour becomes more erratic seeming only to confirm the spiteful whispers her husband has been listening to.

“If I was bound for hell, let it be hell. No more false heavens. No more damned magic. You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing.”

In the final part of the novel, Bertha – as she is now called – is locked away at the top of a great house in England. In the care of a woman named Grace, she awaits the promised visits from her husband that never come – and gradually becomes aware of the visitors to the house – a whole world taking place beneath her feet to which she is not admitted.

This was a really wonderful re-read, the imagery is rich and evocative. I was surprised how much I had forgotten in the last fifteen years or so, and how much more I got from the novel now, that I suppose is the real pleasure of re-reading.


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