by Chris Power)
"Too bitter," Jean Rhys said of her work in 1945. "And besides, who wants short stories?" No one did then, at least not hers. Rhys published her first collection in 1927, and her first novel the following year. In the 1930s came three increasingly dark and accomplished novels, but the better she got, the less she was read. She published nothing for 20 years, until stories began appearing in the London Magazine in the early 1960s. In 1966, her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, brought her acclaim and a degree of financial security at the age of 76. Another two short-story collections appeared before her death in 1979. They include some of the best British short stories of the last century.
The Left Bank, Rhys's debut collection, which Ford Madox Ford helped bring to publication, comprises a series of modernist fragments in which hard-up bohemians get mournfully smashed in Paris: "But there she was stony-broke and with a hand that was rapidly losing its cunning, seeking oblivion in a cheap Montparnasse café." Much of it resembles the most insubstantial parts of Maupassant. The best thing in it by far is the long closing story, Vienne, which describes a relationship disintegrating as a couple move through a corrupt and crumbling Europe.
As with the vast majority of Rhys's stories, Vienne was heavily autobiographical. The extent to which Rhys drew on her own life means her stories and novels contain many repeating elements: a childhood on the Caribbean island of Dominica, English public school and stage school, chorus-line work, hard times in Paris, Bloomsbury bedsits, exploitation, alcoholism, depression, and the loneliness of the perennial outsider. Her protagonists appear on a spectrum between distress and desolation, with little hope of escape. "How few people", we are told of one, "understood what a tightrope she walked or what would happen if she slipped. The abyss. Despair. All those things."
"All those things"; Rhys's style, casual at a glance but devastatingly exact when considered closely, developed rapidly throughout the 1930s (despite not appearing until the 1960s and 70s, most of her best short stories were written in the late 30s and early 40s). She can execute an array of powerful effects, from the stunning, cadenza-like torrent of loosely associated words and phrases that ends Tigers Are Better-Looking, or the eerie gothic of Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers, to Selina's stylised Martiniquaise patios in Let Them Call It Jazz. And, whichever mode she is operating in, her prose remains, as Al Alvarez judged, contemporary in the way a poem by Donne is contemporary: you hear her voice speaking directly to you; her reality is your reality. It is a prose close to poetry not in the lush sense usually implied by the term "poetic prose", but because it is condensed, elliptical, emotionally precise.
Given her dismal subject matter, if Rhys's prose weren't so extraordinary it would be difficult to read her. Rhys's emotional precision focuses chiefly on the dissection of loneliness. Her women encounter men who function, VS Naipaul notes, as "arbitrary providers of dinners, rooms, clothes", but this isn't a world of courtship and marriage. This is a world of transient relationships based on sex, not love. "No homes are entered," Naipaul continues, "the metropolis is reduced to a few cafés, boarding houses, and hotels."
The subject of Till September Petronella, one of Rhys's best stories, embodies this marginalised position. Petronella Gray is an ex-chorus line girl scraping a living as an artist's model. Accepting an offer to escape her drab bedsit and stay with an admirer at his cottage in the Cotswolds, she is treated by his other guests first with snobbish disdain, then outright hostility. Leaving, she encounters a farmer who tries to set her up as a lover he can call on when he visits London. "A bit of loving," he tells her, "[a]ll women like that. They like it dressed up and sometimes – and sometimes not … they like pretty dresses and bottles of scent, and bracelets with blue stones in them." Back in the city, Petronella picks up a man called Melville at a taxi rank. They go for dinner, have sex, and when he drops her home she mocks the memory of the farmer by telling Melville to bring her "a gold bracelet with blue stones in it".
Before he goes, Petronella tells Melville about a stage manager who pulled her out of the chorus and gave her a line. But on her cue she froze, and in that terrible moment looked into the face of a man in the front row. "'Help me, tell me what I have forgotten'", she remembers thinking:
But though he had looked, as it seemed, straight into my eyes, and though I was sure he knew exactly what I was thinking, he had not helped me. He had only smiled. He had left me in that moment that seemed like years standing there …
This is surely one of the moments Michael Wood was thinking of when he wrote, "Jean Rhys's women go under because they are imprisoned in their isolation and no one has the generosity to visit them there." Throughout Rhys's works, this sometimes uncaring, sometimes hostile response emanates not only from people, but also from nature and the physical world. London's streets are "a grey nightmare in the sun"; a mirror is "malevolent with age"; a dripping tap plays "a gay and horrible tune"; an early spring day is "heartless" and "acid, like an unripe gooseberry"; in more than one story, trees are "tormented" by the wind; the sky has "no colour", or it is a white glare, or it is, when Rhys is at her most direct, "the colour of no hope".
It is not surprising that this harsh environment should provoke so much psychic distress. The Sound of the River, I Spy a Stranger, Outside the Machine and The Lotus are just a few of the more memorable of Rhys's stories that address mental illness. Petronella Gray confides that when she gets anxious the thought comes to her "suddenly, like a revelation, that I could kill myself any time I liked and so end it. After that I put a better face on things". And although it might sound unlikely, Petronella is upbeat for a Rhys heroine. But then she is still young, and hasn't yet incurred the critical – and in Rhys's universe unavoidable – amount of damage that will break her will. Selina strikes a note of defiance at the end of Let Them Call It Jazz, but here, too, the feeling arises that over time she might become just like another Martiniquaise in Rhys's fiction: the pitiful one we witness offering herself up to a stranger in Rhys's 1939 novel, Good Morning, Midnight, "'crying because she was at the end of everything'".
For Rhys's characters, the journey through life is less an arc than a steep slide, and lying at the bottom of it is Miss Verney. The subject of Rhys's late and great story Sleep It Off Lady, Miss Verney lives in drunken, genteel poverty in a small country cottage. There is a galvanised iron shed in her garden, "astonishingly large, the end almost dark". She wants it removed, but as a builder explains the size of the job she suddenly realises that the shed, and the objects around it, will all outlast her:
Long after she was dead and her cottage had vanished it would survive. The tin bucket and the rusty lawnmower, the pieces of rag fluttering in the wind. All would last for ever.
The menacing shed, and the rats she believes infest it, obsess her. Her neighbour, friendly in the past, becomes mocking. Miss Verney's unease grows. Then, just as Rhys allows us to think things might improve, the old woman falls while taking out the rubbish. She lies propped against the dustbin on the cold shed floor, waiting for a rat to detach itself from the shadows. People pass by on the lane without hearing her cries. A little girl sees her, but thinks she has been drinking – "'Everybody knows that you shut yourself up to get drunk'" – and skips away. So there Miss Verney lies, as a "numb weak feeling slowly took possession of her. Stronger than cold. Stronger than fear. It was a great unwillingness to do anything more at all". Her savagely bleak situation is an appropriate terminus for Jean Rhys's fiction.
Next: Isak Dinesen