It’s not at all a surprise that Jean Rhys’s novels – all of which are written from the perspective of a woman disappointed in a man whom she thought would take care of her – are autobiographical. Her editor late in her life, Diana Athill, said that they had to be autobiographical, because her whole aim was to find out the truth about her own life. Biographer Carole Angier elaborates that the self she wanted to understand was not the writer, but the woman who longed to be happy, and who was so unhappy.
Angier’s brief biography of the paranoid, alcoholic child-woman identifies the succession of faux saviors were and records the miracle that this human wreckage managed to turn the disasters of her long-lasting but only very briefly happy liaisons into the bleak but not self-pitying autofiction, particularly in her masterpieces, Good Morning, Midnight, and, more than a quarter of a century later, Wide Sargasso Sea.
As a child of a marginal white family on the Caribbean island of Dominica, Gwen Williams, who would later change her name to “Jean Rhys,” already felt estranged. She had high hopes of the legendary London, but found it dark and cold, filled with unglamorous and unfriendly people. After her father died back in Dominica, she quit school and went on the stage. Stage-fright, rats in the dressing rooms of the chorus girls, and the eternal coldness of theaters and theatrical lodgings led her to give up a career she had found not all glamorous.
She acquired what she most wanted, a rich and respectable protector who supported her and-for a time-loved her. He continued to have money given to her after breaking off seeing her. Her neediness (and querulousness?) drove her two respectable middle-class husbands to drink and crime (fraud) and prison. Eventually, she was sentenced to jail time for assaulting a neighbor who unquestionably hated her, an instance of the saw that paranoiacs may have some real enemies.
Too late, she felt, particularly when it involved being photographed, her work was discovered (the pre-WWII novels can hardly be said to have been “rediscovered,” since none of them was a commercial success – not even Good Morning, Midnight (1939), which had received some excellent reviews but was too bleak and too narrowly focused on “private” (and female!) sorrow to receive much attention as the world turned to war.
Angier is very good in explicating what is great about Wide Sargasso Sea, as well as on the challenges to this nearly solipsistic writer of, for the first time, taking the perspective of someone other than her alter ego into representation. The characters not drawn from her own experiences and feelings in her earlier work were the way the wronged women saw them. But Mr. Rochester is a character in his own write (part II of the novel is told form his perspective) who suffers, as well as inflicting suffering on the delicate, romantic female. He is, far and away, the most rounded male character in the body of Rhys’s fiction.
That Rhys was able to write a book at all after years of alcohol abuse, malnutrition, and paranoia is astonishing. That this septuagenarian alcoholic wreck was able to write a great book is difficult to believe, but in the darkest of her many dark times (the years around 1950), she wrote that “if I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people, but it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death.” As Angier wrote, “She had been given an enormous gift of knowing how to write, she had not been given the gift of knowing how to live,” although her “frailty hid an extraordinary tenacity.”
What Rebecca West wrote in reviewing After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie in 1931 – “It is doubtful if one ought to open this volume unless one is happily married, immensely rich, and in robust health; for if one is not entirely free from misery when one opens the book one will be at the suicide point long before one closes it.” – would be a useful warning tag on Angier’s biography of Rhys, too.
There are photos of the main characters in the life of Williams/Rhys, most of them male.
This seems to me to fit within “history” for Women’s History Month.