Friday, January 19, 2018

Jean Rhys: Voyage of a Writer

Nan Robertson

THERE she sat, as fragile and exotic as an orchid, in the ‘watery light of a London winter afternoon. Jean Rhys was wearing a Jean Muir cape‐dress that flowed from neck to slippers and took the breath away. It was mohair jersey, of an intense, radiant lavender mixed with periwinkle blue that exactly matched her eyes. A young man who met her recently said of those eyes gazing out of a white, powdered face under a fluffy aureole of white hair, “My God. They go all the way to China.”

The reclusive and mysteriops woman whom A. Alvarez, the critic and author, called “the best living English novelist” in an essay written for The New York Times four years ago, is now 83 years old. Bent with age and health, resisting interviews, which terrify her, refusing be photographed, which terrifies her even more, she still beautiful, still made up daily as if she were going tea at the Savoy—and she is still writing.

Miss Rhys is working on her autobiography in two little, cluttered rooms where she has spent the last four winters away from her remote cottage in Devon, whence she fled, she said, from drafts, spiders and loneliness. Her cold‐weather refuge is on the top floor of a three‐story house owned by her friends George Melly, a celebrated English jazz singer, and his wife, Diana, a writer. The front windows by her bed overlook a melancholy street of identical, dark brick row houses; the back view is of a lushly green, hilly meadow at the edge of Hampstead Heath.

Throughout a three‐hour conversation, the author's manner was shy, gentle and polite, but as she relaxed, sipping her way through a Ingle of champagne a visitor had brought, there were bursts of merriment, too, and snatch of anecdote, reminiscence and poetry. A recording of Mr. Melly singing "One More for My Baby”—“now it's my song,” she said—brought her to tears.

She has a tiny, whispery voice that travels about 12 inches, punctuated by an abrupt, rich laugh. Often, when she laughed, her hands flew up to cover her face.

She said of her autobiography: “I think I've got almost all of the material I want for the first part, but it isn't smooth. I've almost despaired —— .” Mrs. Melly prompted her, “You've got three or four chapters absolutely right and ready for typing.”

Miss Rhys went on, “Several years ago I stopped writing it because of the short stories. I'm rather sorry. It would have been better to go on with the autobiography. David Plante — he's very clear‐headed, a writer and a friend—is helping me to pull it all together.” The collection of stories she was referring to, “Sleep It Off, Lady,” was published by Harper & Row in 1976.

She has had quite a life to look back on. It has never been “respectable” or comfortable, and much of her shadowy existence has already been revealed. It is contained chiefly in a series of books written between the two World Wars, republished in the 1960's and 70's on both sides of the Atlantic. Of these, “Good Morning, Midnight” has been acclaimed as a masterpiece.

Miss Rhys said, “If you want to write the truth, you must write about yourself. I am the only real truth I know.”

Jean Rhys (pronounced “Rees”) was born Aug. 24, 1894, in Roseau, Dominica, and was educated at the convent school there. Her father was a Welsh doctor, her mother a Creole—a white West Indian whose family had long lived in the Windward Islands. “Wide Sargasso Sea,” published in 1966 when she was 72—her first novel after an almost total silence of 27 years, also hailed as a masterpiece—is her only novel with this Caribbean setting.

“I came to London when I was 16 years of age,” Miss Rhys said. “I never read anything, not even a newspaper, for four years.” She left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art after one term upon the death of her father; forced to work from then on, she joined a musical comedy company as a chorus girl and toured the English provinces.

“Then something happened that made me very sad, she said, “and wrote it down and I looked at it and I put it away and never looked at it again.” That was In 1914; she was 20 years old.

She eked out an always precarious existence as a canteen worker, fashion mannequin, artist's model, a ghostwriter for a book on 18th‐century furnishings. Her first husband—a Dutch-French poet, singer and gypsy journalist—took her to Vienna, Budapest and finally Paris, which cast its spell on her and her work forever. Few have ever told more harrowingly what it was like to be down and out in Paris—and London—and yet Jean Rhys recalled with relish the great Left Bank cafes, such as the Dome and the Coupole and the Rotunde.“Paris sort of lifted you up. It did, it did, it did!” she whispered. “You know, the light is quite pink, instead of being yellow or blue. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else.”

Her first and greatest literary mentor in Paris was Ford Madox Ford, then editor of TheT ransatlantic Review; he saw her diaries, urged her to write for publication and offered her advice, encouragement and the cash she needed even more urgently after her marriage broke up.

The first Rhys book, short stories called “The Left Bank,” came out in 1927 with an enthusiastic preface by Ford.

“That was the start of it,” she said. “I never wanted to write at all, but of course I did discover that if you write you can forget, and so I did it again and again.”

At this point, without preamble and going lickety‐split, with gusts of laughter from her listeners, Miss Rhys launched into the first two verses of “You Are Old, Father William,” from “Alice's Adventures .in Wonderland”:

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said

“And your hair has become very white;

“And yet you incessantly stand on your head—

“Do you think, at your age, it right?”

She wound up breathless and triumphant with:

“In my. youth,” Father William replied to his son,

“I feared it might injure the brain; “But, now that I'm perfectly sure

I have none, “Why, I do it again and again.”

Then the author settled back to pick up the thread of her narrative: the critical successes of her first novel, “Quartet” (1928); followed by “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie” (1930); her favorite and most autobiographical novel, “Voyage in the Dark” (1934); and "Good Morning, Midnight” (1939). Although by then married to her second husband, a publisher's reader, and living in England, “I always rushed back to Paris with what royalties there were.”

All told the same tale, all had the same heroine by different names, all painted “the same background of seedy hotels and bed‐sitters for transients in Montparnasse and Bloomsbury,” A. Alvarez wrote. “And they recount the single, persistent, disconnected disaster of a life in which only three things can be relied on: fear, loneliness and the lack of money.”

After the publication of “Good Morning, Midnight,” eclipse.

Jean Rhys stopped writing and retired to the country. World War broke out, literary London forgot her, her books went out of print.

Then, in 1958, after the BBC broadcast a dramatized version of “Good Morning, Midnight,” she was finally traced to an address in Cornwall. Her second husband had died. She was married to Max Hamer, a poet and re- tired naval officer, now also dead. She had a collection of unpublished short stories and she was at work on another novel.

That novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” rewritten many times, was published by Andre Deutsch in 1966. It was a hallucinating fantasy about the early life of the first Mrs. Rochester—the mad Creole wife of Charlotte Bronte's “Jane Eyre.”

Literary awards, stunned praise, the republishing of Jean Rhys's earlier books came tumbling after. In 1970 John Leonard wrote for The New York Times that what was astonishing about “Good Morning, Midnight” was how the novel “stands up after three decades,” an expression of a sensibility “that seems in turn to have informed the sensibilities of later writers like Doris Lessing and Joan Didion.”

In 1974, her first post‐World War stories, called “Tigers Are Better Looking,” finally came out in the United States.

Of that prolonged silence, those years underground, Miss Rhys would now say only: “I didn't want to write. wasn't any good anymore. I didn't want to write for a long time.”

Pause. She brightened, and smoothed her beautiful gown, the kind of “dream dress” she repeatedly wrote about with such swift strokes yet such mouth-watering detail. She said, “But when I'm being forced to write, it's rather nice for me because it makes me independent.”

Then she said: “If I'm lucky enough to be able to write I forget everything else. If not, I have a drink.”

“Do I like the country? No I don't, frankly. I like seeing the sun rise and the sun set from my kitchen windows. It's a nice thing to get up very early knowing that nobody else is awake. I used to feel like working when I first woke up'.”

Now, in Devon, she may lie abed and smoke and fix some tea. “The postman comes at 7 o'clock.” He is her first, and for weeks at a time, her only certain visitor.

Despite the depressions of old age, she said, there are compensations. “It's lovely to do what you like and think when you like and work when you like and read thrillers. That's my great thing now, but gee, I must say, Americans can dream up such horrors.” She has just read Sidney Sheldon's “The Other Side of Midnight” and its sequel. “The sequel's quite awful,” Miss Rhys said with a giggle. “Everybody gets tortured.”

She has tentatively chosen the title of her autobiography. She blurted it out, then made everybody swear never to tell it. “It's bad luck, to tell it before the book is done,” she said. “My dear, there is no superstition on earth I haven't got.”

Suddenly, she looked exhausted in the gathering dusk.“Well, I'll leave you to your twilight,” the visitor said. “I'll leave you to your twilight,” she repeated, musing, “That's a lovely title, isn't it?”

Diana Melly held her arm as she moved, very slowly, past the table and the mantelpiece crowded with books and beauty products, to her bed.

She’ sank down in her lavender gown against the pillows. “Oh, lovely bed,” she sighed. “Lovely, lovely bed.”

Credits:  This articles was originally published in 1978 in The New York Times.

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