Jean Rhys

Reading Jean Rhys

I did not know who was behind Bertha Mason.

Jane Eyre’s mad-woman in the attic seemed utterly mad, and a fantastic plot point to hinder Jane’s marriage to her savagely vulnerable and brooding Mr Rochester.

Then I read Wide Sargasso Sea.

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self,’ Christophine said.

Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890. Her father was a Welsh doctor and her mother was a white Creole, and Jean Rhys clung to her difference in her life and in her writings. Distrusted by both black and white, once hailed as a ‘white cockroach’, Jean grew up shy and lonely, yet longing to be black. She thought black people to be more alive and she by nature seemed lazy, almost dull. She watched every thing as if from behind herself.

Reading Jean Rhys can be a despairing activity. She dispenses with illusions.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester makes Antoinette drunk with lovemaking. He ‘breaks her up’ through his own fear of ‘the other’ and sense of being a failure to his father. He uses whatever weapon he has to subdue his wife and he changes her name. To be broken, to be cut down, to be made invisible or mad is an image that Jean Rhys’s protagonists often used to describe themselves. They look into themselves or into the faces of others and they see the solitary horror.

As she put on her hat she stared at herself in the looking-glass. She told herself, ‘I must get some new clothes. That’s the first thing to do.’ And she longed for someone to whom she might say: ‘I don’t look so bad, do I? I’ve still got something to fight the world with, haven’t I? (Julia in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie).

Or as Sasha (Good Morning Midnight) contemplates buying a hat, she watches a woman watch herself in a mirror:

As I watch she puts on a hat and makes a face at herself in the glass, and takes it off very quickly. She tries another – then another. Her expression is terrible – hungry, despairing, hopeful, quite crazy. At any moment you expect her to start laughing the laugh of the mad.

The mad woman in the attic is the culmination of all of Jean Rhys’s protagonists. Women driven to the edges of their existence by not only the people they fall against but also by themselves. Their fear of being betrayed, the sense of melancholy that pursues them through various boarding houses and rooms with images of Modigliani women staring down at them through pupil-less eyes; and men who use them for their submissiveness, and their alluring but terrifying need to be loved.

In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason does not have a history other than the one Rochester recounts. Bertha Mason ‘…is mad and came of a mad family.’ To Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is a wild animalistic creature with a purple face and bloated features. She is also ‘the vampire.’

Jean Rhys spent her life trying to fit in yet she was always conscious of being the other. Barrelling around music halls in her teens and living on the crumbs of a rich older man, she learned how to get on. She wore good clothes to make her feel human enough to survive in the society that saw her as the ‘other’ with her ‘sing-song nigger voice’ and her constant shivering in the cold English climate.

In her story ‘La Grosse Fifi’ the character Roseau tells the story of the fat Fifi who puts everything into her lover’s, actually her gigolo’s hands.

‘J’ai mis toute ma vie aux mains de mon amant.’
Jean Rhys wrote a poem:
I didn’t know.
I didn’t know.
I didn’t know.

She didn’t know what? That her love for an older man, a father figure wouldn’t survive or that she didn’t know how it’s ending would half destroy her? She found work as manicurist/prostitute and drink and other men helped.

(From Voyage in the Dark):

‘You know, you’re sweet when you laugh a lot,’ he said. ‘I like you best when you laugh a lot.’
‘I’m damned nice. Don’t you know I’m damned nice really?’
‘Sure I know.’
I said, ‘I’ll be nicer still when I’ve had a bit of practice.’
‘I wonder,’ he said.
He looked at me as if he were making up his mind not to see me again. But he came back several times after that. And he would say, ‘Well, are you having lots of practice?’
‘You bet I am.’

Jean Rhys’s protagonists feed on their rage. That rage is far from Jane Eyre’s melodramatic depiction of the mad woman in the attic, although one word is nearly correct: the ‘vampire’. A charge against Jean Rhys’s work is that it is intensely autobiographical and therefore her literary reputation is stained, and so the writer is stained and her imagination is compromised.

And when I say I am afraid – that’s just a word I use. What I really mean is that I hate them. I hate their voices, I hate their eyes…I hate the whole bloody business.(Sasha in Good Morning Midnight)

Part of the charge against her is valid. Her life shows up in her work. Each protagonist from the The Left Bank and Other Stories, to Quartet to ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’ and to the final stories of Sleep It Off, Lady – each of them are a continuation of their predecessor, and all are aware of being haunted by sensations of melancholy, nightmares and living ghosts.

Wide Sargasso Sea is nothing like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It is dark with stalking nightmares, sinuous and lush and full of the sort of thoughts that wait for you in your own dark moments. It is not only Antoinette Cosway’s voice that is there but also her husband Rochester’s and it shows up one important thought:

How easy it is to subdue another and how easy it is in the end to be subdued.

Jean Rhys’s childhood gives some clues to her so-called passivity. Her relationship with her mother in the beginning is very like Antoinette’s with her mother, warm and loving until the next child is born. In Jean’s case, her sister Brenda and for Antoinette, it is her sickly brother Pierre. Both mothers focused on the new baby. And later Jean wrote of her nurse Meta (vastly different to Antoinette’s nurse Christophine), who taunted her with stories of zombies and cockroaches that would bite her mouth and her mouth would never heal.

Jean wanted to be black but she was white. She wanted to become a Catholic because black people sat with white people in their church and the Catholics adorned their dead, yet the Catholic phase soon left her and Jean then filled her imagination with English books. Her shyness became endemic to her alone. She experienced a deep sadness from the shapes of mountains and the sound of rain. She wrote poems and one day, she met an old friend of her mother’s. His name was Mr Howard, an English gentleman. He treated Jean as a grown up. He told her that she was quite old enough to have a lover. His hand went onto her breast. She did not move. She thought he would take his hand away and not touch her any more if she did not move.

She told her mother that she did not want to see Mr Howard. Don’t be rude, her mother said, and anyway Mr Howard won Jean over with sweets and constant questions about her and he never touched her again but he did ask her if she would like to belong to him. He told her a story about how he would love her to rebel against him just enough to make it enjoyable for him to punish her.

This is not a thing to tell your mother. Jean also felt her mother would blame her but Mrs Howard accosted Jean and although she never interfered in her husband’s activities, she did accuse Jean of wickedness and said Jean would be punished.

Jean said that she forgot about her encounter with Mr Howard but in later years she wrote this:

From Good Morning Midnight:

I am in a little white washed room. The sun is hot outside. A man is standing with his back to me, whistling that tune and cleaning his shoes. I am wearing a black dress, very short, and heel-less slippers. My legs are bare. I am watching for the expression on the man’s face when he turns around. Now he ill-treats me, now he betrays me. He often brings home other women and I have to wait on them, and I don’t like that. But as long as he is alive and near me I am not unhappy. If he were to die I should kill myself.

This is not the Mr Howard episode verbatim but it is the feeling she experienced; the vague thrill against the vague fear transformed into Sasha Jensen’s ‘film-mind’ in Good Morning Midnight.

The submissiveness of Jean Rhys’s characters is disturbing and Jean Rhys did not believe in illusions. She never rid herself of her apparent passivity yet she did not just lie down and take her lot as a submissive person. She used her passivity. She used her fictional narratives to show the dreadful human fear of loneliness and invisibility, and if she had merely fed on her own life, then Good Morning Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea would not be such ferocious works of art.

Julia in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie disappears into the long grey shadows:

It was the hour between dog and wolf, as they say.

In Voyage in the Dark, Anna, thinks about starting all over again:

…And about mornings and misty days, when anything might happen. And about starting all over again, all over again…

Jean Rhys is showing these two women at either end of their dreams. Julia is becoming a no one, an invisible remnant of her love and her dependence on men. Anna still believes in hope and after her baby is aborted, she selectively latches onto a visiting doctor’s remark:

‘Ready to start all over again, I’ve no doubt.’

Sasha Jensen in Good Morning Midnight is offered a few days in Paris. As in Jean Rhys’s other stories, Sasha is attached to her room. “‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’”

Reading Sasha’s story is watching a woman reach her dregs yet still she wants to believe in human kindness. She avoids the man in the neighbouring room. He reminds her of a ghost. She tries to avoid everything and everywhere she has been before but she fails. She meets Rene, a young gigolo, and despite all of her despair, a hunger for life returns.

Yet that hate of hers, the hate she likens to a wolf reasserts itself and it destroys her chance of a new life. The ghost comes into her room. Is it death or just a continuation of her existence, as she knows it?

I look straight into his eyes and despise another human for the last time.

There are no more illusions for Sasha.

Jean Rhys’s protagonists are a reflection of Jean Rhys’s determination to go inwards into her self and into what we all fear: fear of the ‘other’ and fear of being the ‘other’. She used her nature, her strange ‘laziness’ and her hate and fear to write versions of the same woman until she reaches Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea.

According to Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is scarcely human. Jean Rhys makes her human. She also uses image of the looking glass, and the same question her previous protagonists have uttered: Qui est lá?

Jean Rhys invests her own childhood into Antoinette Cosway’s blank past and also that sense of melancholy:

Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I was somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer.

I knew the time of day when though it was hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.

Rochester is the foreigner in Antoinette’s world. Soon he subjugates her because she is all he can subjugate. He is ready to possess her once he has broken her up into something he can manage.

…She’s mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me.

It is a shock to leave one voice in Wide Sargasso Sea and find another but Jean Rhys uses this method to look at her characters from the outside in and her story goes far beyond any autobiographical charge. Like any of the looking-glasses her various characters have used, Jean Rhys uses her writing to see Antoinette Cosway with separate eyes.

…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.

Jean Rhys wanted to return Bertha Mason to her humanity. No longer the vampire with the purple features or the wild hag hair with the classic madwoman crawl and spittle, but a woman driven away from her own self.

For Antoinette, her prison is an illusion she can walk through. She steps sideways from Jean Rhys’s novel back into Jane Eyre and walks through a ‘cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it…I wish I could see beyond the cardboard.’

In her final dream, Antoinette walks into a large red room with red carpet and red curtains. She sees her ghost in the mirror. On the battlements, she sees the sky.

It was red and my whole life was in it.

In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason, the mad creature sets fire to the house then throws herself off the battlements. Her life does not mean anything to anyone anymore. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys shows Antoinette’s death as a return to life. Her childhood friend Tia beckons her: ‘You frightened?’ and Antoinette unlocks the door while Grace Pool sleeps on.

‘I was outside holding my candle. Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do.’