by Nicholas Laughlin on August 24, 2010

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys

Today is the one hundred and twentieth birthday of Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, better known to literature and posterity as Jean Rhys. A good opportunity to dip into the archive and read Marlon James’s essay on Rhys and the women in her fiction, published three years ago in the August 2007 CRB.

“It would be too easy to dismiss Rhys as a fatalist,” James writes,

but almost all of her women are doomed from the outset, as if Sophocles orchestrated their lives. Were they (and she) male, critics would have lauded her for capturing the existential despair of the post–First World War male anti-hero, the way F. Scott Fitzgerald did. Rhys’s women are as much of the Parisian jazz age as Fitzgerald’s men, except they don’t have money or class or big suitcases filled with clothes, like Gatsby, and whenever people of that sort appear they are, more often than not, vampires. Her women do unforgivable things, including drinking themselves silly, having sex with married men, and going into relationships with endings written in their beginnings.

Were her women as beautifully depressed and doomed as [Virginia] Woolf’s — women who nonetheless were of the right class for such epic demises — they would have become drama-queen archetypes, inspiring gay fiction as we speak. But Rhys’s women are a little too blood-and-gutsy for that. They are not rich or refined or well educated or well spoken. They scratch and bleed and scream and burn houses down.

Read the full essay here.

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