Marlon James on Jean Rhys and her female characters
In Fathers and Sons, Alec Waugh’s “autobiography” of the Waugh literary dynasty, he notes that Evelyn, author of Brideshead Revisited, despised writers who wrote from their own lives, digging into their own personal details for literary manna. This was despite his creating in his fiction some of the most despicable women in English literature, after having found out that he was cuckolded by his wife, as well as some of the most louche parents imaginable, including “the man who liked Dickens,” a thinly veiled character assassination of his father, a Dickens scholar. One wonders what Waugh would have made of Jean Rhys, who never hesitated to put her life in her work, using personal details for fictional fodder.
Rhys was such a plunderer of her own past that biographers have sometimes been baffled as to what was fact or fiction, and what inspired what. In Quartet, Marya Day discovers, secondhand, that her husband has been arrested for theft; just as Rhys’s own husband had been six years before. In the same novel, Marya comes under the influence of the wealthy and bitter Mr Heidler and his aloof but vicious wife, both characters all but carbon copies of her mentor Ford Maddox Ford and his wife. She had a disastrous affair with Ford, of course, just Marya does with Mr Heidler. It would be cliché to say that had Jean Rhys not existed someone would have invented her, but several writers did; a version of her type, anyway, including Rhys herself, whose real name was Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. Women like Rhys and her characters appear all over Southern American literature, from Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire to Caddy Compson in William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury: white women coming out on the wrong side of slavery’s legacy, who never quite figured out that self-preservation and self-destruction do not come from the same impulse.
As a writer, Rhys understood the worthless woman in the most literal state of the word, a gift (or curse) she shared with Faulkner, Williams, and Flannery O’Connor. Her women, like Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr McKenzie, can be wildly self-destructive — their own worst enemies, to use another cliché — but they stand in striking contrast to Henry James’s or Edith Wharton’s or (to a lesser extent) Virginia Woolf’s heroines in that they are wilful players in their own fall. In that regard Rhys’s characters share an allegiance with Southern women. Women who were useless but wealthy during slavery, but only useless once it was over. Wide Sargasso Sea’s Antoinette Mason is the most famous of these characters and the most obvious, but she is hardly the first worthless white woman in Rhys’s fiction; “worthless” meaning a woman who has lost her worth, or had it taken from her. Like all Rhys’s women, Antoinette embodies a curious dynamic, that of a character who fits everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Rhys knew her position was indefensible — the unwronged white woman — but to enter the twentieth century, as so many Southern women did, with the skin of privilege but not the wealth or class, was to prove a devastating tragedy, rivalling the death of her beloved father.
Maybe this sense of dislocation was what allowed her, along with Woolf, to create the first true twentieth-century women, too late for the Victorian world but too early for the postcolonial one.
Even before Antoinette Mason, there was madness in Rhys’s women, a desperation to simply matter that made them more vital than the women who cropped up in her peers’ works. Like a few of Hemingway’s men, Rhys’s women all end up in that one place where the displaced found both relevance and escape: Paris. The French capital is home to the heroines of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Quartet, and Good Morning, Midnight, and the anonymity of the city both liberates and crushes them. They rage against a dying light indeed: their own relevance. Rhys, in every way the same woman she writes about, never flinches or shows them mercy:
Opposite her a pale, long-faced girl sat in front of an untouched drink, watching the door. She was waiting for the gentleman with whom she had spent the preceding night to come along and pay for it, and naturally she was waiting in vain.
It’s not that this woman feels entitled or desperate. But she is from an era when women expected things to be done for them, and she never expects to have to support or even account for herself. She fails to notice that her era has vanished without giving her notice, leaving her unable to fend for herself. In After Leaving Mr McKenzie, Julia Martin “took [Mr Horsfield’s] money without protest and apparently without surprise, and this rather jarred upon him” — Mr Horsfield being a man she has known for less than a day. Earlier in the same day, when she receives her last cheque from Mr Mackenzie, Julia immediately plans to spend the money on a whole new set of clothes, not once considering that she would starve if she did so.
It would be too easy to dismiss Rhys as a fatalist, 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 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. They are messy women like Julia, who takes a bottle to bed every night, or her landlady, who wishes she took a man instead. Or Anna from Voyage in the Dark, who works as a chorus girl in London, or Marya, who cheats on her jailed husband equally out of desire and her need for survival. Or Selina in the story “Let Them Call It Jazz”, a black woman who simply refuses to accept the hand that fate keeps insisting on giving her. These women have scars, and are never taught to help themselves, and so sometimes fling themselves into self-justification and self-pity.
Rebecca West was right when she said Rhys’s women were “friendless and worthless and pitiful,” but that alone would merely have made them Wharton women. At least half the wounds they receive are self-inflicted, consequences of their not very heroic motives. Marya is in the centre of a destructive sexual vortex, but she is also manipulative and cruel, and nothing is her fault. Julia is an aging alcoholic who is exactly the type of woman that men sum her up to be. Sasha, in Good Morning, Midnight, is so hell-bent on revenge against men that she destroys her last chance at real love in the process. This was a new kind of woman in fiction: not easily liked damsels in distress, or easily hated harridans who stood in the way of Darcy and Elizabeth; not spunky but well-behaved Austen girls, and not wealthy but doomed heiresses like Lily Bart in Wharton’s House of Mirth. These women are sometimes, without putting too fine a point on it, bitches. But they are also flesh-and-blood real, women who resemble women out in the street or the bars, not the ones in conservatories and drawing-rooms.
So it is to their credit and their damnation, then, that they see their downfall a mile away, but do little to prevent it. In chapter one of Good Morning, Midnight, Julia sees a foreshadowing of the woman she may yet become, even as she does everything to prevent it:
To stop making up would have been a confession of age and weariness . . . It would have been the first step on the road that ended in looking like that woman on the floor above — a woman always dressed in black, who had a white face and black nails and dyed hair which she no longer dyed, and which had grown out for two inches into a hideous salt and pepper grey.
Again, one is temped to write Rhys back into her fiction. It’s been said she had a certain contempt for her characters precisely because they were her, and Julia’s fears were in this case her fears. Voyage in the Dark’s Anna, in contrast, remains an innocent, perhaps an embodiment of the person Rhys once was but could never again be. Like the later Antoinette, she is a child-woman, almost all id, all feeling, not much thought or craftiness. Certainly no mind for self-preservation or -destruction, the duality that runs through nearly all of Rhys’s women. But even at nineteen Anna is already violent, already a drinker, and already the reason for half the trouble she falls into. Voyage in the Dark may actually be the greyest of Rhys’s novels, where nobody is simplistically good or bad.
Ultimately, what Rhys’s women share with each other, and with some of the destroyed women of Southern literature, is a certain homelessness. Or perhaps rootlessness. They are all transients in one world or another, never quite belonging, just as Rhys never quite belonged to any place or time. Like Blanche Dubois, they are essentially Victorian women, thrown out of one world but not quite ready for the other, a conflict precipitating their downfall. Worthless women, because they are left in a world that can no longer define their value or use. White women, like Antoinette Mason, who end up even lesser than black women, who are at least relevant to their country’s new reality. Maybe these women call for another cliché, the woman ahead of her time, and this is true in a sense, but they are also women outside of time, cut off at the head and flailing about in spectacularly destructive fashion. In the end, they are far more fleshy and real than Woolf’s women, more like D.H. Lawrence’s women, minus the romance.
Women without worth. Women like their author, who must have known that a sentence like this would be written about her. She called herself “a doormat in a world of boots,” and was never above using such self-pity to gain favour for herself, especially with men. Her characters were never “women’s women,” and neither was she, having troubling and troublesome relationships with her mother and daughter. But Rhys pre-empted the novel-as-confessional decades before Philip Roth made it a man’s game, and the postmodern novel made it de rigueur. She knew her way around the life of the mind, dropping gut truths with a ruthlessness that to this day few authors have matched. Her women are difficult, demanding, contradictory, and bitchy, everything and nothing at once. A white woman in a black country is a curious kind of invisible, and the Caribbean also tried its best to make her worthless, dismissing her, along with writers like John Hearne and Louis Simpson, as an irrelevant voice (Simpson in particular, the first Jamaican to win a Pulitzer Prize yet all but unknown in his own country). Maybe we remember Rhys and her women because they have a scorned woman’s fury. Rhys was simply louder than both men, her manic voice, like her madly, fatally violent Antoinette’s, a shuttered shrieking cry, desperate and demanding to be heard.
Marlon James published his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, in 2005. It was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His second novel, The Book of Night Women, will be published by Riverhead Books in 2008.