In her forward to The Complete Novels, Diana Athill stated that Rhys was always preoccupied by getting it right : invoking the truth as much as possible. And yet no matter how precise the language, evocative the mood, authentic the speech, Rhys fails at truth since she fails to develop a most important characteristic in her neurasthenic heroines, which were all based on herself. And that truth is- her writing was her saving grace. Rhys lived a writer’s life, inasmuch as it was alcohol fueled and tawdry, and that in itself didn’t make her quite the hopeless, helpless, pathetic creature she depicts in these short novels.
Taken from first to last:
1. Voyage in the Dark: Anna leaves the Caribbean, becomes a chorine, then the mistress of a older man who she doesn’t particularly like, though she certainly likes the security and allowance he provides. After she commits the inexcusable faux pas of socially embarrassing him, he dumps her, and she fails to do anything to uplift herself going from one meaningless sexual encounter to another. This was Rhys’ first work, although the manuscript was put away for years before she returned to it. The language is gorgeous, the insights into humanity and hypocrisy, and even the highly unpleasant aspects of her own character. are remarkable.
2. Quartet: A lightly veiled account of Rhys’ affair with Ford Maddox Ford, in which she comes off as badly as he does. This is the weakest of the five books, and though the heroine is supposed to be the victim of the callous man in question and his nasty wife, she appears to be one of those poor, poor victims to whom everyone is soooo nasty, while in reality she creates havoc wherever she goes.
3. After Leaving Mr McKenzie: Penniless Julia, after leaving the boorish Mr McKenzie goes back to London in search of another protector. Here the heroine is older, the story more insightful, and there are some wonderful passages between Julia and her sister who has sacrificed her youth to look after their ailing mother while Julia lived in Paris.
4. Good Morning, Midnight: The best of the four first novels. There’s no pity here. She is what she is -and finally we get a glimpse of the fact that she did work, that her marriage failed and her child died, that she did not rely exclusively on men (whom she barely liked) to supply her with money in exchange for sexual favors, and that jobs went terribly badly for her quite often because she is sensed to be an outsider, a weakling, one to whom bad things can happen and often do.
Back in Paris, Sasha, after a stint of trying to drink herself to death in London, recalls the sad and horrible events in her life that have brought her so low while dallying with a young man who is in as a precarious potion as she.
5. The Wide Sargasso Sea: A masterpiece. I have read it many times since I discovered it in 1993 following release of the eponymous film. It is the tale of the first Mrs. Rochester, the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. It’s all here: the neurasthenia that developed of neglect and poverty in childhood, the blighted family and racial history of the island, the unloving mother, the relatives that seek to fob off the heroine by marrying her to a stanger, the cold unloving Englishman who shatters her and brings her so low.