Jean Rhys

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.

This time, the heroine, Antoinette, is not so helpless, though she is certainly mad, and she exacts her revenge in time, as we all know. Stunning language, evocative settings, honest depiction of race relations are wrapped in a beautiful, mysterious, otherworldly text that always leaves me wondering why the Englishman couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept Antoinette’s open physical love and turned his back on her and the Edenic garden she offered, which was then lost to him forever. If I have a quibble here it is very minor, and that is Rochester’s voice is a bit too poetic for such a one as himself.
I bought this book for $1.99 and it is in great shape -easily the best bargain on Additionally the five books in one are a wonderful way to view the development of this writer.

A Book Review

A monumental undertaking by the author, who was working from original materials, to bring light to a forgotten period in English history immediately prior to the Civil War.

When Janet opens her late father’s trunk, a whole world of intellectual and spiritual adventure is revealed behind the taciturn façade he presented to her and the world in his later years.

The story revolves about a young man’s almost accidental quest to understand the world he lives in, which is imbued with spirit and fermenting with new and forbidden ideas.

When Matthew takes a job with his namesake, Brierley, a minister, he is exposed to Brierley’s radical notion that man can commune directly in mystical union with God with no intervention from ecclesiastical authority to achieve a perfection which will lead to the attainment of both paradise on earth and a meaningful afterlife.

To be near Brierley and learn from him, Matthew takes on menial work and is exposed, not only to forbidden texts, which will expand his worldview, but to Brierely’s lovely young wife for who he harbors a subdued but very real passion.

The novel follows Matthew through his initial infatuation with all things that pertain to the Brierleys through his inevitable disappointment in their all too human failings, to his passion for the knowledge found in forbidden texts to his sojourn in London, where he is exposed to clandestine groups meeting to discuss new ideas coming from the continent. In time, seeing through their corruption, he will turn his back on them as well and return to Brierley in order to make amends. He will, however, meet his own destiny in Janet, Brierley’s clever and resourceful servant who will become his life partner as they forge a unique way of living in a remote and isolated spot in the far north of England.

CMoP in many ways is a genre defying achievement. On one level it is a purely historical work, one in which the author strictly and bravely adheres to documented events, reverting to imagination only to fill in the lacunae in the historical record. It can also work as a bildungsroman, the story of a young man’s education and progress, or an exciting intellectual mystery, with an inter-textual historiography, and finally a mature man’s assessment about the influences in his life; his mistakes and misunderstanding of so many factors which had shaped his life for better or worse.

I had no knowledge of this historical period when I was given an advance copy of this book to read in exchange for an unbiased review, and found it fascinating. However, in as much as I understand that the background to Brierley’s development, his sermons, the author’s reconstruction of events, and the books which inspired Brierley will be the main draw for most readers, I loved the intimate, small details in the book even more. The pages spring to life with the female characters: strong and determined Anne, Brierley’s wife; his mother, a fiercely independent and violent woman; the highly intelligent and loyal Janet, and her namesake, their daughter, a woman who is making her way alone in a harsh and remote corner of the world. Likewise the author’s descriptions of intimate, and occasionally claustrophobic domestic scenes contrasted with the wild unforgiving landscape of the north, which is imbued with a spirit of its own, are most remarkable and quite beautiful, as is the motif of interior darkness suddenly illuminated by light, as Matthew himself is gradually enlightened.

Among those who are interested in the period, this will be hailed as an important work, since Brierley’s influence, though he is long forgotten, shaped the character of the North of England and had an influence in the Quaker communities beyond England’s shores. It’s not the easiest book to read, given the wealth of detail and insistence on historical accuracy, but, I think, given its exposition of the influence of an obscure minister during a little known period, an important one.