A note on the books I am writing about. Quartet was Jean Rhys’s first novel (published in 1928 under the title Postures) followed by After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939).
Jean Rhys is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, the book that brought her the most success and recognition. Rhys also published some collections of short stories, The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976), as well as Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography published in 1979 shortly after her death. The recent publication of The Collected Short Stories by Penguin Books in 2017 is testimony to the enduring appeal and importance of her writing.
The significant gap between publication of her early and later work is telling, and from her letters as well as biographical accounts, it is clear that Rhys struggled throughout her life, facing many personal difficulties and financial insecurity. After the publication of Good Morning, Midnight Rhys vanished into obscurity and many presumed she had died. As the story goes, an advert was placed in The New Statesman seeking information on the whereabouts of the author Jean Rhys, by Selma Vaz Dias, an actress and writer who was writing an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys herself answered the advert, and following this, the publisher Francis Wyndham began a correspondence with her in which she told him she was writing another book – eventually published as Wide Sargasso Sea.
Many writers and critics have commented on the overlaps between the books and Rhys’s own life, sometimes regarding them as though portraying a single protagonist at different stages of her life. I’m not sure how useful that is as a way of thinking about these novels, although I am choosing to start with the youngest of these protagonists in Voyage in the Dark rather than following the books by order of publication. Much of the material for this book was written much earlier and so in some ways is symbolic of Rhys’s beginnings as a writer.
What Jean Rhys used to say about the relationship between her life and her novels only confirms what is understood by most writers and students of writing, but perhaps it is worth recalling here. All her writing, she used to say, started out from something that had happened, and her first concern was to get it down as accurately as possible. But ‘I like shape very much’ – and again, ‘a novel has to have a shape, and life doesn’t have any’. If the novel was going to work, then it would start to have its own shape (her feeling seemed to be that the novel had it, rather than she imposed it). Then she would be compelled to leave things out that had happened, or to put things in; to increase this or diminish that – all this to suit the shape and nature of the work of art which was forming out of the original experience.
Diana Athill, ‘Jean Rhys and her Autobigography’, Foreward to Smile Please, May 1979.
I also think that the way Rhys is understood and interpreted is so entangled with her biography that it can be difficult to separate them. Her books have been used to write about her life events, and her life to elucidate the books, over and again, so that it is almost impossible not to correlate them in some way. However, I don’t want to make any assumptions or claim to know what Rhys thought or intended, and so my focus here is on the books themselves. I would like to take them on their own terms and read them without judgement or reservation, as fiction, as art.
Tracing a route through the books and touching sometimes on the journeys Rhys herself took, I am mapping them through place and through a series of journeys, starting from London in Voyage in the Dark, to Paris in Quartet, the Paris and London of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, and returning to Paris in Good Morning, Midnight.
When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?
‘My hero: Jean Rhys by Linda Grant‘, The Guardian, 22 February 2013.