Going from room to room in this cold dark country, England, I never knew what it was that spurred me on and gave me an absolute certainty that there would be something else for me before long. Now I think the ‘something else’ was something small and limited. I realise that I was no good on stage, forgot my lines, didn’t thirst for the theatre as some of the girls did, yet I was so sure.Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography
Writing about After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Lorna Sage reflects that the novel is ‘poised between hope and despair’. Rhys heroines tend to be positioned at this angle to the world, and they operate through a kind of fatalism, characterized by a reliance on signs and portents, and a belief in luck and superstition. In Mackenzie, Julia thinks, ‘If a taxi hoots before I count three, I’ll go to London. If not, I won’t.’ In Good Morning, Midnight, ‘I thought it might change my luck if I changed my name.’
‘Why should I be so damned sad?’ she thought. ‘It’s ridiculous. The day after I come out of this place something lucky might happen.’Jean Rhys, ‘Outside the Machine’
In the short story, ‘Till September Petronella’, the title character navigates a tenuous existence, living by chance – ‘I struck a bad patch’, ‘that had not been one of my lucky summers.’ There are moments when London creates a sense of possibility for Petronella, the sense that anything might happen: ‘Anything’s around the corner, you think. But long before you get around the corner it lets you drop.’ Throughout the story, the idea that anything can happen, that anything’s around the corner conflicts with the sense that in the end everything happens exactly as expected, that it’s somehow predetermined and inevitable.
‘Cheer up, he said. The world is big. There’s hope.’
‘Of course.’ But suddenly I saw the women’s long, scowling faces over their lupins and their poppies and my room in Torrington Square and the iron bars of my bedstead, and I thought ‘Not for me’.Jean Rhys, ‘Till September Petronella’
Fatalism: acquiescence in the degree of fate; submission to everything that happens as inevitable (Oxford English Dictionary). These words, acquiescence, submission, seem to concur with everything that some readers find so frustrating about Rhys’s characters and that I touched on in my previous post – their perceived lack of agency and inability to change things.
‘But it isn’t always going to be like this, is it?’ I thought. ‘It would be too awful if it were always going to be like this. Something must happen to make it different.’ […]
That gave you a peaceful and melancholy feeling. The poor do this and the rich do that, the world is so-and-so and nothing can change it. For ever and for ever turning and nothing, nothing can change it.Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
In Rhys’s fiction, life is uncertainty, money comes and goes, luck changes like the lights, from red to green, there is always tomorrow. Rhys heroines are fatalistic partly because their lives are precarious. They are unable to make tangible plans because the instability of their lives, and their economic and existential uncertainty, means that they live moment to moment, not knowing what might happen next. It is this living by chance that opens up to expansiveness, or closes down to disappointment and empty feelings. This creates a sense of tension, between hope and despair.
There is also an exultation, a feeling of exhilaration, that comes from the uncertainty of living, of not knowing what will happen next. A sense of risk, and of adventure, that comes from living in this unprotected way. In Voyage, Anna thinks: ‘I don’t know how people live when they know exactly what’s going to happen to them each day. It seems to me it’s better to be dead than to live like that.’ Living in a precarious way can open up moments in the books, as if the transient experience these moments with more intensity. Moments which are also often shadowed by anxiety.
And there I am, out in the Avenue Marigny, with my month’s pay – four hundred francs. And the air so sweet, as it can be only in Paris. It is autumn and the dry leaves are blowing along. Swing high, swing low, swing to and fro. …Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
Rhys uses place to explore these different feelings, her rooms, streets, cities reflect the constraints her heroines experience, as well as their sense of escape. London and Paris are written rather differently, and yet there are similarities in the way Rhys characters experience different spaces within the city. The recurrence of symbols, of echoes, and repetitions through the books suggest that there is something significant about the way the books enact a journey back and forth between these two cities, a journey I am also undertaking, in my slow and halting way.
Fate is something Rhys writes into her account of how she became a writer; from the way she held onto her early writing but never looked at it until years later, and the meeting with Mrs Adams who sent her work to Ford Maddox Ford, resulting in the publication of her first stories. As she writes in ‘Leaving England’, she departs with only a suitcase containing some clothes and the exercise books…
Why I clung to those as I did is something that completely puzzles me. I never looked at them, and the idea of showing them to anyone else never entered my head, yet wherever I went, I took them. This is one of the reasons why I believe in Fate.Jean Rhys, Smile Please
It seemed to Marya that the music he played had fate in it. And what was there to catch on to in life but that same idea of fate? A dark river that swept you on you didn’t know where – nobody knew where. What was the use of worrying, anyway?Jean Rhys, Quartet