Escapade

When the refugees went by today I couldn’t help thinking that the streets in the city, those in the country, and even the paths to sea, all had the same end.

I know my country is not here around me […] as the endless undulations pass the shore – the endless surf, the endless sky – I feel that it is somewhere and that They, hurried and frightened, are searching for it too. […]

I think of a lost bird flying toward a grey horizon it will never reach, above the broken mirrors of marshes and the grey fur of reeds, endless!

Evelyn Scott, Escapade

In June 1931, Jean Rhys received a letter from Evelyn Scott about her book After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. The letter explained the recent discovery of the book whilst in London, and asked if the author had written other works, and praised ‘the existence of such a rare, subtle and sensitive talent. I am afraid this is effusive; but that is the effect of your own beautiful restraint and the soundness and purity of every line in your book.’ Rhys replied and they continued a correspondence for a number of years, during which Evelyn and her husband, the novelist John Metcalfe, worked to promote her writing in America.

I’m reading “Eva Gay” which Leslie got for me. I can’t tell you how I admire it. […] Evelyn – I hope you make some money out of it. My God what a fine writer you are.

Jean Rhys, Letters

Something intrigues me in the letters Rhys sends to Scott, through which the pattern of their friendship can be traced, if very tentatively. It seems to have culminated in Rhys’s visit to New York in 1936, when Evelyn Scott made some efforts to introduce Rhys to her literary acquaintances through a number of parties which seemed to have ended badly. After this, there are no surviving letters between them.

I am following through connections on the books Rhys reads and admires, and this has led me to Escapade, which seems to be one of the few books by Evelyn Scott I have been able to track down. Rhys also mentions the book in her letters. In reading Escapade, I’ve been thinking about Evelyn Scott and her relation to Rhys. They were contemporaries, and admirers of each other’s work. They share a clarity of expression and perception that makes their writing feel modern and ahead of its time. This is about an experimental style but in both I detect also the expression of a state of mind, of a certain experience of life or philosophy, and a tendency to radical acts and ideas.

People think that in order to give up financial security one must be intoxicated.

Evelyn Scott, Escapade

Escapade was published in 1923, and is described as ‘a fragment of autobiography’, written in the form of a diary recounting how at the age of twenty, Elsie Dunn eloped to Brazil with an older married man, causing a scandal and effectively exiling herself from her life among the southern aristocracy in the United States. They changed their names to Cyril Kay Scott and Evelyn Scott. She lived a nomadic life, publishing a number of books, and was immersed in bohemian and literary circles in Greenwich Village, as well as promoting the work of other notable writers of the time – William Faulkner, James Joyce and Jean Rhys included. Her author biography notes that: ‘She achieved literary esteem but her career floundered among the political struggles of the 1930s and as her own psychological conflicts became tragically apparent. The poverty she experienced in Brazil remained with her throughout her life and she died in a New York slum in 1963 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

In a style described as unflinching, she recounts in detail their journey to Brazil and the events that follow as they try to make a life together out of nothing. The book describes living in run-down hotels and rural villages, and travelling across the mountains to attempt a living through the land. She writes about her pregnancy and childbirth, and the subsequent lack of care and the illness she experiences. The descriptions of intense poverty and the harshness of living, of alienation and isolation, and pain and suffering, do not make easy reading at times. What is compelling is the clarity of the writing, its honesty and directness, of expression and of subject. In her introduction to the book, Lisa St Aubin de Teran writes how Scott ‘created perhaps the very first female anti-hero, a woman not afraid to appear graceless and ruthless […] a re-endowment of the power of words – a revelation, in fact, of Evelyn Scott’s sense of what life was to her.’

Reading it creates a feeling that there is no way out, no matter how desperate things become; an expression of her resolute refusal to live by the moral codes she was accustomed to, and a determination to follow through the consequences of her actions to the bitter end. The book is very poetically written and moving, in its still life and close-up focus, its writing on emotional states through the landscape, the sense of its beauty, along with a remote and unfeeling kind of endlessness. As I read I feel choked up – this is the only way I have to describe what I experience on reading her words. There is a singular kind of loneliness in this writing.

Evelyn Scott writes with a truthfulness and precision that Jean Rhys’s work also expresses, with its interest in moral codes and hypocrisy, poverty and disappearances, rooms and stillness, and a devastating kind of self-awareness and the urge to describe, to express everything no matter the cost. The conviction that I was a ghost. They both lived difficult times, unconventional and nomadic lives with a kind of recklessness of spirit. I am haunted by the fact that she died in a New York slum in 1963 and was buried in an unmarked grave around the time that Rhys was making her way, slowly, painfully to the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea and to critical acclaim. I wonder what Rhys knew of her death.

Hill dark. As rain gathers trees go black with an iron slowness. Dark trees make bright night in a silverness of afternoon where the clouds are like fish. The sky enters its own distance, disappearing sky. There is no sky. Only the motion of emptiness. Trees lie along the slopes, heavy – die along the slopes, night-dead on the hills invisible. The mountains enclose our death, gently, so gently, in a vast embrace which no one can deny, from which there is no escape.

But I do not wish to escape. I want to stay here for ever and ever behind the wall that enfolds our peace.

Evelyn Scott, Escapade

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