There had been something fantastic, almost dreamlike, about seeing a thing like that reflected in a looking-glass. A bad looking glass, too. So that the actors had been slightly distorted, as in an unstill pool of water.Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
In a restaurant in Paris, a young man witnesses a scene, a confrontation between a man and a woman taking place at another table. He watches it all reflected in a mirror, which adds a certain strange quality to the event, as though it is not really happening in reality but at the level of a dream. He doesn’t hear their conversation, or what their disagreement is about, but he sees the woman stand up and pick up her glove, and then hit the man across the face with it, but so lightly that he barely blinks. The woman walks out of the restaurant, out into the streets, but not before he has seen her face reflected in the mirror. The woman looks unwell, she is ‘pale as a ghost’, she looks as though she is about to cry. From where he sits, he can see the back of the man’s head. He turns around, to check if anyone has noticed, and the young man averts his eyes, assumes a blank expression, pretending not to have witnessed their quarrel. A scene that make take place any time, acted out between two players: an incident between a respectable man and his discarded mistress. Not a hysterical scene at all but something about the scene makes the young man feel uncomfortable: ‘He had gathered from her expression that it was not a caress, or a joke, or anything of that sort.’
An observer, watching something happen but through a mirror image, that gives it a dreamlike feeling. Like watching something from a distance, without words, that you’re not a part of, a film reel played with no sound.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of the mirror image as a way of conceptualising something about Jean Rhys’s writing, about what unifies her work. In this novel, which represents such an important turning point within her fiction, Rhys gave to Mr Horsfield, the young man who watches the scene take place, a description of her own work, an encounter with reality – but not quite. The gap between what happens and how it is experienced.
In the novel, Mr Horsfield leaves the restaurant, and remembers the quarrel. He thinks: ‘That woman’s probably in one of these cafes having a drink.’ He has a feeling he will meet her again. He moves to another café and sees the woman sitting in a corner, and watches her, feeling ‘detached and ironical’ . He thinks she looks pretty lonely, and decides that he will talk to her.
As he said this it occurred to him that as a rule he fought shy of lonely people; they reminded him too painfully of certain aspects of himself, their loneliness, of course, being a mere caricature of his own.Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
When I read Rhys, I find the ring of truth and something I recognise – about what real experience feels like and the difficulties of communicating, that not everyone has the capacity to change things or to shape the world around them; that not everyone has the voice or the words.
Rhys’s fiction was a mirror to her experience and ideas. Did she take a reflection of herself and change it, approaching the mirror in different ways? To alter the pattern of light that fell upon it, change the features, distort the angle and the background. She had to construct her own universe, to create a new space for her own truth, and authority as a writer. Part of what she wanted to say is that the books that she read didn’t contain this idea of life as she experienced it. A series of random events constructed from illusion, from dreams and imagination. And yet in fiction, this experience must be shaped and distilled, constructed as a mirror image, the world as viewed from a particular angle, just outside the frame.
Reading Jean Rhys I sometimes think that it is possible to view everything from this angle. Once I encountered her books, I was stuck in the mirror watching the scene from a place that I know is not quite real – but almost. It is not an over identification with her as such, although sometimes that is there too, but that I couldn’t stop seeing the world in the way that she saw it.
You imagine the carefully pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you is truth. That is just what it isn’t. The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it’s in what you think is a distorting mirror that you see the truth.Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight