Belletrista Blog

Another Dominican author, but I can’t resist promoting the work of Jean Rhys – one of my favourite writers.

Rhys is well known for her book Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre, which tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester and how she became the madwoman in the attic. This book was published in 1966; before that Rhys had not published a novel for about 20 years and had disappeared from the literary scene – many people thought she had died.

While I do really like Wide Sargasso Sea, it’s Rhys’s earlier novels and short stories that fascinate me. Many of these are set in the demi-monde of 1930s London and Paris where young penniless women teeter on the edge of ruin. Her heroines (or should that be anti-heroines?) always owe money to their landlady, drink far too much and often risk sliding into prostitution to keep their heads above water.

I should really dislike these characters. They are so passive, I want to shake them until their teeth rattle! They allow horrible things to happen to them, allow themsleves to be dictated to by the whims of men and women of stronger characters. They are like ears of corn, buffeted and bent by outside elements, losing bits of themselves along the way, but somehow they remain standing. However I don’t dislike them. I’m fascinated by them and I don’t really know why.

Much of Rhys’s writing seems to have been based on elements of her own life.  The daughter of a Creole woman and a Welshman, Rhys often felt like an outsider when she moved to London as a teenager. She was dranw into the seedier side of life in European cities and her romantic entanglements were, erm, interesting to say the least.

For example, Quartet, originally published in 1928, is the thinly disguised tale of Rhys’s first marriage andher  affair with Ford Madox Ford. Marya, an English woman in Paris, marries a Polish emigre. He has some vague profession in art dealing – she doesn’t enquire about the details. Her husband is arrested on several fraud charges and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Marya is then taken up by the Heidlers, an English couple, who give her shelter. Marya begins an affair with the husband with the knowledge and collusion of the wife.

I think I’m attracted to Rhys’s stories for a couple of reasons. I get a voyeuristic frisson from reading about the inter-war demi-monde. Despite the grubby nastiness, it still seems glamorous somehow. Secondly, I’m fascinated by how many insults and how much poverty and degradation these women can absorb. There is something compelling about their release of any sense of responsibility or need to make decisions – something that frightens and intrigues me.

Other recommended works: Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight and The Collected Short Stories.

2 Comments for this entry

  • Cara Diaconoff

    You’ve hit the nail on the head about the strange allure of those protagonists of Jean Rhys’s earlier books. There is an odd defiance at the heart of their passivity. I adore *Wide Sargasso Sea* partly because it takes up the preoccupations of the earlier books and explores them to the most psychologically intimate extent–as well as exploring in more detail the effects that such a woman has on those around her. But I’m really glad to see someone discussing Rhys in the light of other books besides *WSS*, for once. Thank you for this insightful analysis!

  • Char

    I know what you mean about their ‘odd defiance’. It’s as if through their passivity they’re sticking two fingers (hope that makes sense to non-Brits!) up at a society which offers few options and little freedom for women.

    I just wish more people read Rhys.

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