Reviews — From the May 2018 issue

A Perfectly Respectable Lady

The bowdlerization of Jean Rhys

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Discussed in this essay:
A View of the Empire at Sunset, by Caryl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
336 pages. $26.

Few writers have written as seductively about the free fall from self-control as Jean Rhys. She is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a reimagining of the backstory to Edward Rochester’s disastrous youthful marriage in Jane Eyre (1847). In Rhys’s version, the first Mrs. Rochester is neither depraved nor even necessarily destined to go mad. She is the Jamaican Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway Mason, emotionally unguarded and lethally innocent in her passion for the chilly En­glishman, who marries her for her money and is terrified both by her ardor and by the physical desire she awakens in him. He soon rejects her, pronounces her insane, and locks her up in the attic of Thornfield Hall. After many years, by now truly crazed as the result of her incarceration, she escapes by setting fire to the building and throwing herself from the roof. The rest is literature: Rhys’s prequel and Brontë’s novel have between them generated more critical evaluations in the fields of nineteenth-century, postcolonial, and women’s studies than perhaps any other two linked texts.

Photograph of Jean Rhys © Paul Joyce/National Portrait Gallery, London

Erotic passion, rage, madness: Rhys knew what she was writing about. She was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor who had settled on Dominica and a third-generation Creole—the term used at the time to denote anyone native to the island, whether of European or African descent. After attending the convent in Roseau, Ella was sent at sixteen to boarding school in Cambridge to continue her education. England was a shock. She was ridiculed for her accent, for her unpolished manners, for failing to grasp the nuances of En­glish society. She left at the end of 1908 to enroll in stage school in London but lasted only two terms before joining a traveling musical show as a chorus girl. Little more than a year later she was living the life of a demimondaine in a flat paid for by a wealthy lover, Lancelot (“Lancey”) Grey Hugh Smith. When he dropped her after eighteen months she slid briefly into prostitution, and permanently into alcoholism. In 1919 she married Willem Johan Marie Lenglet, a Dutch journalist and spy whose shady financial dealings would see him arrested five years later in Paris, where husband and wife were living hand to mouth. By that time she was on the brink of an affair with the En­glish writer Ford Madox Ford, who gave her the pen name Jean Rhys and encouraged her to publish.

For Rhys had started to set it all down: the lost childhood in the West Indies; the misery of being adrift in London; the crisis she’d suffered in Paris when Ford refused to leave his long-term lover, the painter Stella Bowen. Her first two novels, Postures (1928; published in the United States as Quartet in 1929) and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), are thinly veiled, imperfectly shaped cries from the heart about the affair with Ford. The next, Voyage in the Dark (1934), involved a return to her liaison with Lancey. By the time it came out, she had divorced—she and Lenglet had lost their first child, to pneumonia, and she was estranged from their surviving daughter, who was being raised in Holland—and remarried, to the En­glish literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith. Good Morning, Midnight, a retrospective look at the Paris years that shivers with regret, appeared in 1939, and then she produced no new work for two decades, disappearing from public view. It was not until 1956, when the BBC was about to broadcast a radio adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight, that anyone thought to ask what had happened to her. Was she dead? But Rhys was still living, resettled in Cornwall. Now on her third marriage (Tilden Smith died in 1945), she was working on the manuscript that would become Wide Sargasso Sea.

It would take nine more years to complete, but the book made Rhys’s name and went some way to redeeming what had been a chaotic life. After this she wrote no more novels, concentrating on short stories and on her memoirs, which appeared in unfinished form after her death in 1979 as Smile Please. It’s a magnificently ironic title. What had she ever had to smile about? The consolations of literary fame, she said, had come too late. And yet she also knew that she had no choice but to write. “If I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure,” she once confessed in her diary. “It is that already to other people. But it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death.” Her writing was always, first and foremost, a cathartic necessity, an act of exorcism, an attempt to make sense of the fragile balance of stresses and vulnerabilities that was “Jean Rhys.”

As her biographer Carole An­gier asserts, Rhys was temperamentally divided all her life “between a lady above and a savage below,” between dependence on men and rampant fury at being thus dependent. Though she wanted to be desired, she resented being sexually appropriated. When the novelist Rosamond Lehmann met Rhys in 1935, she was astonished to find that the author of such louche novels presented as “a perfectly respectable lady”: “demure, shy, distant.” In reality, Rhys was already subject to ungovernable alcoholic rages; she would later be fined for being drunk and disorderly in public, and in 1949 she would spend five days in the hospital wing of Holloway Prison on charges of assault. Both the lady and the savage were genuine aspects of Rhys’s character, but Angier is surely right to claim that, as a writer, she knew that the latter was “the source of her real and individual vision.” Her female protagonists, from Marya, the troubled heroine of Quartet, to Antoinette Rochester, are wild and rebellious at heart, resistant to false propriety but trapped by the limitations of the very people they turn to for love. Rhys could write so persuasively about the crazed Mrs. Rochester because she had a great deal of Mrs. Rochester in her. Loss of control, even madness, is, as Angier concludes, “defeat only for the lady”; for the primitive self it is “liberation and triumph.”

Rhys was often caught, in her personal relationships, between passivity and wrath. Time and again she looked, like Antoinette, for a savior who would rescue her from the difficult circumstances of her life. Her affair with Lancey, from whom she continued to accept an allowance until she married Lenglet (including the money for an abortion), set the pattern, and each marriage confirmed it. Leslie Tilden Smith became Rhys’s agent in 1926, when her union with Lenglet was disintegrating; he found her accommodations in London and paid her rent, and by 1928 she had moved in with him. He was the sort of En­glishman she liked best: well bred, privately educated, eager to come to her aid. But he was also diffident and yielding, both in business and in his interaction with Rhys. By 1936 he was eking out a living as a freelance publisher’s reader, and their marriage had degenerated into episodes of domestic violence in which Rhys was the aggressor.

In 1939, three years after they’d traveled together to Dominica—Rhys’s first return visit in nearly thirty years—Tilden Smith gave her a copy of Jane Eyre, which she had last read as a girl. Rhys’s ideas for a story set wholly in the West Indies began to coalesce: she soon produced half of a manuscript, provisionally titled “Le Revenant,” which he typed up from her chaotic notes. But then they had one of their periodic arguments, and to spite him Rhys burned the typescript. Like Mrs. Rochester, the urtext of Rhys’s masterpiece “perished in the flames,” in the words of its Penguin editor, Angela Smith. It’s a sad anecdote, and all the more pitiful for what it reveals of Rhys’s self-destructive masochism. It is also, as Smith intuits, an apt metaphor for the writing of this particular book, which is so intimately concerned with the space between “sanity and madness, expectation and fulfilment.” The Sargasso Sea, which lies between Europe and the West Indies, is, Smith reminds us, “difficult to navigate, like the human situations in the novel.” Or the human situations in Rhys’s own life, for that matter.

This is the sea that Caryl Phillips, equipped with copies of the memoir and the fiction, as well as his own personal experience of displacement, sets out to cross in his new novel about the middle-aged Rhys, A View of the Empire at Sunset. Like Rhys, Phillips was born in the West Indies, he on the island of St. Kitts. Having relocated to En­gland with his family when he was four months old, he visited St. Kitts for the first time at the age of twenty-two—a journey that led to The Final Passage (1985), his first novel, about the British Caribbean diaspora. Ten subsequent novels, a historical study, four essay collections, and scripts for radio, stage, and screen have followed. Phillips, who has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and been long-listed for the Man Booker, writes with understated passion about freedom and slavery, belonging and exile, identity and exclusion. He of all authors should have been able to do justice to Rhys, yet he succeeds only in reducing her to a cliché.

The problem is partly one of tone, partly one of style. We meet Phillips’s Rhys and Tilden Smith in 1936, on the eve of their trip to Dominica. They have been married for eight years, so there is much that Phillips needs to establish: their fraught, often violent history; Tilden Smith’s fundamental decency and panicked dependence on Rhys’s approval; her own dependence, as panicked as his, on alcohol and writing. They are hard up; the voyage is being funded by a surprise legacy that he has received. But he holds none of the cards. Rhys (or Gwen, as she is called throughout) is terrified of going back and being seen by her family to be poor. And she doesn’t want, as Leslie proposes, to fit in a “relaxing trip to the Sussex coast” first: she wants to stop in Holland to see Maryvonne, the daughter she has neglected for thirteen years. So she drinks. Leslie is disapproving: he hopes that a holiday might lead to “a marked improvement in her behaviour.” This, a tipsy Gwen reflects, “was precisely the kind of phrase that Leslie loved to use. ‘Marked improvement.’”

It is also the kind of empty phrase that Phillips likes to use. Leslie is, on page after page, dully and repetitively described as “her overly sensitive husband,” “her demure husband,” “her tired husband,” “her glum-looking husband,” whose “nervous face lights up with relief” when Gwen “smiles weakly” at him, who, when she is drunk, “barked at her in a firm whisper, telling her to either hold her tongue or keep it down.” Money, we learn, “would help to ease the embarrassment of the spectacle she presents, but any mention of the thorny subject tends to plunge Leslie into a monosyllabic mood.” When thus depressed, Leslie says things like, “You’re slipping away from me, aren’t you?”—and all the while “the weak light filtering through the bay window is picking out the lines on his face and causing the grey strands in his hair to occasionally sparkle.” He is going to need all the occasional sparkle he can muster. For Gwen, musing that “the poor man” has, after all, “now purchased the tickets for our transatlantic voyage,” hazards pompously,

Perhaps, my husband, if I show you the West Indies, then you will finally come to understand that I am not of your world, and maybe then you will appreciate the indignity I feel at not only having to live among you people but possibly die among you, too.

This simply doesn’t sound like the Rhys we know. Where, in this turgid sentence, is the bitten-back violence? Rather than rage, we get self-pity. “Indignity” strikes a primly false note: in neither her own ferocious, self-lacerating prose nor in her memoir is Rhys ever concerned with dignity or the lack of it. While writing (which we don’t see her doing at all in this novel) she routinely downed two bottles of wine a day. She relished the “debauch” of whiskey. She didn’t minimize her addiction: when she wrote about her binges, it was always with gluttonous frankness. Like Marya, she needed “a glass of wine on an empty stomach” in order to make life “significant, coherent and understandable”; on the rare occasions when she managed to dry out, she looked forward to “the kick I’ll get out of my first drink” once she’d relapsed, as she knew she would. Rhys was ruthlessly honest about her shortcomings. And she was a punctilious stylist, who achieved an equivalent honesty and clarity in her prose. Phillips’s interpretation of this pain-racked perfectionist is strangely superficial, his response to her defiant hedonism bizarrely old-fashioned. It’s as if “the lady” has taken control of the narrative, and the whole book suffers as a result.

One of the areas in which the novel suffers most is that of sex. Sex was vital to Rhys: it was the arena of her liberation, and her undoing. It was the means by which she separated herself from her conservative Edwardian family back on Dominica, her passport to the London of the chorus line and Soho’s notorious Crabtree Club, where she met the men who kept her going financially and emotionally once Lancey had thrown her over. As Angier has suggested, after her disabling involvement with Lancey, Rhys craved a sexual connection and its attendant emotional risks “as she craved drink, but like drink it was bad for her.” The problem of sex, and what it means for the Rhys heroine, is what each of her novels tries to solve: the earlier books by returning compulsively to the raw matter of her own experience of sexual degradation, Wide Sargasso Sea by teasing out Charlotte Brontë’s intuition about the potential destructiveness to the female psyche of sexual surrender. For the eroticism that the Rhys heroine fears is, as Angier perceives, “not men’s but her own.” It is “that foreign, tropical thing in her which is uncontrolled and uncontrollable.”

Edward Rochester detects this uncontrollable aspect of Antoinette in her appetite for sex: “Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was—more lost and drowned afterwards.” He equates her heady sexuality with the mystery of the island, its “alien, disturbing, secret loveliness.” Rhys divined the same quality in herself, in her sensual identification with the “wild beautiful” land, which was, as she writes in Smile Please, at the same time a longing “to lose myself in it.” Rhys’s mother seems to have recognized this. “She must have seen something alien in me,” said Rhys in 1938 in a private record of her childhood memories, “which would devour me and make me unhappy, and she was trying to root it out at all costs.”

Phillips approaches this potent material with a leaden formality. The pubescent Gwen duly climbs trees and boycotts her mother’s tea parties, in contrast to her younger sister, Brenda, “who besported herself as an obedient angel.” She is close only to her father—“her exhausted father,” “her unsteady father,” “her bleary father,” “her glassy-eyed father.” (Dr. Rees Williams copes with the stresses of his medical practice by tippling.) “Was her lonely mother having further doubts about her marriage to the loquacious Welsh doctor?” muses Gwen. “Was she chastising herself for having chosen a colonial arrivant from outside her family’s Creole world?” Adolescent girls do not think in this way. Nor do they have enough foresight to predict, as Gwen does, “that her mother’s anxieties about her would only increase once she began to secure the attentions of men.”

So it proved—but having set out his stall, Phillips inexplicably passes up the opportunity to let us in on the most unnerving example of this dynamic. When Rhys was about fourteen (in different accounts she was sometimes thirteen, sometimes twelve), she became the victim of a family acquaintance’s grotesque grooming experiment. He appears as Captain Cardew in the short story “Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose,” where he is old and very handsome, like “some aged but ageless god.” In the private record of her childhood that Rhys made as a grown woman he is called Mr. Howard. Tall and imposing, with a soldier’s bearing, a white mustache, and a glass eye, he won her over utterly. “I was captivated,” she writes. Mr. Howard took her for a walk in the botanical gardens, put his “cool, masterful hand” inside her blouse, and groped her breast. Rhys says that she was “dreadfully attracted, dreadfully repelled.” In the weeks that followed, he didn’t lay a finger on her but seduced her verbally by spinning elaborate fantasies in which he abducted her, raped her, and kept her as his slave. Rhys admits that she “only struggled feebly” not to listen. “What he had seen in me was there.” It was her first experience of a humiliating sexual subjection.

What Phillips chooses to make, or rather not make, of Mr. Howard is symptomatic of his novel’s general coyness. Gwen (aged fifteen in Phillips’s book) meets him at a party given by her parents. Instead of being the vigorous military figure he was in life, he is “spindly, grey-bearded,” a generic elderly gentleman who poses no real threat. As Gwen’s father gives a boring speech, Mr. Howard, who has been speaking to Gwen in whispers, “attempted to once again establish a hushed intimacy with her.” Gwen isn’t “easily duped” and manages a quick escape. Earlier, it turns out, Mr. Howard had run “his hand down her arm,” saying, “My dear, you have a haunting sensuality that very few young ladies ever achieve…. You’re like a flower opening up, but for whom, may I ask?” And that’s it. The whole double-edged episode is reduced to an encounter as banal and etiolated as Mr. Howard himself.

The life is either crammed in like this—perfunctorily, with none of the ambiguous bite that Rhys gives it in her fiction—or it is introduced with a gratuitous fillip for which there is no justification in the biography. A proposal that Rhys received at drama school from a fellow student, Harry Bewes, and seems never to have considered seriously is beefed up into three chapters of emotional dithering. Lancey—a weak, privileged son of the En­glish upper-middle classes who, lacking the nerve to ditch Rhys himself, got his cousin to do it by letter—becomes a swaggering bully with a taste for put-downs: “Are your family truly beastly to the blacks?” “Do all of you stage girls have your eyes set on titled men?” This is absurd, but not as absurd as Gwen’s breathless reaction:

Did he not feel any responsibility for her buoyant heart? Had the attitude of his mother successfully corroded whatever affection remained unspent? . . . It appeared as though the remainder of her life’s journey would now have to be completed without the consolation of his reassuring presence.

It is not entirely clear what she finds “reassuring” about Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith (Phillips gets his name wrong, calling him “Hughes-Smith”), whose idea of an endearment is “you’re such a funny little thing” and who goes in for “judicious lovemaking,” after which she has to “remain as stiff as a corpse.” Rhys’s actual response to Lancey was a rapturous, self-immolating capitulation. It’s impossible not to feel that the important men in Rhys’s life, unsatisfactory as they may have been, were more nuanced than this.

Rhys herself was certainly more nuanced. Take what was arguably the crucial moment in her formation: the moment she became a writer. She was twenty-three, had resorted to having sex with men for money, and was recovering from her abortion in a bedsit in Bloomsbury as Christmas 1913 approached. Phillips’s Gwen feels Lan­cey’s “loss as a wound.” She is still missing him when “her mind began to spin.” She wakes up on Christmas Day with a doctor bending over her: she has tried to commit suicide, though we aren’t told how.

We aren’t told, because it never happened: what really occurred was both more bathetic and indicative of Rhys’s deeper instincts. She writes in Smile Please that on Christmas Day, Lancey sent her a Christmas tree with “little parcels wrapped in gold and silver all over it.” The tree was the final insult. She got into a taxi with it, meaning to give it away, but appears to have entered a fugue state: “The next thing I remember clearly is being back in my room. The tree was gone and there was a full, unopened, bottle of gin on the table.” She decided to drink the whole bottle and jump to her death out the window. But a girlfriend came around, they started to sip the gin, got drunk, and by the end of the night “everything seemed so funny I could only giggle.” Instead of committing suicide, Rhys sat down and recorded every detail she could remember about her relationship with Lancey, filling three exercise books—material she would later mine for Voyage in the Dark. In Phillips’s telling, there is no poisonous Christmas tree metamorphosed into a potentially lethal gin bottle, no saving comic self-awareness, and no redemptive outpouring in which the drive toward death is subsumed into the drive to create.

Most disappointingly of all, there is no Ford Madox Ford. He is simply left out. Rhys arrives at Tilden Smith’s London office, after her split with Lenglet, as a fully fledged writer. The last we’d heard of her, she was an abandoned wife in Paris, but now she has an appointment with this “courtly man” who “genuinely admired her writing.” When asked about her life, Gwen smiles “sweetly” and manages

to distil the narrative down to the skimpiest of plot lines: colonial girl comes to En­gland to seek her fortune and eventually escapes the misery of the postwar years by leaving for the Continent, where she quite unexpectedly takes up writing in a series of melancholy hotel rooms.

Tilden Smith doesn’t pick up the lead: he has, by this stage, “effectively given up talking about matters related to the world of books.” And so, alas, has Phillips.

It’s no good. It’s no good because for Rhys, this dedicated and professional writer, this consummate stylist, the books were everything. It was partly in order to have the freedom to write them that she gave up custody of her daughter, a constant source of anguish to Rhys. And when Gwen and Leslie finally get to Dominica, there is no sense of the bitter insight into the parallels between a society founded on ownership and submission and her own life that must have come to Rhys during this trip. Phillips’s Gwen visits the ruins of the old family plantation, which “ungrateful Negroes” have burned down. “Why don’t they like us?” she wonders. In its merciless exposure of the long-term damage of every kind of bondage, Wide Sargasso Sea shows that Rhys knew very well why they didn’t. Phillips tells us that “her island had both arranged and rearranged her, and she had no words.” But words were the one thing she always did have.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the hard-won fruit of Rhys’s commitment to words. It is a triumphant novel, the book in which her fractured life experiences are transformed by a mature self-awareness, her twin preoccupations with sex and exile lifted from the autobiographical to a universal vision of alienation that is as hauntingly modern as anything written by her contemporaries. Caryl Phillips is a vital early-twenty-first-century voice who has already earned his place in the literature of displacement and dispossession. If only he had given her a better outing than this.

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