Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Complete Novels, by Jean Rhys

When I read Jane Eyre earlier this year, it triggered my wish to re-read The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  Rhys (1890-1979) wrote five novels, each about 100 pages long. This collection was only a bit more costly than the one novel I was after, so I clicked it right into the shopping cart.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a dark novel, moldering, smoldering and repressed. It had lost none of its punch on my second reading. Set in the early 19th-century West Indies, it is the biography of Bertha, Mr. Rochester's mad, imprisoned wife, whom Jane Eyre finds so monstrous.  Like Bertha, Jean Rhys was a Creole -- a white woman born in the West Indies -- who was sent off to England under unhappy circumstances. Both women felt out of place in England, even though their white skin exposed them to abuse on their home islands. Both were at the mercy of men who exploited them sexually and controlled them financially. Bertha found her salvation by setting Rochester's house on fire; Jean Rhys found hers by writing. Reading her novels, though, feels much like walking through the ashes and rubble of a life. They're astute, but they hurt.

The first four novels, Voyage in the Dark, Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, and Good Morning, Midnight are more obviously autobiographical, with their contemporary settings and recognisable characters from Rhys' own life. I read the first three, and then flipped ahead to Wide Sargasso Sea. I simply couldn't bear any more young women struggling to survive in London or Paris, dependent upon gifts from ex- or current lovers, always looking for the next affluent man who might offer sanctuary...  In Quartet, a well-meaning older married woman asks the protagonist, Marya, how she plans to survive. Plans? Marya is a bit short on them, and mumbles something about a man.
"Of course," Lois remarked in a reflective voice, "men... a man would possibly... yes, in a way... But this sort of thing must be done carefully, my girl, or it's the most ghastly fiasco. I mean, even if you make up your mind that it's your best way out, you must plan it very carefully, and however carefully you plan it's often a fiasco, it seems to me."
"I don't think I'd ever plan anything out carefully," said Marya, "and certainly not that. If I went to the devil it would be because I wanted to, or because it's a good drug, or because I don't give a damn for my idiotic body of a woman, anyway. And all the people who yap."

Rhys published her first four novels in 1928 - 1935. Her narrators all seem to drift vaguely through life. They occasionally work as singers or dancers but seem constitutionally incapable of holding down a regular job, say, in a shop. When it comes to men, they passively go along, rarely with any enthusiasm, until they reach a breaking point and douse the startled men with stockpiled venom. With each subsequent novel, the prose gains sophistication, the women become more weary and jaded, and the men more perfidious. There was a long interval between these books and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), in which Rhys' life went into an obscure, isolated hell.

The women in her final novel have developed a bit more spine. They express their anger at the arrogant and clueless Englishmen who marry them. The law still puts the purse-strings under their husbands' control, a perennial recipe for vulnerability and abuse, but money cannot buy understanding of the island culture, especially that of the black community. The novel opens shortly after the abolition of slavery. Annette, a Creole widow, has married Mr. Mason, an Englishman. Her relationship with black neighbours and servants is complex, yet her husband persists in seeing them as simple creatures who, like pack animals, are put there for his use. He scoffs at the notion of obeah, a form of voodoo.
"You don't like, or even recognise, the good in them," she said, "and you won't believe in the other side."
"They're too damn lazy to be dangerous," said Mr. Mason. "I know that."
"They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn't understand."
"No, I don't understand," Mr. Mason always said. "I don't understand at all."
With equal bravado, Mr. Mason similarly disregards warnings from his wife's aunt.
"Live here most of your life and know nothing about the people. It's astonishing. They are children -- they wouldn't hurt a fly."
"Unhappily, children do hurt flies," said Aunt Cora.
Mr. Mason and his young friend Rochester who arrives in Jamaica shortly, are the finest products of the British Empire, masters of whatever domain they decide to inhabit. When his home is burnt, his son is dead, and his wife in an asylum following a mob's attack, Mason simply explains it as a lack of proper civilisation. Certainly he is in no way culpable.

Mr. Mason is the step-father of Antoinette, whom he hastily marries off to young Rochester.  (Rochester later takes to calling her Bertha, for reasons that are never entirely clear to either Antoinette or the reader.)  As he observes his new bride, his doubt and regret start to simmer.
I watched her critically. She wore a tricorne hat which became her. At least it shadowed her eyes which are too large and can be disconcerting. She never blinks at all it seems to me. Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, they they are not English or European either. And when did I begin to notice all this about my wife Antoinette? After we left Spanish Town I suppose. Or did I notice it before and refuse to admit what I saw? Not that I had much time to notice anything. I was married a month after I arrived in Jamaica and for nearly three weeks of that time I was in bed with fever. 

Like Mason, Rochester makes no effort to understand the black culture of the islands, much to his peril. His initial fascination with the lush vegetation, heavy scents and overall sensuality of the Caribbean quickly turns to self-righteous Victorian disgust. He arrives in this distant land, proceeds to take ownership in a careless fashion, and then recoils when he becomes aware that people and things are not as they are in England. Antoinette's maid -- a known practitioner of obeah -- pleads with him to leave his wife behind when he sails back, but in a fit of possessive pique, he refuses: "She is mine, mine!"  When Bertha/Antoinette pads off on her final foray down the corridor of his English house with the lit candle, full of purpose and clarity, I can't help but give her my admiration and blessing. He had it coming.

As I read what I've written about these novels, they sound purely dismal. They are not sunny books, to be sure, but Rhys' linguistic economy is a marvel. With very lean prose, she draws us into a complete world in a hundred or so pages. In Wide Sargasso Sea, she transplants Charlotte Bronte's two characters across the Atlantic, where she imbues them with more power than their creator could have imagined. Diana Athill, in the introduction to this collection, commented on Rhys' relationship with language.
She fell in love with words when she was a child, but she never used them rhetorically, to show them off.I have sometimes thought that the way she wrote resembled the way a cat moves (she liked cats). Her language does what it needs to do with an elegance and an economy which is perfectly natural and easy... or rather, easy-seeming. 
I can't imagine anyone envying Jean Rhys' life, but I do wish I had her skill. I wonder if they're inseparable.

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