Jean Rhys's fiction is deceptively simple. Her post-colonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre about Mr. Rochester's wife, won the W. H. Smith Award in 1967. Known for her stark style, Rhys wrote four shattering novels in the 1930s portraying impoverished, drifting women on the verge of breakdown.
My favorites are her 1930s novels, but I recently turned to her short stories. In Tigers Are Better-Looking, a collection of short stories published in 1968 (and my volume includes some of the stories from The Left Bank, her first collection), her fragile, self-destructive heroines are so listless as almost to disappear. They are attractive and presentable, but cannot cope with the world. Some work as mannequins for little money; others are drunk and impecunious in rented rooms. They insult landladies or neighbors. Men leave them. Life is exhausting.
These stories are uneven, but compelling.
In "Outside the Machine," Rhys echoes D. H. Lawrence's views on the mechanization of human beings (Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover, etc.). The heroine, Inez, is waiting for surgery in a clinic in Versailles because her "inside" has given out. In a ward of 15 women, the English characters are the least sympathetic: the respectable blondes look at Inez with scorn, and Pat, the narcissistic actress, has little tolerance for people who don't fit in. The clinic seems like a machine to Inez, with the nurses and patients running smoothly as cogs and wheels.
"She lay very still, so that nobody knew she was afraid. Because she was not part of the machine they might come along any time with a pair of huge iron tongs and pick her up and leave her on the rubbish heap, and there she would lie and rot. 'Useless, this one,' they would say; and throw her away before she could explain."But when the suicidal Mrs. Murphy is taunted and tormented by the mob of women in the ward, Inez stands up for her, proving she is not part of the machine. And an older woman, Madame Tavernier, who had "left England as a child and never been back, "is able to help Inez. The women who are not part of the machine discover each other.
In "The Lotus," Ronnie invites Lotus, the resident of the basement apartment, to visit him and his young wife, Christine, in the apartment upstairs. Lotus, plump and middle-aged, stands in the middle of the room to recite her poetry, while beautiful Christine shrieks insults and laughs . They are all very drunk, but Christine's ridicule precipitates Lotus's breakdown after she goes downstairs and is unable to find more drink.
Many of Rhys's heroines have trouble sleeping. Some depend on Valerian, an herbal remedy prescribed since the second century. In "Hunger" (originally published in The Left Bank in 1928), Rhys begins dramatically: "Last night I took an enormous dose of Valerian to make me sleep. I have awakened this morning very calm and rested, but with shaky hands."
We are more worried about tablets. In "A Solid House," after a night in the basement during an air raid, Teresa considers telling her landlady, Miss Spearman, about the nature of her illness. Rhys shifts from third to first person, and Teresa's memories are disturbingly vivid.
"...then it was afternoon--a hot afternoon. You know, there does come an afternoon when you think, 'I want a rest; I want a good long sleep.' So I took two tablets, and then another two. Then I drank some whisky and it seemed quite clear. Now, my lass, now Hope, the vulture, will have to go and feed on somebody else. I thought, 'I must wear my pretty dress for this.' So I went on and put on my blue dress and powdered my face."She recovers from her suicide attempt miraculously. Now, still looking for sleep in Miss Spearman's house, she must resist the landlady's attempts to sell her secondhand clothes, exhortation to take a walk in the area bombed last night, and an invitation to a seance. Teresa finds herself wanting to take a little doze.
Rhys is a natural writer about helpless women. Her work, according to Diana Athill's introduction to The Complete Novels (Norton), is autobiographical. She was discovered in Paris by Ford Madox Ford in 1924, with whom she had an affair while her first husband was in jail. She was a chorus girl, a model, and often somebody's mistress. After publishing a collection of short stories and four novels in the '30s, she dropped out of sight.
"In a novel the smallest touch of autobiographical special pleading, whether it takes the form of self-pity or exhibibionis, will destroy the reader's confidence. To avoid such touches the writer must be able to stand back from the experience far enough to see the whole of it and must concentrate with a self-purging intensity on the process of reproducing it in words. Jean Rhys could stand back..."
We are fascinated by Rhys's world.