Friday June 19th, 2009

Pity the Minimalist

The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini
Norton, 336 pp., $29.95

Jean Rhys’ final novel and masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, bestows a life on Jane Eyre’s offstage villain, the Creole madwoman in the attic. Although the book appeared to wide acclaim, Rhys held a grudge against editor Diana Athill for, she believed, publishing it prematurely. “‘It was not finished,’ she said coldly. She then pointed out the existence in the book of two unnecessary words. One was ‘then,’ the other ‘quite.’”

Rhys, who toiled on the book for many years, was always known for her economy. She learned early on to pare down her prose, shaping it until her stories seemed to echo the elusive emotional truths of her own experience. It was Ford Madox Ford, one of her lovers and her very first editor, who encouraged her in this cutting, but she took to the art so immediately and so zealously that he later urged her to emphasize geographical concreteness and include physical detail. Rhys only pruned further. The four slender, deceptively straightforward novels that resulted evoke, like nothing before and very little since, the anguish of pretty young women, living hand to mouth in seedy hotels and boarding houses, who are kept, used and finally abandoned by wealthy older men.

Restraint is as essential to Rhys as the depression and fear she excavates. The intensity of her work is counterbalanced by a steely precision that serves to stave off melodrama.
The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, a brief biography by Lilian Pizzichini, reads more like a novel than a nonfiction study, and this is no accident. A foreword characterizes the book as “an attempt to recapture her life.” Passages from Rhys’ unfinished autobiography, Smile, Please, are liberally quoted and paraphrased. Conjecture as to her emotional state abounds. At times the clumsy armchair psychoanalysis weighs down the story, giving it the exaggerated sentimentality and cheap pathos of a romance novel, but the material itself is inherently fascinating.

Rhys was born Ellen Gwendolyn Rees Williams on the “wild and melancholic” Caribbean island of Dominica in 1890. Her Creole mother and Welsh father spent money as though they were rich, when in fact the family’s plantation fortune was dwindling. They had more babies than they could care for and were not averse to farming the children out to boarding schools or “giving them away” to relatives when things got tight. Eager for her parents’ attention, but mostly raised by servants, the adolescent Rhys had few defenses against the seventy-year-old gentleman and friend of the family who, taking her for carriage rides, learned her age and said, “Twelve. Quite old enough to have a lover.”

He kissed her and touched her breasts and promised to kidnap her one day, and then, when she expressed reluctance to see him a second time – her mother, unaware of what had transpired, “told her not to be so rude” – won Rhys over with sweets and “questions about herself.” He shared fantasies of spiriting her away to his “beautiful house on another island,” where she would be “sometimes quite naked as I waited on the other guests.” Perhaps her parents caught wind of his inappropriate attentions, because they eventually discouraged the man from calling. Too late: Rhys had already developed a preference for wealthy, vampiric older lovers by then, and the whole of Dominican society sensed something amiss and froze out the girl, not the man.

At fourteen Rhys boarded at a nearby convent school; as a white student, she was an aberration. A couple of years later, her parents sent her to England, where she had the opposite experience at a Cambridge girls’ institution. The other students called her a “coon” and mocked her strange island accent. She acclimated to the new country slowly, under the supervision of her “starchy,” conformist Aunt Clarice, who grew annoyed when Rhys failed to respond to the motherland “with the grateful enthusiasm of a young colonial.” Although initially excited at the prospect of a summer in London, Rhys was disappointed from the very first morning, when she awoke and rose to wander outdoors, and found a dreary street, shrouded in fog, with empty pavement stretching for miles between a somber procession of Georgian homes. The scene bore no resemblance to the charming village she’d imagined from tourist photos. In her mind, St. Paul’s, Parliament and Buckingham Palace had been congregated in the center of town, under leafy tropical foliage, beside the Thames.

Pizzichini excels at evoking Rhys’ physical revulsion to England. From the “freezing dormitory” at school, where the girls mocked her “sing-song voice,” to the brutal boarding houses in the towns where she traveled as a chorus girl (after dropping out of a dramatic arts academy that despaired of her bad accent), there was never enough heat. Having grown up in the tropics, the poor girl was always cold. To some extent Pizzichini has plundered Rhys’ novels for these descriptions, but they work; the recurring and visceral sense of bone-chilled hopelessness and exhaustion is the most affecting aspect of The Blue Hour.  
When the 20-year-old Rhys meets Lancelot – Lancey – on one of her chorus girl gigs, the reader can almost feel the extra heat he pays her landlord to deliver. He also took care of Rhys’ rent, bought her beautiful clothes, invited her to parties, and insisted she take private voice lessons. Her friends tried to warn her that the alliance would be short-lived, that she should extract as much money as possible and be prepared for the inevitable end of things, but she was deeply in love and incapable of playing the coquette (although she did cut two years from her age). When Lancey dropped her, through a younger relative, she disappeared, implicitly refusing the monthly severance allowance he’d sent the young man to offer.

With no work and no money, she lived in still more cold rooms, fell briefly into prostitution and wound up pregnant. Lancey, believing the baby was his, visited and followed up with flowers and a kitten. Initially, he said she should go through with the birth, but ultimately he paid for the abortion. He visited Rhys once more, calling her “the ghost of my kitten.” There was to be no resumption of their affair, however; checks began to flow to her each month from Lancey’s attorney. There were more men, more frigid winters. She modeled for artists and tried to write. 
At last she married Lenglet, a sometime spy and confidence man who gave her nice things when he was flush.  He took her to live in Paris, then Vienna, and then Paris again. The couple lived high on the hog if he had work — or, more likely, some sort of scheme going — and nearly starved otherwise. The family’s hand-to-mouth existence meant that, almost from birth, their daughter Maryvonne spent more time being cared for in institutions than at home. Opportunities dried up for Lenglet after he was nearly arrested in Vienna for his participation in an underground money-changing operation. Rhys, now tasked with making ends meet in Paris, tried first to sell his writing, then hers. A mutual acquaintance lightly edited her stories and sent them to Ford Madox Ford, who published her in his Transatlantic Review and launched her literary career. Just in time, too: soon Lenglet was arrested, sentenced and jailed.   
Now approaching her mid-thirties, but still dewy-eyed as a twenty-year-old, Rhys moved in with Ford and his longtime partner, Stella Bowen, and became Ford’s lover in short order. He encouraged her writing, introduced her to editors. The end of the affair, when it came, was devastating. Rhys spent the next several years writing novels about women abandoned by men. Her first novel, Quartet, was presumed by many to be an essentially factual account of what had transpired with Ford; the publisher feared a lawsuit. Of course much of Quartet, like all of her work, did borrow heavily from her life, but she added details and events, and subtracted others, and ultimately it was the feeling of rejection and near-destitution, more than any factual experience, that she wanted to, and did, capture on page.

Although she specialized in writing about abandonment, Rhys was never alone for long. Pizzichini nimbly chronicles each of her affairs, showing that when one ran dry she simply turned to the next in the long line of rescuers. By the time Quartet appeared, she had separated from Lenglet and moved in with a new lover, her agent Leslie Tilden Smith, whom she eventually married in what she called “a 50-50 relationship.” Although she resented and often raged against him for neither loving her enough nor being able to provide a lavish lifestyle, the marriage allowed her to focus on her work. “‘Writing took me over,’ she said of the next ten years of her life. ‘It was all I thought of. Nothing and nobody else mattered much to me.’”

Neither Leslie nor her next husband, Max – whom she naturally met mere days after Leslie died – could quit her no matter how she drank or how insanely she behaved. For the rest of her life, Rhys vacillated between belligerent drunkenness, deep depression, and periods of intense writing and intense love. She drove friends and admirers – including the writer Rosamund Lehmann – away, but she also wrote, moving in fits and starts, toward completion of Wide Sargasso Sea. The clarity and poignancy of her writing reached its pinnacle then. 
While Pizzichini’s narrative was composed under the influence of her subject’s own fiction, it lacks the cold focus of Rhys’ work, and tends toward the worst kind of melodrama: “Close proximity to other people wiped her out, erased her. It is so hard to get what you want in this life. Everything and everyone conspires to stop you. This was how it seemed to Jean.” . . . “Jean came to expect neglect, indifference, disbelief and cruelty from people. They were strange, inexplicable objects to which she could not attach herself.  Jean’s energy, her need for a connection, her nascent libido were re-directed back into herself, into animate objects.” . . . “[S]he would write about the chaos of non-being that she felt to be her real self disguised by the masquerade of being a woman.” . . . “[S]he lay down on the earth and kissed it, thinking all the while ‘Mine, mine.’ But the earth was indifferent. It cared not about her departure nor her return. It was yet another rejection.”

Some people who knew Rhys best have praised The Blue Hour. Her friend Diana Melly says the account is “as near as we are likely to get to how Jean saw it herself.” I’m not so sure. It’s hard to imagine any of this tinny psychoanalysis surviving Rhys’ own ruthless red pen.

Maud Newton is a writer and blogger whose reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and NPR, among other venues. Granta recently published her correspondence with Alexander Chee about Jean Rhys’ affair with Ford Madox Ford. An excerpt from Newton’s novel is featured in the spring issue of Narrative.

Books mentioned in this review:

The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea
Jane Eyre