‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [Good Morning, Midnight was her fourth] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. The story of Jean Rhys’s life is remarkable. And her writing is also remarkable and ahead of its time, but, observes Diana Athill, ‘how this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery.’ While Jean Rhys mined her own life for the material for her novels, we should not make too much of this she warned us:
All of a writer that matters is in the book. It is idiotic to be curious about the person. (tweet from @Standoutbooks)
We can agree with the first half of that quotation without feeling idiotic about our curiosity.
The first four novels were published between the wars, Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. After the war it was thought that Jean Rhys was dead, until in 1957 she answered an advertisement seeking information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. A BBC radio play of Good Morning, Midnight performed by Selma vaz Dias was being prepared. Jean Rhys was living in penury in Cornwall, and lived on until 1979, publishing her most celebrated book Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966.
Good Morning, Midnight is set in Paris in October 1937. The Englishwoman Sophia (aka Sasha) Jansen is staying in a hotel, thanks to a friend. The novel is told by Sasha, as thoughts are going through her head, so that she shifts place and time frequently, but never looses the reader. As well as the present time, we see earlier times in Paris, and in Brussels. Her voice is unrelenting, bleak, sometimes telling herself to stop speaking, sometimes saying what she would like to be saying out loud, or ventriloquising a room as in the opening paragraph.
‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’
There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basin is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.
I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.
In these first 100 words she establishes her relationship with the reader, who sees at once an odd, idiosyncratic figure, alone, impoverished, revisiting her past life. The hotel is shabby, bleak – no colour is mentioned. Her stay in Paris will be like the view out of her window, uphill, an impasse. Very quickly she persuades us that Sasha is ‘an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray’.
Sasha is not an easy person: she does not find life easy and nor do other people find her easy to deal with. There is a line that we have all noticed, as we hover near in alcohol, depression, penury, sickness or hopelessness. We struggle to keep this side of the line at all costs. Sasha has crossed the line for good. She is unable to follow her own arrangements for her ‘little life’. She constantly tells herself not to go in that bar, not to have another drink, but immediately enters the bar, orders drink after drink, meets people and suffers from their looks or comments. She knows that she is one of those people whose eye you try not to catch, who you try to ignore on the street. She does not belong, not in her cheap room off Gray’s Inn Road nor in Paris. Her solution is ‘the bright idea of drinking myself to death.’
I have no pride – no pride, no name, no face, no country. I don’t belong anywhere. Too sad, too sad. … It doesn’t matter, there I am, like one of those straws which floats round the edge of a whirlpool and is gradually sucked into the centre, the dead centre, where everything is stagnant, everything is calm. Two-pound-ten a week and a room just off the Gray’s Inn Road. …
She attracts the people who prey off other people; other hotel guests, two Russians, a painter and a gigolo. He does not believe that she has no money. But she feels safe in her poverty. There is nothing further for him to take from her, she believes. It is in the sexual transactions of this world that destitution is clearest. But the final pages of the novel are chilling, shocking. It is always possible, it seems, to slip further away on the wrong side of that line.
Jean Rhys makes a powerful impression on the reader. Who can forget the image of Mr Rochester from the attic in The Wide Sargasso Sea? And who can escape the discomfort of this earlier novel, largely because of what Emma Darwin refers to (in a short blog review) as ‘admitting the reader so absolutely to a consciousness at once so helpless and sharp-eyed’. Linda Grant, writing about Rhys in the My Hero column in the Guardian in February this year describes the effect of her style.
When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?
Some of the writing is even surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful and funny. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is what AL Kennedy, in her introduction, calls ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. It is her attitude to sexual transactions, that shocks, even while she craves closeness and will invent it with strangers to stave off bleakness, when alcohol doesn’t do it.
Her achievement, according to Emma Darwin, ‘is in her pitch-perfect depiction – and thereby her validation – of female consciousness and experiences when the lives of women (and the novels written about them) were thought duller, smaller and less interesting than those of (and written by) men. …there’s no self pity there, only a painfully acute self-knowledge.’
I can see her book would be shocking to the inter-war readers: it’s still shocking today. But although disturbing to read, it is also very powerful and affecting. And we should not make too much of her chaotic life as we now can treasure her amazing prose.
Biography by Carol Angier new edition (2011, fp 1990)
Stet: an editor’s life by Diana Athill (2000)
REMINDER: if you have a recommendation for the September Readalong, please mention it in the comments box, on this page or on the ‘about the book group’ page. Thanks Marianne for the recommendation for this book.
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