Street Haunting with Jean Rhys


Arts & Culture


Illustration credit Joanna Walsh.

The author Jean Rhys had trouble finishing her stories. Rhys told her editor and friend Diana Athill that “ending a novel based on things that had really happened … was difficult because a novel must have shape, and real life usually has none.” In Rhys’s later years, spent struggling with her autobiography and idly drinking in her Devonshire bungalow, her memory was faulty. The problem wasn’t just that she couldn’t remember; Rhys told Athill that she sometimes felt “more like a pen being used than like a person using a pen,” a startling insight that perhaps led Athill to write, in the foreword to Rhys’s unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, published posthumously in 1979, that her friend had “used up” her life in fiction.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1967) was Rhys’s final book, the one that made her famous late—“too late,” she said. Set in the early nineteenth century, Wide Sargasso Sea was Rhys’s great historical vendetta, in which she furnished a life for the West Indian “madwoman” Charlotte Brontë dismissed to Rochester’s attic in Jane Eyre. I began where Rhys ended, reading her last novel at sixteen in an English class at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, England, a few doors away from the Perse School for Girls, the posh private school Rhys had attended on moving to England from Dominica in 1907. Jean and I went to school on the same street a hundred years apart, sixteen-year-old sisters in the same place at a different time. Cambridge had changed, but Jean stayed with me. Neither of us liked school, and we both knew what it was like to be derided by a Perse girl; Jean for her Creole accent, and I for being a Hills Road student (in keeping with informal tradition, our schools maintain an absurd rivalry).

In a free period, I would walk down Hills Road until the opening of Station Road, a dead-end street that brought an influx of people from the train station at its bottom: business executives back from meetings in London, students searching for their bicycles, tourists looking for the Cambridge University colleges or a Starbucks. Opposite this busy street, tucked away like a secret, were the botanical gardens where I read Wide Sargasso Sea amid fragrant, tropical plants in a less than tropical climate, and moved Jean with me into the sticky greenhouse when it rained. I thought of her whenever I passed the iron gates of Perse or saw one of their girls or boys—now accepted to the institute, though “Perse girls” has stuck in the sixth formers’ vocabulary—in their purple blazers waiting for the train home. I wondered whether Jean wore purple, too; how the uniform would have shrouded her slight frame, and complemented the blue planets of her eyes, said to have made an impression on those who met her.

But it wasn’t until I moved to London—where I read and reread Rhys’s best novels: Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939)—that I knew what Jean meant to me. I had gone to London to read English at university, choosing academia over drama school, though I wasn’t sure that it was what I wanted, and to be with someone I thought was all I needed. I imagine that when Rhys arrived in London in 1909 to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, it was more determinedly, perhaps to the whoosh of a metaphorical theatre curtain, as Anna Morgan landed in the London of Voyage in the Dark, “as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again.” But for Anna, as it was for Rhys, London became a place of rejection. Anna’s shortcomings as an actress echoed the author’s own; Rhys’s term at RADA was short-lived: her teachers, like the horrible Perse girls, scorned her Creole accent, and thereafter, she fell into a routine of chorus girl roles. 

The reality and the dream were always separate. Life slipped into a series of repetitions, the same stagnant play performed every night and matinee. Of Anna’s stint as a touring chorus girl, Rhys wrote, “You were perpetually moving to another place which was perpetually the same. There was always a little grey street leading to the stage-door of the theatre and another little grey street where your lodgings were, and rows of little houses like the funnels of dummy steamers and smoke the same colour as the sky.” Paris was more of the same as her characters’ lives slotted into a similarly weary template. For Sasha Jansen, the heroine of Good Morning, Midnight, “life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking glasses I look nice in, looking glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.” Rhys’s slender novels are full of elegantly rambling sentences like these—always dithering to get somewhere, like her characters.

I thought of Jean again when I visited Paris, walking past the now offensively expensive cafés flanking the Left Bank. At their multiple tables, I pictured multiple Jeans sipping from glasses of vermouth paid for as they were in her books, by sleazy Frenchmen and expat Americans. More likely, Jean’s drinks were ordered for her by Ford Madox Ford, with whom she lived briefly in Paris. Rhys wrote the story of that affair in Quartet, wherein Ford appeared as an incorrigible sexual tyrant, Hugh Heidler, and her heroine, Marya Zelli, his unhappy mistress. And love was just as wretched to Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie—a cruel joke of a title, since it was, in fact, Mr. Mackenzie who left her. Back in England, another marriage—my parents’—was falling apart, but I had booked the trip to Paris months before, and couldn’t disappoint the friends I was traveling with. As we strolled the grounds at Versailles, waited in the long queue for the Eiffel Tower, and for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre—another chick who looked like she wanted to be elsewhere—I was happy and unhappy. I didn’t want to be in this beautiful city, but I didn’t want to be home, either; I understood a little of what Jean felt.

One day, I saw her. I was studying a stack of books at Shakespeare & Co., when I felt a pair of eyes watching me. I looked up and saw her cartoonish eyes under a coiffured hairdo framing her lovely face, resting on her hands in that pose writers assume in the jackets of their books. But Jean wasn’t alone; she was with Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes, among other émigré writers that had flocked to Paris, and whose caricatured faces now festooned Shakespeare’s walls in mock frames. I was excited to have run into Jean, to see that she had been remembered here, and that, though she hadn’t found home in Paris, a part of the city had given her one. It also seemed marvellously appropriate that I should find her when I needed her most, in a bookshop.

One gets the sense that Rhys was always trying to break out of a pattern whilst framing a larger one, to fit things together in life as she was in her fiction. When we meet them, Rhys’s characters have already made big geographical moves, so what’s left are all of life’s little choices; her heroines perpetually flit between inside and outside, room and street, yes and no. Because the lives of Rhys’s characters map onto the author’s—Marya, Julia, Anna, and Sasha are the real pen pushers of Rhys’s story—they’re always bumping into each other at these crossroads. Sasha believes that indifference—“when you don’t care any longer if you live or die”—is bliss. “As soon as you have reached this heaven of indifference, you are pulled out of it.” Though indifference doesn’t exist in any Rhys novel. “I do believe that life’s all laid out for one. One’s choices don’t matter much,” she told The Paris Review. “If you can adapt, you’re all right. But it’s not always easy if you’re born not adapted, a bit of a rebel; then it’s difficult to force yourself to adapt. One is born either to go with or to go against.” At the close of the novel, as she lies back in bed, welcoming a sleep from which we know she won’t stir, Sasha crosses the ultimate street as she utters her answer to death, a resounding “Yes…” Rhys, who was “a bit of rebel,” and pushed the oxygen mask from her face at the end of her story, chose the same. For all their passivity in searching for indifference, Rhys’s heroines always hold out possibility. They aren’t relenting or hopeless, but persistent women fighting for a better life, or, where there isn’t one, death—which isn’t “no,” but “yes.”

It’s true that my love of Jean Rhys began with Wide Sargasso Sea, though it didn’t end there. Where that book put Rhys on the literary map, I wanted to get lost with Jean again in the metropolis of her earlier fiction. Boarding a plane at Heathrow last summer, I thought I had left her behind for New York, a city that Rhys never wrote about at length but one in which I find her time again. She’s with me on the L train, at the corner table of my favorite Greenpoint dive, at the cafés where they like me and don’t. Jean’s here now in my room in Brooklyn, and when I step outside, she’ll walk with me through the streets I occasionally still get lost in, thinking and dreaming about home, wondering where exactly that place is.

Chloe Pantazi is a freelance writer, and a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Her writing has appeared on Flavorwire, Hyperallergic, and Rockfeedback. She lives in Brooklyn via the UK, and you can find her on Twitter.