Jean Rhys Speaks



Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, an island among the British West Indies. Though she spent most of her life in England, her time in the Caribbean left her with a distinctive, lilting accent. It sounds beautiful to me, but in 1909 it got her kicked out of the Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where she was supposedly “slow to improve” it. In this minute-long clip, she dispenses some dour wisdom about writing and happiness. (The rumors are true: they’re inversely related.) If you don’t have a pair of headphones handy—or if you’re just paralyzed with fear at the thought of hearing a deceased person’s voice—here’s a rough transcript: 

When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written about being happy, never. I didn’t want to—besides, I don’t think you can describe being happy. I’ve never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anybody has? I think, I think you can be peaceful for quite a long time—but to be happy is different, isn’t it? And that’s a bit rarer, I can’t help feeling.*

But then altogether, I think, well, I think if I had to choose I’d rather be happy than write. If I had my life all over again and could choose.

Though I can’t confirm its provenance, I think the clip must have its origins in The Paris Review’s interview with Rhys, published in 1979, the year she died. The interview text isn’t available online, but I’ve found a portion of it that aligns almost verbatim with the recording:

When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anyone has? I think you can be peaceful for a long time. When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes. I think it was Somerset Maugham who said that if you “write out” a thing … it doesn’t trouble you so much. You may be left with a vague melancholy, but at least it’s not misery—I suppose it’s like a Catholic going to confession, or like psychoanalysis.

Interested parties should be sure check out Rhys’s letters—sadly out of print now—which often find her in rare form. They read, of course, like rays of candied sunshine. Here she is contemplating suicide:

Last night I was thinking ‘If I could jump out of the window one bang and I’d be out of it.’ For this is the sixth floor.

Then I thought of Max’s story of the old lady who went to church with her ear trumpet. And so the stern Scotch sexton or verger or something, eyed her a bit. Then he said ‘Madam one toot and you’re oot.’ Perhaps that’s what it would be like, One toot and you’re oot.

Our Fall 1979 issue, which contains the full Jean Rhys interview, is for sale on our online store.

*Thanks to Emma Seaber for helping me hear this line correctly.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.