The Sadness of Jean Rhys

Long before contemporary female novelists began writing of female abjection, Jean Rhys was doing it better

Mariah Kreutter

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The heroine is alienated and suffused with self-loathing. Everyone who she might love is dead. She shuffles through a decadent city drinking cheap coffee and eating very little. She has arrived at an ambition: She will erase herself. She retreats to a single room, sleeps all day, drinks all night, takes pills to sleep more. Or this one: A young woman comes to rely on her older, married lover for money. She is poor, but the kind of genteel poor that can’t bring itself to work a menial job. Towards the end something goes wrong with her uterus.

The style is spiky, perhaps dominated by an upward piercing “I,” and rather less effective when it isn’t. The “I” is a woman, much like the author herself, and quite sad. The sentences are short and direct and light on commas: “Hester started talking about Cambridge. She was always talking about Cambridge.” “She was twenty-eight years old and all sorts of things had happened to her.” “I got happier when it grew darker. A moth flew into my face and I hit at it and killed it.” The humor is dark and deadpan, if it’s there at all — you can’t quite tell when and if you’re supposed to laugh. Deborah Eisenberg called it “as sharp and lucent and alarming as a piece of broken crystal.”

It’s the kind of writing that would be described as sharp. Women’s writing always is — why is that? You see it in book reviews constantly, especially if the writer is attractive and under thirty-five. This is true even when the reviewer is also a woman. A sharp wit, a sharp perspective. Razor-sharp. Sharp-eyed. Sharp, or else raw. Raw: underdone, anti-domestic, rough, painful, a little bit horny. Raw dough, raw sex, raw flesh from an open wound. Honed or else ragged. Cutting, or having been cut.

I could be talking about Ottessa Moshfegh, or Sally Rooney, or a small stable of “sharp” female authors of the past five to ten years. I’m not, though. I’m talking about Jean Rhys. Good Morning, Midnight and Voyage in the Dark in particular. I have just performed a cheap and obvious trick, the kind favored by youth pastors and Shmoop writers, to emphasize my point: that much of the acclaimed and culturally relevant writing about pain and abjection being done by women today owes a significant and poorly understood debt to the four autobiographical novels Rhys wrote between the wars.

Rhys, at this point, is not in any particular danger of being forgotten. Wide Sargasso Sea, her final novel, is a fixture of postcolonial and feminist literature courses. The contours of her long and difficult life — Caribbean childhood, alcoholism, affairs, poverty, two incarcerated husbands, the death of an infant son, a long fallow period when she was believed to be dead, success at last when Wide Sargasso Sea came out in 1966 — continue to fascinate. But her earlier novels — Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight — are comparatively less read.

The details are always the same: dingy boarding houses, dull cafes, horrible dance halls populated by demonic old men, Pernod, whiskey-and-soda, another brandy, another vermouth, an eternal need for new clothes, the indignity of labor, the impossibility of happiness, London, Paris, longing for home, men who abandon you, children who die. If they had been published today they might be called autofiction; they certainly draw extensively and almost exclusively from Rhys’s life. She was one of the great artists of solipsism of the twentieth century. In a diary from the forties, she wrote out a dialogue in which she argues that all beauty, ugliness, love, hate, life, et cetera, exists within herself; all others are unknowable, “as trees walking.” Marya Zelli of Quartet is drawn into a painful romantic triangle with a couple that supports her after her husband is sent to jail; it is based heavily on Rhys’s affair with Ford Madox Ford. Anna Morgan’s journey from the West Indies, stint as a chorus girl, and traumatic abortion in Voyage in the Dark again mirror Rhys’s own. The same holds for the older protagonists of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie and Good Morning, Midnight: both lost children and were cast aside by lovers, as Rhys did and was. And so on.

But if Jean Rhys was chronically incapable of writing about anything other than herself, she also had the necessary ruthless detachment to do it well. “I can abstract myself from my body,” she wrote in her partial autobiography, Smile Please, of her experience during a back-alley abortion. She could abstract herself from her work as well: Her heroines, who hew so closely to her own experience, are never spared. “I’ve been so ridiculous all my life that a little bit more or a little bit less hardly matters now,” says one. They pity themselves, but Rhys never pities them. She was a diligent reviser, “raw” in the sense of open woundedness but never as a matter of process. To contemporary critics, her unsparing commitment to bleakness detracted from her acknowledged brilliance as a writer; a 1931 review of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie described Rhys as “enamoured of gloom to an incredible degree.” To be enamored of gloom is to dare to find your own suffering romantic. It’s an imprecise phrase when applied to Rhys, who on the page was neither sentimental nor glamorous. But it begins to sound, in 2021, like more of a badge of honor than an attack.

Female abjection isn’t new, but it is newly trendy. Women who write about suffering women are on all kinds of lists: short, long, bestseller. The Guardian says women have conquered fiction. We’re the only ones allowed to write about sex anymore. We’re almost allowed to write about sex without being marketed as “urgent and necessary in the #MeToo era.” And it’s all there, this moment, writers like Moshfegh, Rooney, Rachel Cusk, Leslie Jamison, Megan Nolan: it’s all there in early Rhys. (There’s a pervasive whiteness to the work in this vein that becomes most inescapable, though writers like Raven Leilani certainly disrupt that trend; Rhys’s relationship to race is several graduate theses on its own.) It’s there in Rhys’s frank writing about sex, financial precarity, romantic abjection; it’s there in her fragmentation, in her flat sentences, in her heroines’ relentless indifference; in her mining of her own experience; in her blatant yet canny deployment of self-pity.

If Jean Rhys was chronically incapable of writing about anything other than herself, she also had the necessary ruthless detachment to do it well.

Not that you would know it. None of the authors I’ve mentioned are routinely compared to Jean Rhys; in fact, they are rarely compared to anyone but each other. Most book reviews outside of approximately six committed literary publications are short on both space and memory. Marketing shortcuts trump historicity. Every young female writer is the new Sally Rooney, as if anyone needed such a thing when the old Sally Rooney is barely 30; the name “Ottessa Moshfegh” has become the favored shorthand for publisher’s copy trying to signal that this book by a woman is a little too edgy for Reese Witherspoon. Megan Nolan, in the Guardian article linked above, said that “it’s only relatively recent that you could have fiction written by a woman about intimate subjects like sex — and for it to be classed as literary fiction.” I understand what Nolan’s getting at — women’s writing about sex has never been quite so prevalent or applauded as it is now — but Jean Rhys is just one of the many writers whose work contradicts her. Sexuality is alive and central in her novels. “Some women don’t start liking it till they are getting old; that’s a bit of bad luck if you like,” says Laurie in Voyage in the Dark. “I’d rather wear myself out while I’m young.”

But if Rhys was an ancestress of contemporary women’s writing (whatever any of those words mean), she was also an original whose most interesting qualities have never quite been matched. The way she writes cruelty, for example. There’s a remarkable scene in Voyage in the Dark where Anna is sitting with her wealthy older lover, Walter, and some friends of his. At this point in the story Anna depends on Walter for her livelihood; she’s given up her work as a chorus girl to be a kept woman. Someone asks where Walter found her and she says she was in a show at Southsea. Everyone laughs, including Walter. She tells them to shut up. They keep laughing. She asks what the joke is. They keep laughing. She puts her cigarette down on Walter’s hand. “I jammed it down hard and held it there, and he snatched his hand away and said ‘Christ!’ But they had stopped laughing.”

There’s a brutality to all of her characters — the men, perhaps, especially, but the women too. “You want to know what I’m afraid of? All right, I’ll tell you… I’m afraid of men—yes, I’m very much afraid of men. And I’m even more afraid of women,” says Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight. “And I’m very much afraid of the whole bloody human race.” Her heroines, as much as they’re victimized, are never passive or incapable of doing harm. They can be cruel. Violent, even. These women are always killing animals and loving it. A few pages after putting out a cigarette on her sugar daddy’s hand, Anna reminisces about her Caribbean childhood, and the crabs that lived in the waters: “They have small eyes at the end of long feelers, and when you throw stones at them their shells smash and soft, white stuff bubbles out.” (Note that smashing their shells is not an if but a when.) Julia Martin, in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, remembers being scolded for catching butterflies in a tobacco tin: “Of course, what always happened was that it broke its wings… Sometimes it was too badly hurt to be able to fly properly.” Even as an adult, Julia can’t condemn her younger self. “Because you knew what you had hoped had been to keep the butterfly in a comfortable cardboard-box and give it the things it liked to eat. And if the idiot broke its wings, that wasn’t your fault.”

Vicious, reactive female protagonists are hardly an extinct species — Moshfegh, for one, writes them beautifully — but much popular writing, especially of the autobiographical kind, has become so preoccupied with ethical performance that they are rarer than they should be. Pop culture is hardly any braver. I remember watching Promising Young Woman, an Oscar-winning backlash magnet about a woman who gets revenge on would-be rapists by pretending to be drunk and then lightly scolding them for taking her home, and thinking: That’s it? That’s where we are, as far as female revenge plots go? Are we still so obsessed with perfect victims that even our vigilantes can’t stain their hands with violence? Upmarket fiction by twenty-eight year old women is full of girls asking their boyfriends to hit them; two nearly identical such scenes appear in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Normal People. Receiving pain, craving pain, is a well-documented aspect of the feminine in contemporary literature. But what about causing pain? Is that only for men?

I suspect this shyness about cruelty is a consequence, in part, of the whiteness of publishing: victimhood is endlessly tolerated, endlessly interesting, when coming from white women. (Rhys was a white West Indian, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a Dominican woman descended from the island’s plantation owning class, though she often longed for and identified with a Blackness it seems fair to say she did not understand.) The aggressive aftershocks of committed self-pity sit unexamined. The potential to be both abject and cruel might be recognized, but is rarely explored. Jamison, in her addiction memoir The Recovering, only briefly notes that her boyfriend’s friends thought she was emotionally abusive; Cusk, in Aftermath, a divorce memoir so icily received by critics that it prompted her to reinvent point-of-view in fiction just to get out of having a self-revealing narrator, acknowledges but immediately dismisses her ex-husband’s belief “that I had treated him monstrously” as a “story, and lately I have come to hate stories.” Most criticism of Cusk — and there was plenty — scolded her for being mean and self-absorbed rather than for not fully engaging with the objectively human experience of being mean and self-absorbed. These days, it sometimes feels like women are only cruel when they have to be, and only to themselves or their exes, who probably had it coming.

But cruelty, in Rhys’s novels, is as inevitable as another drink. “Jean’s life… really did seem to be the same few scenes re-enacted over and over,” wrote Carole Angier, one of Rhys’s biographers. Is there a better metaphor for how we talk about women’s writing? The surprisingly sharp, the refreshingly raw. I’m glad women will keep publishing novels in the lineage of what Rhys did almost a hundred years ago, writing about failed motherhood, failed relationships, exploitative men, substance dependency, indifference towards life, perhaps even their own capacity to hurt — but always, I’m sure, it will be for the first time.

Mariah Kreutter is a writer living in Brooklyn.