Jean Rhys - The Woman who Wrote Women

Jean Rhys – The Woman who Wrote Women

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Jean Rhys was an author who innovated writing upon women’s emotions, mental health, and sexuality in a way that became a cornerstone of the modernist period of literature. Her definitive yet flawed female protagonists in her works like Good Morning, Midnight, Leaving Mr McKenzie, and her iconic, Wide Sargasso Sea, put her on the map for centuries to come as the woman who wrote women in an unapologetic and genuine way.

We chose Good Morning, Midnight as our January read for its dazzling prose, emphatic descriptions of loneliness and devastation, and it’s subtle resolve and glimmering moments of hope amongst the chaos of protagonist Sasha’s daily life. Rhys introduces us to a woman of no definite place or postcode, who walks alone in the world with a troubled past, but also gives us an insight into Sasha’s complex world view and how being in Paris has made her reevaluate her life on her terms. One of the first reviews of Good Morning, Midnight in 1939 remarked that is was, “well written, but too depressing”. It would seem that Rhys’ voice, still today, is dismissed as carrying too much sadness. What is readily dismissed here is the context of which Rhys’ works are written within; the very depression she herself lived in and wrote from inside of, and what makes her deep-rooted and often semi-autobiographical works some of the most harrowing and memorable pieces of literature of the modernist period. We chose Good Morning, Midnight for its relevance to our focus on Mental Health Awareness month this January; and how the novel transcends not only the subject matter itself, but also teaches us the importance of context, understanding the author, and knowledge of their body of work which can help us to enlighten a novel and its importance as a “book that matters” in our society. It counts not just because of how it is written, but from where, and why, and by whom.

Rhys’ writing achievement has been recognised by her depiction of female consciousness and experience when the lives of women (and stories written about them) were thought before this period to be duller, smaller and less interesting than those of (and written by) men – and she is frank about it all, no embellishments needed. Rhys was born and grew up on the Caribbean island of Dominica. From the age of 16, she was a resident in England, where she was sent to fulfil her education. In 1924, she came under the influence of Ford Madox Ford, who she met in Paris; and she wrote short stories under his influence and guidance. Ford acknowledged her experience in the position of an exile (having moved from Dominica to England and been scrutinised for her incapacity to adopt “proper English”), and he felt this gave Rhys a unique viewpoint from which to write, and he wrote how: “Coming from the West Indies (she has) a terrifying insight and passion for stating the case of the underdog”. It is important to note that Rhys has often, within modern academic study, been noted as sometimes problematic for adopting the language and position about being an “exile” in society typical of women of colour. Her position coming from Dominica, born to a white Creole mother, during this period was a unique one indeed, however, it is of note that she was a white writer with an unorthodox point of view for writing, but this criticism of her work exists should you wish to read into it.

Underneath her writing, Jean Rhys lead a turbulent life including a brief stint as a prostitute, an abortion paid for by an ex-lover, three marriages, alcoholism, a stay in Holloway prison for assault, and short sojourns in mental institutes. After her first husband cast her off, she was left to fend for herself and entered a deep depression, and her need for financial income meant her decision to take up prostitution. She soon became pregnant, and her ex-husband, Lancelot Hugh Grey Smith, paid for her abortion. He subsequently sent her a cheque each month to keep her off of the streets, and after rousing herself from this turbulent time, Rhys decided to take up the pen and begin writing. She poured her life experience into her novels, and subsequently became ahead of her time, and critics abhorred the worlds created in her novels; far too bleak, sad and poor to be consumable, they thought. However, we can take a great deal from the art Jean Rhys has put out into the world now, and for many centuries to come, and I believe that this quote, from her later novel, After Leaving Mr McKenzie, details the essence of what Rhys is creating in her female protagonists:

“She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts. Everybody’s life was like that. At the same time, in a miraculous manner, some essence of her was shooting upwards like a flame. She was great. She was a defiant flame shooting upwards not to plead but to threaten.”

We hope that you are enjoying Good Morning, Midnight so far. We are going to leave some of the team’s favourite quotes below. Feel free to let us know what yours are by adding them to the comments section!

There is no resolution offered by Rhys, just an honest portrait of the female consciousness through the eyes of Sasha. The quotations are relatable, beautiful, and honest.

“Today I must be very careful, today I have left my armor at home.”

“A room is, after all, a place where you can hide from the wolves. That’s all any room is.”

“I know all about myself now, I know. You’ve told me so often. You haven’t left me one rag of illusion to clothe myself in.”

“Yes, I am sad. Sad as a circus-lioness, sad as an eagle without wings, sad as a violin with only one string and that one broken, sad as a woman who is growing old. Sad, sad, sad.”

“Every word I say has chains around its ankles; every thought I think is weighted with heavy weights.”

“But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.”

“I’ve been so ridiculous all my life that a little bit more or a little bit less hardly matters now.”

“I want more of this feeling – fire and wings.”

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