I devoured Jean Rhys as a teenager, as many teenage girls of a certain type do, or did then anyway. Despite growing up in suburban Surrey rather than the Caribbean, the sense of being out of place and alone that pervades Jean Rhys’s stories resonated with me completely, as did the paranoia that her central characters tend to feel, the sense of being mocked, stared at, whispered about; that everyone has it in for you, and secretly or overtly hates you for being different, and you will never fit in; that people in general are cruel, shallow, duplicitous and hateful.
So I associate her with quite a specific time in my youth, and haven’t read her since then. Coming back to her nearly 40 years later was interesting. Books don’t affect me as much as they did then – nothing does really, to be honest – so in my emotionally-dulled middle age I was more aware of the quality of her writing and the poignancy of her talent disappearing into sozzled obscurity than the substance of the stories.
And they are sketches rather than stories; beautifully-done studies of various types of unhappiness. There’s nothing uplifting or inspiring or edifying, no happy endings or victories: things generally go from bad to worse for her characters. But they do it very beautifully, and that was her great gift; she wrote directly from experience and made such gorgeous stuff from the hardship and sorrow of her own life, rendering it as art rather than trying to give it all Some Greater Meaning. Reading this volume felt more like taking in a gallery of dark melancholy portraits; framed figures looking back at you, some desolate, some brooding, some defiant but trapped, some altogether lost. But all beautiful, despite or perhaps because of the sadness.
What stood out for me most though was her genius for setting; the poisoned idyll of the Caribbean, the squalor of Paris, the meanness of London, the loneliness of rural England are what I remember most. And these corrupted and damaged places breed corrupted and damaged people, and vice versa, and is it any wonder that no good comes of them, and that innocence, kindness and love are doomed. In spite of the Jean Rhys world-view that everywhere is ruined and everyone is vile, to go on creating such beautiful work throughout your life from this bleak standpoint is maybe to be treasured more that writing from a sense joy and wonder. To see and feel the rottenness and darkness and still want to create art from it is for me what makes her work so special.