FROM THE STACKS: The Honesty of Jean Rhys

From the Stacks is a new series on Weird Sister wherein we pull a book—old, new, or anything in between—from our bookshelves, and write something about it.


The Collected Novels of Jean Rhys

The Collected Novels of Jean Rhys #feministshelfie

I recently had a conversation with a man about Bukowski. Had I read much Bukowski? I said I’ve avoided a lot of the bro-writers: Bukowski, Burroughs, Miller, Kerouac (though I’ve come to love Kerouac). He said, Yeah, those guys are great writers, but, you know, they’re not really great toward women.

It’s not surprising we have a whole genre of literature by men who disrespect, objectify, reduce, and silence women. A more interesting question is, who are the women—especially the early women writers—of whom we might say the same: they aren’t really great toward men, you know, but they’re still worth reading.

I posed this question to a brilliant poet friend, who responded that while male writers are often being sexist when they write about women, women are often being honest. So the comparison doesn’t really work, she said, laughing. She then made some contemporary suggestions: Dodie Bellamy. Kathy Acker. Rebecca Solnit.

But what about going further back into the archives?

I’ve been on a Jean Rhys kick lately. I blame it on Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, but also on a writer girlfriend who, when I recently went through a breakup while traveling in a foreign country, emailed to suggest I imagine myself in a Jean Rhys novel.

There’s something very contemporary about Jean Rhys’ novels. Through fictional female protagonists (thinly veiling her own life experiences), she provides an unflinching, searing view of sex and relationships in the 1930s. The men are pompous jerks. The female protagonists are struggling, financially and emotionally, often dependent on men for money; they are women caught in the negative cycle of beauty standards—afraid of aging, afraid of being unattractive, vulnerable to the abuses of men.

Despite publishing After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie in 1931 (85 years ago!) and Good Morning, Midnight in 1938 (78 years ago!), Rhys’ observations are so timeless and astute that they could easily be describing our society’s obsession with the internet, social media, and dating apps in 2016. For example, Rhys’ protagonist in Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha Jensen, observes of her fellow humans:

“Everything in their whole bloody world is a cliché. Everything is born out of a cliché, rests on a cliché, survives by a cliché. And they believe in the clichés—there’s no hope.” (Good Morning, Midnight 42)

“I don’t know how to succeed, but look how hard I try. Three hours to choose a hat; every morning an hour and a half trying to make myself look like everyone else. Every word I say has chains round its ankles; every thought I think is weighted with heavy weights. […] But think how hard I try and how seldom I dare.” (Good Morning, Midnight 106)

In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, the infamous Mr. Mackenzie, who has just dumped protagonist Julia Martin, muses on his travels, yet this might as well be Rhys musing on every 2016 dude’s dating app, with its bevy of seemingly-obligatory travel photos:

“He wondered whether it had been worth while to spend the only legacy he had, or was ever likely to have, in travelling about Spain and the south of France, because he had a vague idea that the sight of the sun would cure all his ills and would develop the love of life and humanity in which he felt that he was lamentably deficient.” (36)

Long before the Gurlesque, Rhys was writing about makeup, shopping, and femininity. Her observations on being an aging woman and the beauty and fashion industries are wry, while simultaneously celebrating their ceremonial power and possibilities for connection with other women:

“She made herself up elaborately and carefully; yet it was clear that what she was doing had long ceased to be a labour of love and had become partly a mechanic process, partly a substitute for the mask she would have liked to wear.

“To stop making up would have been a confession of age and weariness. It would have meant that Mr Mackenzie had finished her.” (After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie 14)

“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.” (Good Morning, Midnight 45)

“I must go and buy a hat this afternoon, I think, and tomorrow a dress. I must get on with the transformational act.” (Good Morning, Midnight 63)

Later in Good Morning, Midnight, at the hat shop where protagonist Sasha Jensen is the only customer and the shop girl helps her pick out the trendiest hat, despite Sasha fearing she looks ridiculous in it, she thinks:

“There is no one else in the shop. It is quite dark outside. We are alone, celebrating this extraordinary ritual.” (Good Morning, Midnight 70)

In Good Morning, Midnight, Sashsa Jensen sits at a hair salon, while her hair is dyed blonde, reading a women’s magazine:

“No, mademoiselle, your letter is nonsensical. You will never get thin that way—never. Life is not so easy. Life, mademoiselle, is difficult. At your age it will be very difficult to get thin. But…

Petite Maman—No, Petite Maman, you are not reasonable. Love is one thing; marriage—alas!—is quite another. If you haven’t found that out yet you soon will, I assure you. Nevertheless… ‘

No, mademoiselle, no, madame, life is not easy. Do not delude yourselves. Nothing is easy. But there is hope (turn to page 5), and yet more hope (turn to page 9)…

I am in the middle of a long article by a lady who has had her breasts lifted when he takes the dryer off my head.” (Good Morning, Midnight 62)

The only disappointing thing in Good Morning, Midnight and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is that Rhys’ protagonists aren’t writers, like Rhys herself. Yet, despite this absence, the protagonists are clearly sharp women, observant of society and critical of the particular social pressures facing intelligent, driven woman. In Good Morning, Midnight, for example, Sasha Jensen has a conversation with a young man she’s befriended. He calls her “a cérébrale,” to which she replies:

“’What is a cérébrale, anyway? I don’t know. Do you?’

‘A cérébrale,’ he says, seriously, ‘is a woman who doesn’t like men or need them.’

‘Oh, is that it? I’ve often wondered. Well, there are quite a lot of those, and the ranks are daily increasing.’

‘Ah, but a cérébrale doesn’t like women either. Oh, no. The true cérébrale is a woman who likes nothing and nobody except herself and her own damned brain or what she thinks is her brain.’” (162)

Sasha Jensen ends the conversation with a curt observation about how society sees this type of intellectual and independent woman, which feels almost as true in 2016 as it must have felt in 1938:

‘In fact, a monster.’” (162)

In a world of online social shaming (see: Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publically Shamed), Rhys’ pessimistic world view practically prophesized this phenomenon:

“’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. And I’m very much afraid of the whole bloody human race… Afraid of them?’ I say. ‘Of course I’m afraid of them. Who wouldn’t be afraid of a pack of damned hyenas?’” (Good Morning, Midnight 172-173)

It’s true that Rhys sidesteps actual sex, dancing around a sexual assault in Good Morning, Midnight with language that suggests he does, he doesn’t, she fights him off? (It reminds me of the sexual assault scene in Plath’s The Bell Jar, when Esther is suspiciously successful at fighting off her rapist by punching him in the nose…) Trapped in an era where sexuality could only be veiled (with exceptions, of course, like Anaïs Nin and Violette Leduc), Rhys can only evoke the dark sexuality of a woman both independent and reliant upon men, especially at the end of Good Morning, Midnight, in two uncomfortable encounters with a young gigolo and her hotel neighbor, neither of whom it is clear she wants.

Lauren Elkin, in a recent piece at The Paris Review, defines the flâneuse (a female flâneur), the subject of her upcoming book, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, as well as the subject of a recent Hermès campaign as: “someone who gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind its façades, penetrating its secret courtyards. Rather than wandering aimlessly, like the flâneur, the most salient characteristic of the flâneuse is that she goes where she’s not supposed to.”

Rhys writes of the flâneuse, who is, indeed, a woman who “goes where she’s not supposed to”—into the mind of the single, aging woman, with her self-criticism and her keen eye trained on men, thus setting the path for the Ackers and Bellamys and Zambrenos of today.

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