For the first time, Rhys’s implacably bitter tales of young and not-so-young women stranded on the fringes of capitalist London and bohemian Paris gained a wide and serious readership. Rhys’s world was one of despair, and the fate of her heroines was all but preordained, but the books were never facile or tiresome. She offered nearly absolute negations of the promises of romance and security, but in a style so intense and perfectly formed that her writing worked on the reader as a kind of affirmation in spite of itself.
Simply on literary terms, then, Rhys was a find. Perhaps more to the point of her rediscovery, as Thomas E Staley writes in his fine new critical study, Jean Rhys (University of Texas Press, 140 pp., $11.95), was “the implicit challenge in all of [Rhys’] work to the entire fabric of social and moral order” that ruled the lives of characters: an order that condemned women who were incapable of a bourgeois existence to a state of economic and sexual dependence—to a passivity and superfluousness that led irrevocably to spiritual and likely physical destruction. That was Rhys’s theme, pursued without flinching, and it was not missed by a new feminist audience eager for literary heroines of its own and recognizing itself governed by the same social and moral order Rhys identified. The daughter of a Welsh father and a Creole mother, Rhys was born in Dominica, in the West Indies, in 1894. She left for England at sixteen, where she worked as a dancer and model: after the war she married a Continental adventurer, and with him lived a destitute, hard-drinking, and unstable life across Europe. In 1924, in Paris, unable to care for her two-year-old daughter and with her husband in a French prison, Rhys met Ford Madox Ford. He drew her into an exploitative affair that ultimately led to the breakup of her marriage; Ford also became her literary patron, and made her into a writer.
When Rhys returned to England in the late Twenties, she had published two books: both drew on her years as a displaced woman living in furnished rooms and cafes. In England, she published three more novels, and married twice more. By 1945 she was twice a widow and no longer a writer.
In the Sixties and early Seventies, such a background made Rhys both exotic and fashionable, and she became a full-blown cult figure. Not only were her new stories published in the New Yorker; still beautiful in her seventies, she was pictured in fashion magazines and lionized in profiles. In the New York Times Book Review she was pronounced “the best living English novelist”
If her books were uniformly about defeat, about last hopes cruelly raised and casually broken, as they found new life, it seemed almost as if they had stolen back those last hopes from the wreckage of their closing pages. And yet, when Rhys died a year ago at the age of eighty-four, her books did not pass from one person to another so readily as they had just a few years before, nor did many still seem to take them as radical touchstones of female or, for that matter, male—experience.
Bringing up Rhys, you were likely to hear, “Oh, I can’t stand the helplessness of all those women,” or even, “Once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all—gloom, gloom, gloom.”
The reasons for such reactions are not hard to understand. Though not “innocent,” Rhys’ heroines are victims—of their own unconventional aspirations, of their lack of education and skill, of society, of men, of other women. A portrait of woman as victim struck a chord in the late Sixties and early Seventies; rendered with the insistence and color Rhys gave it, such a portrait seemed like a revelation. Today, at least among the sort of audience that rescued Jean Rhys in the first place, that chord has rung out, and the revelation has been filed. Because of the co-optation of feminism into the oppressively glamorized careerist boosterism typified by Ms. magazine and “now I choose my own wine” commercials, female characters like those created by Rhys are now turned aside—just as Janis Joplin’s “Woman Is Losers” has been replaced by Chrissie Hynde’s “Precious.”
Men no less than women want positive role models and female characters who are sexually successful. Rhys’s heroines—easily used by men, lacking any sense of sisterhood, with sexual response all but driven out of them—no longer seem very “modern”; in fact, because they do not fit contemporary norms, they may not even seem realistic. A writer who once seemed to offer “a challenge to the social and moral order” can be dismissed merely as a creature of her time or, worse, as merely neurotic—a great stylist, to be sure, but not much more.