Thomas E Staley’s Jean Rhys: a Critical Study (University of Texas Press, 140 pp., $11.95) is the first book on Rhys, and it comes at a good moment—because Rhys is no longer so eagerly read as she was just a few years ago. Her bitter tales of women victimized by poverty, men, other women, bourgeois values and the ironic deflections of bohemianism, so appealing five years back, seem not to ring so true in an era when women are told assertiveness will solve their problems. We may very well need a solid piece of criticism to rescue Rhys again.
Jean Rhys has a number of virtues, not least of which is its modesty. Staley, who is now working on a biography of Rhys (her autobiography*, left unfinished, will be out shortly), does not pretend to be definitive. A professor of literature at the University of Tulsa who has published books on James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson, Staley wants to open discussion, not close it. Lucidly and briefly, he presents the facts of Rhys’s life, traces the development of her craft, themes and characterizations, makes sense of her work over a very long time and confirms her uniqueness and importance. There are flaws: Staley’s prose can get a bit strangled; he very much overrates Rhys’s early and late short stories (in a few pages, her insistence on doom can seem imposed on her characters or, worse, not very doomy at all); his index is a joke. Otherwise, the book is wholly admirable.
Staley’s great strength is that he is never reductionist. He avoids a Freudian approach, which, with a writer as vulnerable and even “paranoid” as Rhys, would be utterly destructive—making her into a case study, not an artist. Unlike so many critics working these days, Staley never takes fiction as mere autobiography. While biographical details are illuminating in Staley’s study, they are never allowed to suffocate what Rhys created, what she made up.
Staley rightly stresses Rhys’s affair with Ford Madox Ford, and he clarifies to what degree her first novel, Quartet, reflected that affair. But he also makes clear how the novel departed from “the facts”—how it became a novel, and failed to become a novel. More importantly, Staley looks for and identifies that point where Rhys’s fiction truly cut loose from her own life and began to stake its claim as an imagined world, a world with the shape, integrity and force only fiction can give.
Staley understands that Rhys’s women are post-Freudian—that they are, as he says, “deeply suspicious of all human motivation,” always on their guard, which is somehow never high enough. (It may be because the heroine of Wide Sargasso Sea is not “post-Freudian”—the book is Rhys’s imagining of the early life of the mad first wife of Jane Eyre‘s Mr. Rochester—that her characterization is just less than convincing, as if Rhys herself did not quite believe in the credulity of her heroine’s madness.)
More interestingly, Staley compares the privation and desperation of Rhys’s early heroines—their exile in the half-world somewhere between bourgeoisie and the lumpen-proletariat—to those of the far more revered female Bloomsbury novelists: May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, Rhys’s artistic contemporaries.
Their work, Staley writes, took for granted “a milieu of security that was based on conformity to a tacit but rigid structure of class and sex”—a middle-class world. Rhys’s first four novels were about disconformity; security was only a dream; and they revealed the rigidity of the structure of class and sex without blinking—without hope. Staley quotes Woolf on women’s fiction in the Twenties: “It keeps closely to what women feel. It is not bitter.” Not only was Rhys bitter, as Staley writes so plainly, in the masculine world in which women live, it is clear to Rhys’s heroines that their “feelings don’t really mean anything.”
That may be as cruel and unpalatable a message as twentieth-century fiction has delivered. It suggests that Rhys may be less popular today, some years after her rediscovery, not only because she is out of fashion, but because she has been understood.
* Whether Rhys’s autobiography will include details of the many nights she spent drinking at the Portobello Hotel in London with the Rolling Stones—who were often called upon to carry her to bed—is yet to be determined.