Where to start: Jean Rhys | Books
Most people know Jean Rhys as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, a title that often appears on school and university reading lists. But this Jane Eyre prequel was actually the Dominica-born author’s last book, and there’s riches in store for those who haven’t explored the rest of her work yet. His biographer Miranda Seymour suggests some good starting points.
The entry point
“’Smile please,’ the man said. “Not quite so serious. It’s this opening line that gives the autobiography Smile Please its title, as a young Rhys fails to do what she’s told when she poses for a photo. The biggest surprise on reading this luminous memoir about the author’s early life in the Caribbean, London and Paris is that she started writing it at age 70. It was the first Rhys thing I read and I fell in love with his voice on the spot. I can’t imagine a better way to get to know her.
If you just read one more
I would skip straight from memoir to Voyage in the Dark. Told by a vulnerable newcomer to London from the Caribbean, Rhys’ third novel draws on his own experience of love, grief, hope and loneliness to create an unforgettable portrait of its protagonist Anna Morgan. This novel is a prime example of Rhys’ talent for capturing the feelings of alienated and victimized women.
The one who makes you laugh out loud
Good Morning, Midnight is my favorite of Rhys’ five soaring novels and his masterpiece. Set in Paris in 1937, it is whispered in our ears by Sasha Jansen, another foreigner and a woman with dark humor about her own misfortunes. Moments of wild comedy punctuate Sasha’s gruesome and scholarly journey to one of the most powerful endings in fictional history.
The one that deserves more attention
Several short stories from Rhys deserve more attention. A Solid House, I Spy a Stranger, The Sound of the River and Temps Perdu were all rejected by publishers in 1947 as too depressing for war-weary readers. Based on – as always with Rhys – her own raw sense of being an outsider, these disturbing stories from civilian life show an exceptionally truthful writer at her bravest, working in the genre she loved the most. William Trevor thought Rhys’ I Used to Live Here Once was the finest short ghost story ever written. I think he was right. But these others are brilliant too.
Rhys often said she regretted writing Quartet out of spite, fueled by feelings that her lover and mentor, Ford Madox Ford, had betrayed both her and her doting first husband, Jean Lenglet. Fascinating in the light it sheds on Rhys’ disorderly life in Paris in the 1920s, Quartet is not quite in the same league as its astonishing successors.
The one you will learn from
Funny, sad and unforgettable, the Let Them Call it Jazz story is Rhys’ unique contribution to the vision of London as seen by Caribbean newcomers who settled in studios and boarding houses around Notting Hill during the post-war years. Narrator Selina Davis shares Rhys’ dark experiences of prison, poverty and loneliness. Her voice is powerful – you don’t doubt Selina when she says, “Believe me, if I aim for your wife, I’ll hit your wife – that’s for sure.”
Book club choice
Rhys fans should opt for Good Morning, Midnight, or a bunch of his amazing stories (I’d suggest Vienna, Till September Petronella, and Tigers Are Better-Looking.) But those new to Rhys will enjoy discussing Wide Sargasso Sea, the heartbreaking prequel to Jane Eyre which was published in 1966. Rhys was 76 and had almost given up hope of literary recognition until she won the WH Smith Literary Prize and was thrust into the limelight. Located in Jamaica and another unnamed Caribbean island, Sargassum is inspired by Rhys’ intense memories of Dominica, where she told friends she wanted to be buried, “under a flaming tree”. And it is there – if you really want to understand what made Jean Rhys the great writer she was to become – that you have to look for it.