It’s absolutely fascinating reading about Jean Rhys’ life directly from the source – especially after recently revisiting a group of her novels in this Jean Rhys Reading Week. So many of her recurrent themes and ideas are laid out bare here for the reader to understand her experiences and how she felt about them in her own words. Unfortunately, we only get her life story up until her initial time in Paris with her first husband when the chapters turn more into anecdotal sketches or cryptic diary entries for what would have come if Rhys had lived long enough to complete the book. Nevertheless, reading about Rhys’ early life is utterly compelling. The book has an excellent preface by her editor Diana Athill which explains how difficult the writing/editing process was for Rhys, her perfectionism and the development of this unfinished book in the final years of Rhys’ life. Apparently at the time there was a lot of speculation surrounding Rhys’ origins and her life in relation to her work; this was her attempt to set the record straight. Consequently, “Smile Please” gives exciting insights into Rhys’ novels as well as being a beautifully written and oftentimes startling memoir in its own right.
Since I’m freshly familiar with Rhys’ fiction it was a strange sensation reading about Rhys’ straightforward recollections of her early life. Personally, I always resist reading fiction as a veiled form autobiography. Certainly an author’s experiences often informs their fiction, but the artistic process of distilling life into a story is so complex I think its best to mostly enjoy prose fiction on its own. Yet, one can’t read Rhys’ novels with their frank portrayals of women’s difficult lives and inner turmoil (particularly if you read her novels all together) and not instinctively feel that these women are (in large part) Rhys herself. So it’s somewhat of a relief to read about details of Rhys’ early life that confirm what a reader of her fiction suspects as being true.
For instance, Rhys was highly aware of her family’s precarious social standing amongst some of the black population of Dominica and the conflicts they encountered. She was particularly troubled by a nurse named Meta who become such an antagonist to Rhys with her verbal and physical punishments that she states “Meta had shown me a world of fear and distrust, and I am still in that world.” This gives me a very haunting feeling when thinking about Rhys’ characters who are so filled with suspicion and retreat from conflict or difficult situations with others. Also, she writes “It was Meta who talked so much about zombies, soucriants, and loup-garoux.” These mythological beings obviously made a strong impact upon Rhys’ imagination as they loom large in her novels in moments of crisis such as descriptions in “Wide Sargasso Sea” or towards the end of “Voyage in the Dark”. Equally, this novel echoes Rhys’ desire to change her skin colour. Her character Anna states “I wanted to be black. I always wanted to be black.” and Rhys writes in her memoir: “Once I heard her say that black babies were prettier than white ones. Was this the reason why I prayed so ardently to be black, and would run to the looking-glass in the morning to see if the miracle had happened?” Frequently while reading “Smile Please” I felt a chime of understanding that what I read in Rhys’ fiction had in fact come straight out of her heart.
There are passages of intense feeling such as when she describes how beautiful her native country was but how she felt it rejected her. On another occasion she tries to befriend a striking older black girl who sits next to her in class only to receive her absolute contempt. Her feelings about Rhys didn’t even need to be verbalized as Rhys asserts “if you think that a child cannot recognise hatred and remember it for life you are most damnably mistaken.” Clearly these painful memories have hounded Rhys throughout her life and found expression in her psychically-wounded characters. Later in her life in London when she works as a chorus girl she starts going with men who she is initially repulsed by, but later she develops intense feelings for them. Again, this is very consistent with Anna’s experiences in “Voyage in the Dark” whose protagonist has recently arrived in England from an upbringing in the Caribbean following the same timeline of much of “Smile Please”.
Other sections of this memoir come as a surprise. For instance, it’s curious to learn that there was a period of Rhys’ life when she attended a Catholic school and desired for a time to become a nun. Religious sentiment showed up again later in her life even though she felt herself to be a total atheist. When her first child becomes terminally ill shortly after his birth while she’s living with her first husband Jean in Paris, she experiences an intense wish for him to be baptised. I can see how these complicated feelings about losing a child filtered into her writing "Good Morning, Midnight". A somewhat humorous discovery is Rhys’ descriptions of being hired by families in Paris - not exactly as a nanny - but just to speak to their children in English. One of these engagements proved to be one of Rhys’ few truly happy experiences and another turned into a calamitous disaster.
A really touching section comes when Rhys describes her time renting an apartment in London and becoming entranced with writing diaries in notebooks in an all-consuming way. She becomes so enraptured with getting her experiences and thoughts down she stays up all night writing, pacing, crying and laughing to herself. She doesn’t realize how disruptive she’s being until the landlady tells her she’s received complaints, but Rhys is entirely unapologetic about her behaviour. I can so vividly picture Rhys’ emotional writing process and the awkward encounters that ensued from her bothering those around her as the words spilled out onto innumerable pages. What a challenging tenant Rhys must have been! Landladies generally didn’t like Rhys and she didn’t like them.
What comes through most powerfully in this memoir is Rhys’ inner sense of utter estrangement from men, women, black people, her family, the Caribbean, England and society in general (although outwardly she appeared to be quite social.) She states “I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care… I wanted nothing.” Given her sense of total alienation it’s not surprising that she and her characters were so prone to despair. It led her to want nothing but to recline in bed simply existing while fretting about the years and years she’d have to endure ahead of her. What irony that Rhys lived to the late age of eighty-eight! Even if she claimed to be unimpressed by the resurged interest in her writing immediately prior to and following the publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea” I can’t help feeling she must have found it in some ways deeply satisfying.
It’s a shame that “Smile Please” wasn’t completed – particularly in how it would have given a fuller picture of her adult writing life and her interactions with the literary community. We only get a hint of her introduction to Ford Madox Ford at the end. But these early chapters are gems of rough-hewn beauty which can be greatly enjoyed and treasured.