One of my favourite bookish activities last year was helping to organize a Jean Rhys reading week in September. Together with other readers we read and discussed most of Rhys’ literary output. 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of her most well-known novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” and to commemorate this event the British Library created a small exhibit in their Treasures Gallery displaying some of Rhys’ original manuscripts and other texts and articles related to her writing. I nearly missed out on this exhibit which will close on January 8th but luckily I ran into the writer Catherine Hall who lives around the corner from where I work and she mentioned it to me. So I popped into the British Library to have a look at the display.
It gives an introduction to the context in which Rhys wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea” discussing how she was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and the character of Bertha Mason (who Rhys referred to as a “poor Creole lunatic”). Rhys sought to reignite the material of Brontë’s novel and give it new life by writing a prequel to it. In doing so, she created an incredibly daring book which draws upon her childhood in the West Indies and has become a great classic. The British Library possesses several manuscript versions of this novel and has some on display in the cases. Whoever edited and transcribed Rhys’ manuscripts must have had a lot of patience as her handwriting is artful but rather difficult to decipher – especially when she makes copious corrections. However, seeing this reinforced for me what Diana Athill discussed in her introduction to Rhys’ unfinished autobiography “Smile Please” where she commented on Rhys’ perfectionism.
The exhibit also includes information and some manuscripts of Rhys’ earlier novels and stories. Included is a draft of “Voyage in the Dark” which contains more graphic scenes than what appeared in the published novel. It also gives a context to the public’s reception to Jean Rhys – who enjoyed relative success in the 1930s with a string of novels but then stopped publishing and fell into obscurity for nearly two decades until her writing was rediscovered. It also interestingly notes how Rhys become something of a fashion icon in the 1970s as was chronicled in several magazine articles which discuss the rejuvenation of old trends in clothes and feature photos of Rhys modeling. There’s an emphasis on clothes in much of Rhys’ writing as she creatively explored concepts of self consciousness and social appearance in her fiction. It makes me smile to think how Rhys must have enjoyed posing for these photos.
It was a pleasure getting a look at these fascinating documents pertaining to Jean Rhys’ writing process and the reception surround her output. The British Library possesses an incredible amount of literary treasures and I should really pay more attention to special events and exhibits they have.