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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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In the past when I’ve set myself a goal to read a large amount of a single writer’s books it’s only been a solitary personal challenge. But the Jean Rhys Reading Week which thoughtful reviewer Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal invited me to co-host with her was the first online ReadAlong I’ve participated in. With the wonderful help of Poppy Peacock and Margaret Reardon we managed to read and write our personal responses to the majority of Jean Rhys’ novels, stories and autobiographical writing.

The enthusiasm from readers everywhere who joined in the week has been tremendous with many people posting their own reviews of Rhys’ books, responding to our blog posts and writing their thoughts on Twitter with the #ReadingRhys hashtag & in our GoodReads Group. Reading the wide variety of opinions and responses to Rhys’ books has really helped me think more complexly about this fascinating writer’s output.

Here is a short round up of some wonderful responses to books that I covered.

I began the week writing about “Good Morning, Midnight” which Margaret Reardon also gave a fascinating perspective of later in the week. David’s Book World commented on the way memories emerge stronger than Sasha’s present reality which draws us into her true experience. Caroline at Book Word remarked on where the novel stands in Rhys’ oeuvre, what other writers have observed about it and the shocking aspects of the book. Karen commented on how surprisingly soothing this novel can be for someone dealing with social anxiety.

I posted about “Voyage in the Dark” which is based heavily on Rhys’ own young adulthood living in London. It proved to be a popular choice to read (perhaps because Jacqui reviewed it earlier this year as well.) Rough Ghosts remarked on the difficulty of Anna as a character, her believability and made poignant personal reflections about the subject matter this novel raises. Claire at Word by Word makes interesting remarks about Anna’s Caribbean heritage. Max at Pechorin’s Journal makes interesting remarks about Anna’s unique personality and depression. Grant at 1st Reading remarked how the reader is given moment to moment access to Anna’s thoughts and feelings and the novel’s enduring relevance. Abby King commends the way that the novel deals with complex issues such as depression, colonialism, gender and class. Simon at Stuck in a Book noticed how the novel fuses comedy and tragedy in a way that is particular to some interwar novels.

Writer Emma Healey on Instagram

Writer Emma Healey on Instagram

I next considered what is probably Jean Rhys’ most famous novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” – with its connection to “Jane Eyre” it’s put on a lot of literature syllabuses. Nargis Walker gives a fascinating commentary on the novel and compares it to “Jane Eyre” in an enlightening way. Joyce Carol Oates also compares these two novels in an enlightening way in this article. Cathy at 746 Books noted the deeply political nature of this novel. Whereas Lady Fancifull admires the beauty, fluidity and depth of the writing. In comments and in our GoodReads group some people expressed reservations about reading this novel since it uses a pre-existing character, but the general consensus seems to be that Rhys makes Antoinette so entirely her own this prequel is entirely warranted.

Finally, I posted about “Smile Please” Jean Rhys’ unfinished autobiography about growing up in Dominica and moving to England. It’s particularly interesting reading her straightforward account of her life as so many parts of it were embedded in her fiction. BiisBooks commented on how much lighter the stories in Rhys' autobiographical writing is as opposed to her darker fiction. Whereas, Marina at FindingTimetoWrite discussed the rawness and immediacy of her writing in this book.

We're awarding a special Jean Rhys prize bundle (courtesy of Penguin Classics) to Dorian who wrote this excellent article about his experiences teaching Jean Rhys to students and their reactions which really gets to the heart of Rhys' writing. I hope discussions will still continue on our GoodReads Group and Twitter. I’d like to continue reading more of her novels and stories that I didn’t have time to cover during the reading week. It’s particularly timely to be reading Rhys now as Penguin Classic is republishing some of her work. They’ve been a great supporter of the week. Thank you to everyone who has participated and a special thanks to Jacqui for inviting me organize the week with her. It’s been great fun!

Now for a big question: if I were to run another reading week what author should I choose? Any ideas?

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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.

Jean Rhys looking chic in Vienna

Jean Rhys looking chic in Vienna

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.

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“Wide Sargasso Sea” is probably Jean Rhys’ most famous novel as it is widely taught in literature courses. It’s seen as an important novel for being a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” by imagining the life of Bertha Antoinetta Mason (the famous mad woman in the attic/first Mrs Rochester at Thornfield Hall). It’s also hailed as an important work of postcolonial literature for its portrayal of Antoinette’s conflicted sense of national/racial identity as her husband is repulsed and rejects her Creole heritage leading to her descent into madness. I read this novel considering these aspects many years ago, but it’s been such a pleasure revisiting it alongside Rhys’ earlier novels as they share or provide a different perspective on many of its ideas, themes and characters. For instance, Antoinette’s claim that “I often stay in bed all day” echoes closely Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” who often does the same. In addition, Antoinette’s Caribbean upbringing is so clearly twined with Rhys’ own childhood in the island of Dominica. This makes “Wide Sargasso Sea” a fascinating encapsulation of much of the material Rhys was working out in her writing throughout her entire life. It’s tremendously moving to think how Rhys came to identify with Brontë’s slighted “mad woman” when her second husband gave her a copy of “Jane Eyre” to read. In the decades between the publication of her previous novel “Good Morning, Midnight” in 1939 and the eventual publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea” in 1966, Rhys laboured to formulate this story by writing many drafts and perfecting the language. The result is a stunning slender novel that stands as the crowning achievement of Rhys’ literary career.

The first third of the novel is about Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood. It’s filled with vibrant invocations of the sensations and social makeup of this racially-divided community. She and her mother live reclusively in the run-down house after the death of her father. But one day her mother marries again and, though they live in relative harmony, the racial tension increases as resentment against the family grows. One tense night their house is set upon and burnt to the ground leading to the tragic death of Antoinette’s disabled brother. This event foreshadows what is to come many years later when Antoinette lives as a virtual prisoner in Thornfield Hall and resolves to burn it down. These destructions of home are physical expressions of the untenable existence of their inhabitants. In Jamaica, the house was burnt because some of the island’s black community were showing this Creole family (whose forefathers owned slaves) that they don’t belong. It leads Antoinette to feel “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.” This anxiety can be felt throughout all of Jean Rhys’ writing, but in this novel it gives a kind of logic to her eventual destruction of Thornfield Hall because it’s somewhere she clearly feels like she doesn’t belong. It’s her way of shattering what she views to be an illusion.

After the destruction of her family’s Jamaican home her mother suffers from mental instability and she is sequestered in a sanatorium. Antoinette’s future is ambivalent, but in the second part we learn an unnamed English gentleman has come to marry her as the marriage comes with a large dowry. Here Rhys narrates from a man’s perspective which is highly uncommon in her fiction. We get his cold-minded blunt thoughts about this marriage of convenience: “I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.” Because he cannot understand her or life on the island, he grows increasingly estranged and mistrustful. A man named Daniel begins sending him letters making accusations about madness in Antoinette’s family and Antoinette’s old nurse Christophine expresses her mistrust of him and plies him with her Obeah potions making him violently ill. In a weakened delusional state he comes to feel that “it seemed everything around me was hostile. The telescope drew away and said don't touch me. The trees were threatening.” This curiously echoes the wild fantasies and paranoia of Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” when she becomes seriously ill towards the end of that novel. It also leads him to abandon Island life and return to England, especially after his father and brother’s death lead him to inheriting the family fortune and stately home.

You can visit the attic in the stately home  Norton Conveyers  which inspired Charlotte Bronte after she heard stories of a woman known as "Mad Mary" who was confined here.

You can visit the attic in the stately home Norton Conveyers which inspired Charlotte Bronte after she heard stories of a woman known as "Mad Mary" who was confined here.

The short third part of this novel shifts to Grace who is charged with caring for Antoinette (renamed Bertha by her husband) while she’s hidden away in Thornfield Hall. For Antoinette, the England she experiences does not match the England in her mind. Throughout the novel the reality of England is questioned. Antoinette states early on that an island friend who now lives in England writes her that “London is a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.” Christophine questions whether England even exists because she’s never seen it. And when Antoinette sneaks out of her attic prison in the evenings she feels “This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.” The reality of the country can never match its mythological status in the minds of these people from the Caribbean. In his frenzied state of mind Antoinette’s husband comes to find “suddenly, bewilderingly, I was certain that everything I had imagined to be truth was false. False. Only the magic and the dream are true – all the rest's a lie.” Such a revelation also seems to come to Antoinette who seeks to destroy the lie of the life around her with fire.

While “Wide Sargasso Sea” has a beautiful artfulness to it, I slightly missed the raw feeling of Rhys’ earlier novels which in some ways seem like more a pure expression of her state of being. She set herself the noble task of telling Antoinette’s story to show the potential full complexity of a character that is often thought of dismissingly as simply the “mad woman in the attic.” But, whatever nuance she gave to her back story, Antoinette had to suffer the same fate as Brontë’s character. This inhibits the story in a way, but it also allowed Rhys the freedom to fully explore the complicated aspects of identity she’d been writing about for years by going back to the Caribbean in her fiction. It feels like a disservice to Rhys that this novel is often only read in isolation because I think I understand it so much better seeing it in relation to her other writing. I think of it more like a crystallization of her life’s work. Being part of this Jean Rhys Reading Week has shown me what beautiful variations Rhys created in her short powerful novels to expound upon her preoccupations and unique perspective about life. I hope that this week has done a little to encourage people to see in Jean Rhys’ other books that there is so much more to her writing than only “Wide Sargasso Sea”.

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In Jean Rhys’ third published novel “Voyage in the Dark”, the conflict the author feels between her childhood growing up in the Caribbean island of Dominica and European adulthood comes to the forefront. The novel begins with eighteen year old Anna who makes a meagre living as an actress in London. In richly descriptive passages Rhys observes the marked differences between the colours, textures and smells of this city compared to her West Indies childhood. Flashes of her island life recur throughout the novel, but she doesn’t sentimentalize this experience. Instead, Rhys shows how this upbringing and move to England created a deeply conflicted sense of identity for Anna which has persisted and grown as she navigates life in the capital. She has a number of difficult affairs with men who she becomes financially and emotionally dependent upon while sinking further into a desultory existence. This novel shows with a rare and brutal honesty a young woman’s conflicted feelings about relationships, her national/racial identity and aimless place in society.

One of the most glaring things I found at the start of this novel were references to black people in the West Indies – Rhys uses the N word – which today is shocking to read, but I get the feeling that this was simply the common parlance of the time. However, at a couple of points she also makes concerning references to Jewish people – again, this feels more like an attitude of the time rather than there being anything explicitly anti-Semitic. I’m not trying to excuse or condone any dodgy references to race, but I’m just trying to place them in context and highlight the problematic nature of reading these things.

Race was clearly a highly politicised subject for Anna growing up in the Caribbean. In one scene her stepmother Hester expresses disgust that a member of Anna’s family lived openly with his mixed race children. Anna herself views black people as “better” than white people and even states “I wanted to be black. I always wanted to be black... Being black is warm and gay, being white is cold and sad.” Making any generalization about race is simplistic, but Anna’s statement shows part of the reason why she seems to have such low self-worth. She’s very aware of power imbalances between different races and she doesn’t want to inhabit her own skin. The person she recalls most fondly from her childhood is a black housekeeper named Francine who she was very close to, but who she’s lost contact with since moving to England. When meeting her stepmother Hester she’s belittled and caught between the arguments of family members about who should help support her. She’s made to feel she doesn’t belong anywhere.

Anna’s solution for taking care of herself is to partly rely on men. She and her friend Maudie go out to pick up gentlemen. An older well-to-do man named Walter takes her up for a time. Interestingly her initial reaction to many of the men she meets is disgust: “He kissed me again, and his mouth was hard… and I hated him.” Yet, soon after, she seems to try to convince herself to fall for him: “Soon he'll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He'll be different and so I'll be different. It'll be different. I thought, 'It'll be different, different. It must be different.” This repetition of “different” is like a desperate plea to change her own attitude and tragically it seems to work because when Walter finally tries to throw her off she acts heartbroken and lovesick. Whether she genuinely grew to love him or not can be debated. She follows similar patterns with several other men where her emotions careen between passion and disgust with an expectation that they’ll help financially support her. Anna makes the humorous observation that “Money ought to be everybody's. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.”

Over the course of the novel Anna strikes up a number of compelling female friendships. She has multiple friends she used to be in shows with who seem to be in a similar situation. They’re unable to make much of a career out of performing and try instead to foster financially convenient relationships with men. Her friend Laurie is one of the most accomplished at this, circulating through several amenable gentlemen. She shows financial savvy in claiming to always put half of whatever she’s given aside for a time when getting dates won’t be as easy. I found the dialogue of these women to be particularly delightful with their evocative terminology. Maudie advises her that “The more you swank the better. If you don't swank a bit nothing's any use.” And later Laurie uses the hard-hitting logic that “When you start thinking about things the answer's a lemon. A lemon, that's what the answer is.” These zippy bits of dialogue add to the sense that Anna and these other girls have a definite world-weariness. They’ve taken a self-reliant stance believing that they must trade upon a performed sense of femininity to get what they want and, once they’ve got the money/clothing/real estate that they want out of men, they don’t expect any genuine feelings to remain. By ushering in convenient acquaintances with men Anna comes to believe “it's true, isn't it? People are much cheaper than things.” An emotionally-volatile woman named Ethel who Anna rooms with later in the novel and who tries to set up a profitable business for herself becomes a figure of ridicule to Anna and her friend. It appears that such ambition is beyond them.

It’s interesting how essentially unlikeable Anna becomes in the novel, but how deeply I felt for her. She spends as much time as possible lounging in a bath or her bedroom and frequently feigns illnesses. Rhys has an unerring knack for writing about women whose desires in life have been so blunted by disappointment they can’t commit to any hopeful vision of the future. Just when I felt like shouting at Anna to pull herself up and try to accomplish something worthwhile it’s like Rhys answered me: “what happens if you don't hope any more, if your back's broken? What happens then?” Anna is a character who acts as if she’s physically debilitated. Her spirit is what is broken making it impossible for her to progress or grow.

A soucriant

A soucriant

Instead of finding hope, the novel takes increasingly dark turns and brings Anna close to death. In this distressed state the narrative becomes more hallucinatory. Her imagination is populated by Caribbean mythology. The image of a soucriant (a blood sucking hag in folklore) becomes particularly clear to Anna – both as a monster that wants to destroy her and the monster she believes she has become. It’s particularly skilful and emotional how Rhys writes about Anna in this state. Rhys deals with abortion in quite a vivid way in this novel and I can’t help but feel this must have come across as quite a taboo and shocking subject at the time of its publication in 1934.

It feels like the real tragedy about Anna (and many of the central characters in Rhys’ novels) is that she has no touchstone to lift her out of her own experience. In this novel a character named Vincent tries to coax Anna to read claiming “a good book... It makes you see what is real and what is just imaginary.” I think Rhys probably viewed this as a very simplistic way of reading. Her books don’t make a clear distinction between real/imaginary, but brilliantly show what is true for her characters’ experience by artistically showing us their psychological reality. Perhaps Anna (and Rhys when she was Anna’s age) believed that she was excluded from engaging meaningfully with literature because it didn’t reflect her experience. At one point she observes “There was a damned bust of Voltaire, stuck up on a shelf, sneering away. There are all sorts of sneers, of course, the high and the low.” In typical Rhys style, even inanimate objects have an emotional reaction to the central character who seemingly has an antagonistic relationship with everyone and everything in the world.

Given how heavily “Voyage in the Dark” refers back to Anna’s experience growing up in the West Indies, it’s especially interesting to compare this novel to Rhys’ most famous novel “Wide Sargasso Sea”. Here the struggle of cross-national identity reaches an entirely different kind of crisis point. The more I read of Rhys the more I become aware of particular subjects and ideas she returns to. Her style of writing has a special humour amidst all the overwhelming bleakness. Every book feels exquisitely crafted and exists independently on its own. This novel focuses on an individual whose expectations for life have been flattened before her adult life has even begun. The haunting question is where can she go from here?

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The narrator of “Good Morning, Midnight” is a woman who has renamed herself Sasha and lives a desultory existence in a shabby little apartment in Paris. She spends the day going to cafes and bars, but must be careful which ones she chooses because some she’s not welcome in some anymore or feels too embarrassed to visit others again. Casual conversations with strangers at nearby tables often end in open sobbing or private tears in the lavatory. She appeals to friends in England for money and walks around in an expensive fur coat which is a remnant from a happier time. Disconsolate, lost in memories, contemplating suicide and paranoid that men want to take advantage of her, she drinks her evenings away or retreats into her apartment. The reader doesn’t know at first what’s brought her to this bleak existence and it seems equally mysterious to Sasha herself: “I am asking myself all the time what the devil I am doing here. All the time.” But over the course of the novel scenes from the past gradually emerge leading to a rough picture of how her life became so broken. This extremely dark eloquently written novel is a fascinating portrait of someone clinging to life by her nails and reveals a quietly desperate layer of society.

Experiencing Sasha’s account of her daily life it’s almost alarming how close the reader is drawn into her consciousness. Reality becomes subtly distorted so even inanimate objects like the room she lives in or the mirrors in public toilets speak to her and mock her. People seem wary of her realizing how tormented she is by her appearance. But she refutes that her sombre exterior adequately shows who she really is: “it isn't my face, this tortured and tormented mask. I can take it off whenever I like and hang it up on a nail. Or shall I place on it a tall hat with a green feather, hang a veil on the lot, and walk about the dark streets so merrily?” She expresses how the way we present ourselves preened, adorned with stylish clothing and wearing smiles is the real artifice which hides internal strife. It becomes her mission to cover her grief through this method and it becomes a personal mission to get a chic haircut and buy a new hat. Having made herself presentable she meets and makes dates with a pair of Russians and a mysterious man named Rene. She’s also drawn further into memories of her past and an intense romance/marriage she had with a man named Enno. The disappointment, strife and grief accompanying these thoughts of the past flood her present leading her to reason “No, life is too sad; it’s quite impossible.”

As gloomy as Sasha’s life is there is a cruel humour which is threaded throughout the novel. Trips to the cinema make the drama of life seem bitterly ironic and lead her to fits of hysterical laughter. She recounts how hopeless she was in jobs, particularly working in a clothes shop. Her nervousness doesn’t allow her to speak up when she should and leaves her helpless to the mockery of her employer. Again she projects her feelings into inanimate objects even expressing jealousy about how beautifully presented and frightening a group of porcelain dolls in the shop are: “I would feel as if I were drugged, sitting there, watching those damned dolls, thinking what a success they would have made of their lives if they had been women.” Gradually over the book I began feeling a sense of liberation in the narrator’s unrelenting bleakness and frustration over her beleaguered situation.

Sasha reasons that people’s optimism for the future despite life’s tragedies is based on a falsehood: “It’s not that these things happen or even that one survives them, but what makes life strange is that they are forgotten. Even the one moment that you thought was your eternity fades out and is forgotten and dies. This is what makes life so droll – the way you forget, and every day is a new day, and there’s hope for everybody, hooray…” With a wry sense of humour, she feels it’s only through our capacity to forget or bury virulent emotional response that makes life bearable. However, she is someone who can’t bury or cover her loss because it keeps rising to the surface of her consciousness. There’s a strange comfort in knowing that private sorrow which can haunt you throughout the day is shared by someone else. Sasha also realizes she is not alone in her pain as she meets others whose lives have fallen into ruin or a woman named Lise who actually hopes for another war so that she might be killed.

The ending of this short, compact novel makes an interesting contrast to James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Sasha cries “Yes” like Molly Bloom. However, instead of this being an affirmation and welcome of the various joys of life, Sasha’s “yes” invites degradation and destruction into the guarded personal space she’s created. Early on she states “A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside and that's all any room is.” but after failing to meaningfully reconnect with the pleasures in life she invites those wolves inside. Because of the novel’s overwhelmingly solemn content, it’s probably not surprising that some people assumed Jean Rhys committed suicide after publishing “Good Morning, Midnight” in 1939.

After a decade of steadily producing four novels and short stories, she withdrew from the public eye and didn’t publish anything else until more than twenty five years later. It was only in 1949 when a theatrical presentation of “Good Morning, Midnight” was created did someone manage to track Rhys down by placing a newspaper advertisement. This renewed interest in her writing reinvigorated Rhys to finally produce more work. It’s interesting to consider if this hadn’t occurred and “Good Morning, Midnight” remained as her final mostly-forgotten novel because the publication of Rhys’ final tremendous novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” seems to have cemented a place for her in the literary canon. Yet “Good Morning, Midnight” is an extraordinary piece of modernist literature which artfully aligns the reader with the consciousness of a traumatized individual and powerfully deals with psychological issues in a revelatory style of writing. I’m grateful it wasn’t forgotten and it’s wonderful that a new Penguin Pockets edition has ensured that this fascinating novel is still read.

 

You can read an opening section from “Good Morning, Midnight” - www.pocketpenguins.com/good-morning-midnight

 

I’m delighted that Jessica Harrison, Senior Commissioning Editor for Penguin Classics, answered some questions I asked her about this exceptional novel.

What made you decide to include “Good Morning, Midnight” in the new Pocket Penguins series over her other novels such as “Wide Sargasso Sea” which is arguably her best known novel?

With this series, we wanted to shine a light on some of the books from the Classics list that we love but other readers might not have discovered yet. We also wanted to include a range of voices from different cultures and places. Many people have read Wide Sargasso Sea, but haven’t yet encountered any of Rhys’s other brilliant works, and Good Morning Midnight is a great place to go next.

After “Good Morning, Midnight” was first published in 1939 Jean Rhys didn’t publish another book until 1966. What might have led to such a gap in her literary output?

Rhys’s life was very difficult for many years. Having lived in Paris and moved in literary circles, she moved in 1939 with her husband to Devon, and drifted away from the publishing world. Over the next two decades, she suffered from health problems, her second husband died and then her third husband was imprisoned for fraud, which meant she followed him from prison to prison as he was moved around. It wasn’t until 1958 that she was rediscovered by the literary world. Diana Athill then became her editor, and was hugely important in encouraging her to complete Wide Sargasso Sea over a period of many years. By the time the book was published and became so famous, Rhys was an old woman. 

Do you think of “Good Morning, Midnight” as continuation of Rhys’ first three novels or does it stand entirely on its own?

I think it’s definitely a continuation in many respects. Sophia Jansen is clearly another iteration of the heroines of the first three novels – the desperate, rootless woman Rhys returned to obsessively in her work. By this stage, though, Rhys was fully in control of her material and style, and able to render Sophia’s situation more vividly and acutely than ever before.

Rhys was conversant with other writers of her generation and she’s now loosely grouped among modernist writers of the early 20th century. What stylistic elements of “Good Morning, Midnight” group her in that category of literature and does the novel stand apart in any way?

For one thing, Rhys is a great writer of the city and of walking the city, like other modernists such as Virginia Woolf or Dorothy Richardson. Her focus on the subjective and psychological experience of her characters could also be seen as typically modernist. But she is always her own writer, and I doubt she herself would want to be grouped with any one movement or category. When you read anything by her – be it one of her short stories, her novels or her brilliant unfinished autobiography Smile Please – you immediately know you’re in Rhys-land and nowhere else: a world of shabby hotel rooms, unsuitable love affairs, hunger and alcohol that is always beautifully rendered in her understated prose style.

Reading “Good Morning, Midnight” now some of its themes and content still feel quite shocking. For instance, the way it powerfully confronts issues about suicide, alcoholism, social anxiety, post-partum depression. Do you think these issues are any less risqué now than at the time of its first publication?

I think these themes are much less shocking today than they would have been in 1939, especially in a novel by a woman. But what still has the power to shock today is Rhys’s brutal honesty, and the uncompromising way she confronts these issues. No matter how painful the subject, the writing always feels so truthful you can’t look away.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Listen to Jean Rhys speaking about writing.

Welcome to #ReadingRhys, a week centred on reading and discussing the work of Jean Rhys, now considered one the greatest writers of the 20th century! You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this week Jacqui (of JacquiWine’s Journal) and I have teamed up to coordinate discussions centred around Rhys’ writing and life. Having read much of Rhys’ work while I was at university, I’ve been eager to revisit her fascinating books which are distinct for their unique style and brutal honesty. Jacqui, Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens) and Margaret Reardon (another long-standing Rhys fan) and I will post about all of Jean Rhys’ major books over the course of the week. During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been issued and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There’s a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

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How to join in

Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:
•    If you have a blog, you could write your own review or article about the book
•    Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a ‘Jean Rhys Reading Week’ Group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book and her life
•    Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys
•    Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week (see the below schedule)

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you. Plus, we’ll be happy to continue to discuss all things Rhys in the weeks that follow the event, particularly if you run short of time over the next few days.

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What we’ll post about this week

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week. These are the books we’ll be taking a lead on.

Monday 12th September
•    Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
•    Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Tuesday 13th
•    Voyage in the Dark – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Wednesday 14th
•    Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
Thursday 15th
•    Wide Sargasso Sea – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
•    Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
Friday 16th
•    An interview with a special guest – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
Saturday 17th
•    Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
•    Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Sunday 18th
•    Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
•    The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add this bannerto your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week. Please feel free to add a link to your post(s) in the comments below. In the meantime, if you have any particular thoughts or plans for the week, just let us know. You can also get in touch with us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.

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Win a special Jean Rhys Prize Bundle!

As luck would have it, Penguin have recently reissued Rhys’ novel Good Morning, Midnight as part of their brightly-coloured Pocket Penguins series. You can read the first chapter of this brilliant novel here. As a special incentive to join in #ReadingRhys week, Jacqui and I will select one lucky person who makes a significant contribution to our discussions over the week to win a special Jean Rhys Package (courtesy of Penguin)!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Last month I posted an announcement about the Jean Rhys Reading Week that will be taking place from Monday 12th to Sunday 18th September. In essence, it’s a week centred on reading and discussing the work of this remarkable writer.

During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been issued and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There is a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

The wonderful Jacqui who blogs so insightfully about books at JacquiWine’s Journal kindly invited me to co-host the reading week with her. Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens) and Margaret Reardon (another long-standing Rhys fan) will also be helping us with a couple of activities during the week. Between the four of us, we’re planning to cover pretty much all of Rhys’ work to give a broad view of her oeuvre. We’d love as many readers as possible to get involved by reading one of more of Rhys’ books (or even a relevant biography).

With a few weeks to go before the start of the week, here is an overview of what will be happening during the week and how you can get involved. Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:

•    If you have a blog, you could write a review or article about the book and post it there.
•    Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a ‘Jean Rhys Reading Week’ Group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book, plus one on Rhys’ life
•    Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys
•    Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you.

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week.

#ReadingRhys Schedule:

Monday 12th September
•    Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
•    Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Tuesday 13th
•    Voyage in the Dark - Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Wednesday 14th
•    Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) - Jacqui (at JacquiWine's Journal)
Thursday 15th
•    Wide Sargasso Sea - Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
•    Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
Friday 16th
•   An interview with a special guest – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
Saturday 17th
•    Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
•    Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Sunday 18th
•    Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
•    The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add the banner (near the top of this piece) to your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

Good Morning, Midnight Giveaway!

As a little incentive, we have 5 copies of the brand new Pocket Penguins edition of Good Morning, Midnight to giveaway. For a chance to win one of these prizes, please tell us what you’re planning to read for #ReadingRhys week by commenting below.

The giveaway will run until midnight on Thursday 25th August (UK time) after which time we will select five winners at random. It’s open to everyone worldwide, so please feel free to enter wherever you live. Do include a note of your contact details in your comments, either an email address or Twitter/GoodReads handle. Good luck!

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week.

In the meantime, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the Jean Rhys Reading Week (#ReadingRhys), please leave a comment here or get in touch with one of us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.

Happy #ReadingRhys!

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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