WHOEVER HAS READ JEAN RHYS' desolatingly honest novels will feel he knows the outlines of her life and even her inner being. It's true that Sasha, Marya, Julia, Anna and Antoinette, the women of her invention, are all aspects of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, who went through life under many aliases, but earned her death, as she put it, as Jean Rhys, for whom nobody and nothing mattered so much as writing.
Her fiction has already described the warm West Indian island of her childhood; the transition at 16 to England, a cold climate physically and emotionally; the starving years with a stock company, living in rented rooms with checks from ex-lovers to keep her going; the move to the marginally more genial Paris and the precarious career of chance, living off male patronage, liable to rejection, chronically sad, lonely, hopeless, unoccupied except with sleep, drink and despondent little adventures; an ill-advised marriage, relationship with an older man and his wife who soon discard her. Suicide seems the only plausible end for this passive victim, and Jean Rhys did end one novel unambiguously with the woman's death. Her publisher objected: "Oh, give the girl a chance"; and the author gloomily accommodated his wish, though she knew any other end was false.
Yet it is not the way she ended up. She died aged 89 a year ago, at work on an uncompleted autobiogrpahy that tells more than she ever wrote in her fiction about the childhood, establishes some of the small differences between her own adult life and that of the women through whom she attempted to purge her unhappiness, and has enough to say about the passionate "effort to get down and shape the flock of words which come into my head" that dominated her life up to its last breath to make it plain why Jean Rhys, unlike her inventions, could not die of some despairing overdose. Her writing became her real life, the supple, quiet mechanism she perfected to order and explate the rooted sadness her early life had ordained.
She dictated this last book to a friend, the novelist David Plante, for she could no longer hold a pen and tape recorders seemed malign. The account of childhood is complete, carefully revised and polished like everything she wrote, the rest is not much less finished, though the time gaps between crystallized recollections grow more haphazard; for she says little here about things she got out of her system in the novels.
Where did the sadness come from? Why the sense of helplessness, of being abandoned, unwanted, unlovable? These are feelings with which people who have never had a stable relationship with their parents are cursed. Gwen's father, himself a little-loved son, had come out to Dominica from England as a not very successful medico, a sad exile, though his daughter never noticed the sadness then. Nor did he seem to notice his children. Yet she had a comforting memory of walking arm in arm with him on the verandah. Her mother was a close-mouthed, unsmiling, unloving woman. Gwen watched her and wondered what she was thinking; she wanted to kiss her and didn't dare."I can't imagine what will become of you," her mother would say coldly. Years afterward in Paris she saw a lovely 13th-century wooden madonna whose gentle smile stirred deep feelings. But all she says is, "I'd never seen a smiling Madonna before."
There was no love offered by her Negro nurse either. She told Gwen that if she kept on reading books, her eyes would drop out and look at her from the page. She would shake her violently. "Black Devil!" the child gasped, but dared not complain to her mother. "Meta had shown me a world of fear and distrust," Jean Rhys writes, "and I am still in that world." But at her convent school someone understood her. This was "an unruly nun," who taught her French and English poetry and to love beautiful words, like wisteria and anodyne. "Andyne. Lovely, lovely word."
Occasionally Gwen was happy. At a costume party someone's handsome uncle waltzed her round three times. "I told myself that I would be just as happy the next day, now I would always be happy." But the next day when she met her dancing partner on the road she turned away in shy confusion. And there was riding. "What is it about horses that makes you happy? It is so." And there was a family property up in the country with overgrown garden and a house that breathed an atmosphere of melancholy and adventure. It seemed to offer what she was to crave all her life -- protection and hazard.
She had never been able to imagine what cold felt like, though she hated the word. Later in cold, dark England she would shut her eyes, wrapped in a blanket, or huddled over a gas fire, and imagine the sunshine of Dominica, hating her friendless exile. Yet when she was ordered home at her father's death, she bolted to join a chorus line, and endured years of spiteful landladies, mocking audiences, nights on railway sidings, sponge baths, and leftover food. Her "love and longing for books" deserted her.
Her first lover was a kind man, but she never dared say I love you. "It would be too much, too important." She learned not to let on how lonely and unhappy she was, but he felt her anyway and she wrote a poem: "I didn't know/I didn't know/I didn't know." One Christmas her ex-lover sent her a trimmed tree. She gazed at it trying to imagine people around her "laughing and talking and happy. But it was no use, I knew in myself that it would never happen. I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere."
But her self-rescue was at hand. One day she impulsively bought some exercise books and that evening, with tingling hands, began to write. The next day the landlady complained that she had disturbed the house, walking about all night crying and laughing. After that she took off her shoes, but didn't stop writing until her whole life was contained in the pile of notebooks.
After World War I she married and went to live in Paris. Someone introduced her to Ford Madox Ford and under his tutelage she began to write stories. Later her relations with him and his wife were th e subject of her first novel; the notebooks became another. "The trouble is I have plenty to say," she wrote in 1947. "Not only that, but I am bound to say it. . . . I must write. If I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people. But it would be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned my death." By 1966, with Wide Sargasso sea, her brilliant variation on Jane Eyre, and the reissue of her pre-war novels, she was no longer an abject failure in anyone's eyes, and when she died in 1979, she had nobly earned her death.
Considering her frame and the large claims made for her narrow but resonantly truthful writing, it is strange that only now has a critical examination of her work been written. Thomas Stanley's Jean Rhys is excellent, following the development of her basic subject -- failure in human relationships -- through the novels and relating her acute and very modern portrayal of the feminine mind to the work of more self-consciously modern writers like Joyce and Virginia Woolf.