A CURIOUS modern-day phenomenon is the literary late bloomer, especially among women writers and more particularly in England. I am thinking not of the visible first novelist over 70, or in the case of Helen Hooven Santmyer, over 88, but writers like Barbara Pym, Molly Keane and Jean Rhys who wrote fiction most of their adult lives but went, for many years, almost unnoticed by the reading public. Some of these writers were only recognized just before their deaths. Posthumously their fame was secured, for them, alas, rather late for any enduring satisfaction.
Jean Rhys came to notice after a lifetime so riddled with lethargy, isolation, loss, frustration, dispossession and lovelessness that the onlooker cannot believe s persisted in her faith that she was a writer. In her 75th year her major novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published in England. Four others (Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight) had appeared in the 40 years before, published, as John Leonard once remarked about his own books, secretly, and leaving her, until close to the end of her life, in wistful and often bitter obscurity. Her letters are poignant evidence of one woman's literary struggle against odds that even the reader grows weary of hearing reiterated. So surely Rhys herself must have despaired of succeeding. Then, in her 76th year Fortune, in an unexpected move, broke into her half-century of ill-luck.
These letters are by no means complete. There are none from her early years. Her editors (who were also her friends) say they found only two before 1931, when the collection we are offered here begins (she is 41), and these were too insignificant to include. Of course, we know something of her early life from her own account in Smile, Please, published in 1979. She was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in 1890 in Dominica, West Indies. At 17 she went to school in England for two years and then studied acting briefly. She toured England as a chorus girl, had a love affair with an older man who then deserted her. In his introduction, Francis Wyndham claims this experience was so traumatic that Jean Rhys (as she now called herself) performed on herself a "complex emotional amputation . . . to prevent any recurrence of the grief and hurt . . . (and) made up her mind to be selfish and cold." The letters, it is true, show us a woman who married twice but never out of love, and bore two children, one of whom died in infancy, and the other, a daughter, who became the recipient of some of the best letters in this collection. Her life seems to have been spent in fruitless small journeys in England in search of a warm place to live.
Rhys' yearning for trees, river, countryside was so great that she went to the Tate to gaze at Courbets and Renoirs. "Oh God if I could be there," she writes to a friend. Her letters are full of complaints about a succession of small houses, against the cold and the damp and the neighbors and the noise, against the poverty that denied her books, a radio, a car, a telephone. She could not type, and could not locate a typist; a large event in her life was the loan of a typist by her publisher Andr,e Deutsch -- for three days. Her despair was lifelong: "I've always thought the lost generation is a good name for us," she wrote.
It is clear that Rhys resorted to alcohol often and in her late years to what she called pep pills to raise her spirits, to give her the energy she singularly lacked. Her temper was irascible: Once she slapped a neighbor she thought had been rude to her, was convicted of assault and sent to prison for a brief stay. Her letters reveal the lifelong apathy which kept her from finishing Wide Sargasso Sea for many years. The long period before its acceptance and publication was full of doubts about her work:
"I'm afraid it won't be a wonderful book(!) -- it ought to have been just a romantic novel -- but my boat has been capsized (upset I mean) so many times (and I've had to start again) that I'm not quite in control of it now. It's in control of me.
To an editor at Deutsch, Diane Athill, she wrote:
"Well please believe that I am doing my best. I have waited long for the Breakthrough trusting trusting it would come and it has now. I think. No more slow painful stuff. Quick now. You will have it by summer."
Rhys persuaded herself that she hated publicity and success. To Francis Wyndham, in 1959, she wrote:
"I think that I have had little success because I did not want it. Not in that way. Not really. Even now I cannot connect money or publicity with writing, though I adore money and need it badly, very. For me, these things are different -- and opposed. Bitterly. I can only write for love as it were."
In her last, and first successful, novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys returned to the scene of her childhood in the West Indies for her subject matter. She wrote a warm, haunted poetic novel modeled on the imagined character of the first Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. The novel was widely praised and read. Rhys' life changed; her husband, Max Hamer, long a worry and a burden to her, died after a prolonged illness; and for the first time in half a century she was able to afford a warm cottage, friends, the pleasures of travel. The letters reprinted here stop in 1966 just before Wide Sargasso Sea appears, so we do not know, at first hand, any of the gratifications that must have accompanied the publication of that book and the reprinting of all her earlier work. She died in her 89th year in 1979. Since hen her reputation has become and remained secure.
Whether the appeal of these letters lies in their revelations about the touching voyage of her life ("I an so tired of wandering," she wrote to her daughter) or in her late success story it would be hard to say. Surely they are not literary in any sense. But I followed her willingly through all her misery and her travail and rejoiced at the prospect of the final fulfillment the correspondence stops just short of providing.