Several months ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carlin Romano asked whether recently published biographies of Flannery O'Connor and Jean Rhys would allow the two novelists to "ascend from possible model for a few to role model for the masses--or at least to masses of women." Romano championed the two solely on the basis of rectifying the gender imbalance of canonical "writers' writers." Jean Rhys deserves elevation to such heights--but it should be for the right reasons, and pity isn't one of them.
Rhys is usually reduced to a chronicler of drunk, sexually promiscuous and frequently mad women. Indeed, the novel she is best known for, Wide Sargasso Sea, is a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Mr. Rochester's first wife--who in Brontë's novel has been confined to the attic. Her presence terrifies Jane, and temporarily derails Jane and Rochester's marriage plans. But to champion Rhys merely for imagining such obviously difficult women is to slight what's valuable about her novels and short stories. Rhys depicted female characters who openly struggled with the binds of class and sexuality that ensnared women in the early part of the twentieth century--and arguably still do. Rhys was expert at dramatizing a double-bind: the moment when a woman acknowledges, much less gives into, her sexual desires was frequently the moment her social position becomes fixed.
Julia, the heroine of Rhys's second novel, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, is a woman on the descent. "Her career of ups and downs had rubbed most of the hall-marks off her, so that it was not easy to guess at her age, her nationality, or the social background to which she properly belonged." She, like many Rhys women, has worked jobs (artist's model, chorus girl) where her looks are the through-line. The writing is on the wall for these women--sex appeal and sexual availability are the only means they have of earning their keep.
After a brief marriage, Julia runs through a string of boyfriends--Mr. Mackenzie being the last of the stable, long-term sort. "Going from man to man had become a habit. One day she had said to [Mr. Mackenzie] 'It's a very easy habit to acquire.'" As the novel opens, Julia receives the final installment of the allowance Mackenzie had been sending her via his solicitor in the wake of their split, and the novel traces her unraveling as the psychic cost of her romantic choices overtakes her. Julia is aware that her sexual transactions have become the source of her livelihood, but that does not make the place she lands any more bearable.
Still, Julia does not so much fight her fate as sink, dreamily, into it. The passivity of Rhys heroines is perhaps what makes them so difficult to defend. Rhys shows women undergoing a painful, difficult shift, not just in societies' perception of them but in their understanding of their place in society. The cruelest blow to Antoinette, the heroine of Wide Sargasso Sea, comes long before Rochester locks her up in the attic. Indeed, it occurs not in one moment at all but during the process by which Rochester, after marrying Antoinette for her family's money and property, badgers her into being his idealized woman--insisting that she go by the name Bertha and asking her to stop putting scent in her hair.
Rhys's characters are markedly unsentimental about sex, which is not to say they're unaware of its power. In "Good-bye Marcus, Good-bye Rose," an older, married man makes a pass at a girl of 12 named Phoebe. The "Captain" talks of love and puts his hand on her breast, and his wife blames Phoebe for the entire affair. The story ends with Phoebe contemplating the possibilities of a life, and a sexual one at that, outside the traditional bonds of marriage. "She could hardly believe that only a few weeks ago she, like all the others, had secretly made lists of her trousseau, decided on the names of her three children." Typical for a Rhys heroine, while Phoebe is passive in her interactions with the Captain, she doesn't blanch from accepting her own sexuality while deciding how to deal with the fallout from the incident.
Much has been made of how Rhys mined her own life to create her characters. Lilian Pizzichini's new biography of Rhys, The Blue Hour (Norton; $29.95), is a maudlin account of the writer's life--and sloppily blurs the lines between Rhys's biography and her fiction. Pizzichini too often relies on Rhys's stories to push forward the timeline of Rhys's own life, using the sentiments expressed by the characters to surmise what Rhys herself must have thought and felt.
It's true that Rhys's first published novel, Quartet, was inspired by her affair with Ford Madox Ford, and that across her works, situations (imprisonment) and landscapes (the West Indies) mirror ones Rhys knew well. But Rhys was putting a narrative to very real facts that were not hers alone. In her introduction to the Complete Novels, Diana Athill says of Rhys's autobiographical mining, it is not "'This is how things happened to me,' but 'This is how things happen.'" You are not to feel sympathetic for a Rhys woman, but rather to feel the cold shiver of recognition that this, for better or worse, is how the world unfolds.
The pleasure of her dead-on portraits is in part the discomfort of recognition. In "La Grosse Fifi," two women meet at hotel on the Mediterranean. Roseau is a young woman, moving in a loose circle of expats, and Fifi is an aging, rich woman with a much younger kept man. They become acquainted, and Fifi begins comforting the young woman on her broken heart. "Roseau thought that it was horrible to hear this ruin of a woman voicing all her own moods, all her own thoughts. Horrible." But Roseau ultimately defends Fifi to her smart American friends and cries at her death. But Fifi is never a mothering, sympathetic figure. She cakes on makeup, drinks too much and flaunts her lover. She "was not terrific except metaphorically." Roseau's acceptance of Fifi is an acceptance that any life has the potential to be messy.
Rhys's women are uncompromising. They are irresistible--drunk and disorderly, daring you to ignore the wrecks we're all capable of making of our lives. Her women are unflinchingly honest about the cost of their decisions. But that is not to say they do not enjoy them. After all, as Phoebe concludes, "The prospect before her might be difficult and uncertain but it was far more exciting."