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.