Rive Gauche and The Life of Jean Rhys
"Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere."
Jean Rhys was born in 1890 on the Carribean island of Dominica, a white descendant of slave owners. She left at the age of sixteen to travel to England for her education before moving rootlessly around Europe with the first of her three husbands. Her bad temper, heavy drinking and general tempestuousness followed her throughout her entire life and seeped into much of her work. She became well known for being extremely irascible and temperamental to be around but remained critically admired with many friends and supporters throughout her life. During her older years she lived in Hampstead, London with Jazz singer George Melley and his then wife who said living with her was “like having Johnny Rotten in the house.” Although the collection of stories Rive Gauche (pictured above and available in The Library) garnered her relative literary success in Paris during her younger years, the outbreak of the war in 1936 halted her writing career and she disappeared from public view, only resurfacing when the BBC approached her to do a voice over of her novel Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys then went on to write her most famous novel Wide Sargasso Sea, published when she was seventy six years old.
“If I was bound for hell, let it be hell. No more false heavens. No more damned magic. You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing.”
During the time of its publication, The New York Times named Rhys as “the world's greatest living novelist.” The book, written as a prequel of sorts to Charlotte Bronte's most famous work Jane Eyre, tells the story of Bertha, or Antoinette, ‘the madwoman in the attic.’ Rhys was disgusted at the relative silencing of the history and oppression behind the character of Bertha in Bronte novel and began to write the life of Mr Rochester's wife, a Creole heiress from the time of her youth in Jamaica, to her unhappy marriage to a certain unnamed English gentleman, who renames her Bertha, declares her mad, takes her to England, and isolates her away from the rest of the world in his mansion. Rhys gave a voice to the mad woman, the lost woman, a feature that characterised much of her writing. Rhys’s pages are an array of outcast figures, women, children, impoverished or elderly people, the sick and the ‘mad’ objects of both physical vulnerability and of a social precariousness. Due to her unique position as a lifelong outcast in Europe from her home in the Caribbean, where she was also considered largely unwelcome and felt intensely ill at ease, Rhys managed to walk the line between native and outcast and perfectly translate this feeling of alienation into her female character - “‘between me and you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all."
Her marriage to her first husband was largely unhappy, they had two children during their travels together, one died and the daughter went on to live largely with her father. Towards the end of their time together, Rhys embarked on a similarly unhappy affair with the famous novelist Ford Maddox Ford during her time in Paris, moving in with him and his wife at the time while her husband spent time in prison. Details of their affair have been immortalised in her short story Quartet and in the autobiography of Fords wife Stella Bowen. Ford regarded her as hugely talented 'with a terrifying insight and... passion for stating the case of the underdog, she has let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World'. He was instrumental in getting Rive Gauche published through his contacts, most notably Edward Garnett who shared his passion for her writing and published the first edition. Garnett was also instrumental in the publishing of works by DH Lawrence (he was the primary editor for Sons and Lovers) and Joseph Conrad. Unfortunately for Rhys the sad fact or her gender meant that instant success was much harder and unlike her contemporaries, her first works weren’t enough to secure her a living or much fame.
“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be.”
Rhys was one of the first women to write about the unabashed sexual desire of women and how an honest pursuit of this feeling led to their general unhappiness and ultimate ruin in a society that was not ready to accept it. She lived on the fringes herself, existing for a while as a demimonde, the mistress of a rich businessman in Paris who supplemented her life with a weekly wage in exchange for sex. The archetypal woman of her novels embodies a type of degraded womanhood, whose journey to satiate her own sexual desires, usually with men who are typically brutes, leads them into turmoil. The narrative often results in the women debasing themselves further, abandoning themselves to their desires. The reoccurring result being that their abandoned position increases the man's revulsion of them, leaving them deserted at the mercy of their lust. Her themes of abandonment, racism, post colonialism and assimilation permeate all of her writing. But ultimately, the dignity and sensitivity with which she treats the women of her work is extremely beautiful and brutally reflective of the innate complexity of womanhood in the twentieth century.
“There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”
Written by Katie Brown