Narcissism and its Discontents

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography by Jean Rhys
    Deutsch, 173 pp, £4.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 233 97213 7
  • Jean Rhys: A Critical Study by Thomas Staley
    Macmillan, 140 pp, £10.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 333 24522 9
  • My Blue Notebooks by Liane de Pougy, translated by Diana Athill
    Deutsch, 288 pp, £7.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 233 97141 6
  • The Maimie Papers edited by Ruth Rosen and Sue Davidson
    Virago, 450 pp, £9.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 86068 114 9
  • Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough by Hugo Vickers
    Weidenfeld, 299 pp, £8.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77652 5

Staying in Castries for the wedding was a young man called Mr Kennaway. When he watches me I can see that he doesn’t think I am pretty. Oh God, let me be pretty when I grow up.

Jean Rhys was 12 at the time of the wedding in Castries, on the island of St Lucia. At the age of six a photograph had been taken of her: she looked very pretty then in a new white dress. Three years later, she realised ‘with dismay that I wasn’t like it any longer’: ‘It was the first time I was aware of time, change and the longing for the past. I was nine years of age.’

The memory of the dress – ‘over and over I would remember that magic dress’ – worn for the first time with a frangipani wreath, was compounded with the memory of the place where she had been given it, Bona Vista, an estate in the Dominican hills, bought by her father in a moment of financial optimism, ‘very beautiful, wild, lonely, remote’. It had to be sold soon afterwards, ‘and we never went back’: ‘Bona Vista too had vanished.’

Jean Rhys didn’t really change much after the age of nine. A sense of loss, which was primarily aesthetic, and a consequent sense of being at a loss, seem to have dominated her life – or the record she wished to give of her life – as they dominate her writing. Their circumstances and their resourcefulness may vary a little, but almost all Jean Rhys’s heroines, both in her novels and in her short stories, suffer from a similar incapacity to wake up from a dream. They know this about themselves, but the world seems to them too harsh and they lack the ‘nous’ to deal with it: ‘Take my advice and grow another skin or two … before it’s too late,’ a young man remarks to the nous-less heroine of ‘Till September Petronella’. Jean Rhys’s mother, who didn’t like her very much, worried about her ability to look after herself: ‘I can’t imagine what will happen if you don’t learn to behave more like other people.’

One reason she found this difficult, even as a child, was that she didn’t know which other people to behave like. On the one hand were the blacks, about whom she had complicated feelings. When she was very young she had wished she was black, would pray for a transformation each night and in the morning ‘run to the looking-glass … to see if the miracle had happened ’. Later on, she envied them their lives – ‘they had a better time than we did’; and wondered whether, being Catholics, they also had ‘a better chance in eternity’. Above all, she envied them because they were ‘more a part of the place than we were’, and being a part of the place mattered to her a great deal: ‘It’s strange growing up in a very beautiful place and seeing that it is beautiful… I wanted to identify with it, to lose myself in it. (But it turned its head away, indifferent, and that broke my heart.)’

The place wouldn’t have her, and for all her wanting to be one of them, the blacks wouldn’t either; Wide Sargasso Sea wonderfully describes her feeling that there was a conspiracy between the two to unsettle the settlers, to drive them out by driving them mad. One of her early memories is of a black nurse called Meta, full of magic and malevolence, who played harsh jokes on her, told her, for instance, that at night cockroaches would fly into her room ‘and bite my mouth and that the bite would never heal.’ When eventually Meta left, Miss Rhys says, with a characteristic sense of un-undoable damage, it was already too late: ‘Meta had shown me a world of fear and distrust, and I am still in that world.’

Her family didn’t know what Meta was like; they didn’t even know, or so she felt, that the blacks didn’t like them:

They hate us. We are hated.
Not possible.
Yes it is possible and it is so.

Wherever she went later in her life, she always had a strong sense of being hated, which confirmed her in her view that she saw the world more clearly than other people.

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