Hagiography

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three by David Plante
    Gollancz, 173 pp, £7.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 575 03189 1

One evening in December 1975 David Plante called on his friend, the novelist Jean Rhys, who was staying in a hotel in South Kensington: ‘a big dreary hotel’, she said, ‘filled with old people whom they won’t allow to drink sweet vermouth’. She was sitting in what the receptionist called ‘the pink lounge’, wearing a pink hat. She was then in her eighties. He kissed her and told her she was looking marvellous. ‘Don’t lie to me,’ she said, ‘I’m dying.’ After supper and a great deal of drink, they went up to her room: ‘sometimes her cane got caught between her legs and I had to straighten it.’ They drank some more and talked about her life. Five hours later, David Plante got up, took a pee and told her he had to leave.‘ “Before you go,” she said, “help me to the toilet.” ’ He took her there and left her, in her pink hat, holding onto the washbasin. Sometime later she called to him.

I opened the door a little, imagining, perhaps, that if I opened it only a little, only a little would have happened. I saw Jean, her head with the battered hat leaning to the side, her feet with the knickers about her ankles, just off the floor, stuck in the toilet. I had, I immediately realised, forgotten to lower the seat ... I stepped into the puddle of pee all around the toilet, put my arms around her, and lifted her.

‘I’ll try to walk,’ she said when he offered to carry her to her bed. So he propped her up against a wall and ‘took off her sopping knickers’. When he got her onto the bed, he rang Sonia Orwell, who arrived to take charge of the situation: ‘For God’s sake, David,’ Mrs Orwell said, ‘don’t you know when someone’s drunk?’

A few days later, he again visited Jean Rhys, who in the meantime had been moved by Mrs Orwell to another hotel, one which no doubt allowed its guests to drink sweet vermouth. She was feeling better. ‘Now, David,’ she said, ‘if that ever happens to you with a lady again, don’t get into a panic. You put the lady on her bed, cover her, put a glass of water and a sleeping pill on the bedside table, turn the lights down very low, adjust your tie before you leave so you’ll look smart, say at reception that the lady is resting, and when you tell the story afterwards, you make it funny.’

David Plante has little trouble making his stories funny: he could probably have made them even funnier had he wanted to, but telling funny stories about your friends is a tricky business if you intend to go on having friends; and on the evidence of this book, Mr Plante, an American novelist who lives in England, has quite a busy social life. Sonia Orwell once said to him that the life he led was ‘very chic’: too chic, she thought, for a writer. But he has got his own back on her now. Difficult Women is a memoir of three women whom it was once very chic to be friends with, and the one whom it was most chic to be friends with was Mrs Orwell, though she told Mr Plante that in Paris she knew some ‘very very ordinary’ people. It’s an unflattering book, especially in its account of Mrs Orwell, but whether Mr Plante has any sense that he might have betrayed their friendship is hard to determine since, while making her sound entirely unlovable, he keeps telling us how much he loved her.

Jean Rhys died in 1979; Sonia Orwell, George Orwell’s widow, a year later. Mr Plante’s third subject is Germaine Greer, who, as well as being a friend with a house near his in Italy, was his colleague for a term at the University of Tulsa (‘from Tulsa I wrote letters to Sonia, one long one about Germaine Greer’). Of these women, Germaine Greer seems to have been the one he liked best, but now she thinks him ‘a creep’ for having written this book. Former friends of the other two will have worse things to say of him: indeed, some pretty hard things have already been said by people who didn’t know either of them, and it seems possible that a lot of dinner parties of the kind he describes will now be taking place without him. As a foreigner, Plante claims in self-defence, he is unable to grasp the distinctions the English make between public and private life – which sounds convenient but could, I suppose, be true. No one who records everything he sees his friends do and hears them say does so without malice, yet something besides malice must have prompted Mr Plante to write up his diary for publication, especially as he can’t make his friends look silly without looking pretty silly himself.

Mrs Orwell, being a sociable woman, gave a great many dinner parties (‘Sonia is knowledgeable about and gives a lot of attention to her cooking, which is mostly French.’) He didn’t enjoy these parties. ‘I would get home from an evening of being victimised, angry and depressed, and swear I’d never see Sonia again. The next morning, however, I’d ring her to say what a lovely dinner party ... and how I longed to see her again.’ Mr Plante, of course, is a snob for whom there was pleasure in the thought of being an intimate of the well-connected Mrs Orwell, or a personal friend of Jean Rhys or a close companion of the electrifying Ms Greer; and pleasure, too, in being the kind of nice young man who can get on with everyone, however rich and famous. He is also a homosexual, though he doesn’t precisely say so; and like many homosexuals, he has a weakness for unaccommodating women – the kind actors call ‘outrageous’. He often refers to this weakness in explaining his affection for these ‘difficult’ women but says little to elucidate it. ‘You could jump to a Freudian conclusion that this had to do with my mother,’ he said in an interview. And then added: ‘But I absolutely reject that.’

It may be that ‘difficult women’ are a luxury that only homosexuals can afford in their lives. But if there is some truth in this (men who have to live with women, if they have any sense, must prefer them to be easy-going), there is none in its converse: lesbians don’t sing any songs in praise of difficult men. It would be against their code of honour to do so, and quite unnecessary since heterosexual women do it all the time. Given that the history of the world can in a sense be seen as a history of the difficult men who have run it, it seems appropriate to register a protest against Mr Plante’s title. No one has yet written a book about three moderately famous men who happened to have known each other and called it ‘Difficult Men’. (Or even ‘Nice Men: A Memoir of Three’.) Still, there’s no sense in being curmudgeonly, or in pretending that there’s no such thing as a difficult woman – the chances are that if you aren’t ‘difficult’ no one will write a book about you. Mr Plante is very good at describing some of the ways in which women can make life hard, while insinuating that no merit attaches to being friends with someone it’s easy to be friends with. ‘Difficult women’, it turns out, can make you like yourself better for liking them.

Take Jean Rhys. Of the three relationships Mr Plante describes this was the one that troubled him most, largely because he knew that he wanted something from it that wasn’t just friendship, and he didn’t like this in himself. ‘I wondered if my deepest interest in her was as a writer I could take advantage of,’ he reflected at an early stage in their relationship. ‘I did not like this feeling.’ The feeling recurred when she accepted his offer to help her write the autobiography she wanted to write but could no longer manage. (‘I can’t do it myself and no one can help me,’ she said, as she always said.) Their collaboration was long and painful. The same material was gone over again and again: sometimes she liked it, often she hated it; she would drink, become confused, shout at him, say it was worthless, that there was no point going on. He would put a thousand disparate fragments into chronological order and she would drop them on the floor. Then, looking at what she had done, she would again say, ‘I don’t know if this will ever be finished, it’s in such a mess.’ After Jean Rhys died, Sonia Orwell explained what Mr Plante had no doubt understood all along: that Jean Rhys was overcome with terror at the thought of another writer taking over her book. Her fears are easy to sympathise with. Unfortunately, they tie in all too well with the paranoia of a woman who, while always asking for help, never ceased to find fault with those who helped her; who would say: ‘I don’t want to see anyone,’ and ten minutes later: ‘No one ever comes to see me.’ It’s clear from David Plante’s account of her, as it is from everything she wrote both when she was young and when she was an old lady, that she depended on, and was inspired by, a sense of being treated badly.

Mr Plante describes a tearful afternoon when she tried to dictate a passage about the loneliness of old age:

She said no one helped her, she was utterly alone. She said she had had to come up to London on her own, when in fact Sonia and her editor had gone to stay in the village for three days to get her ready, and drove her up to London to the flat they had found for her. She asked me to read the whole thing out. She said, afterward: ‘Well, there are one or two good sentences in it.’ I wondered how much of the ‘incredible loneliness’ of her life was literature, in which she hoped for one or two good sentences – all, she often said, that would remain of her writing, those one or two good sentences.

She was always incredibly lonely because in her own mind no one else existed. Sonia Orwell told David Plante that she wished he had known how charming Jean Rhys had been when she was younger, but the charm is there for everyone to see in the heroines of her novels, all of whom are versions of herself and all of whom are charming and very pretty. ‘I don’t think I know what character is,’ she admitted to Mr Plante. ‘I just write about what happened.’ By which she meant what happened to her. And it wasn’t only as a novelist that she found the notion of character elusive: everyone she knew in life was a mystery to her. ‘I don’t know much about my husbands,’ she told Mr Plante, confessing that she had no idea why her first and third husbands had spent time in prison. Max Hamer, her third husband, was married before, she said, ‘but whether he had any children or not I don’t know.’ She herself had two by her first husband, Jean Lenglet. After they divorced, the daughter (prudently) stayed with her father: the son had died in early infancy. ‘What did it die of?’ Mr Plante asked. ‘Je n’sais pas’ was her reply: ‘I was never a good mother.’

It was characteristic of her that while she talked a great deal about her writing and writing in general, both of which seemed to matter a lot to her, she was prepared to turn her back on everything she had done for the sake of a couple of sad sentences: ‘I’ll die without having lived ... I never wanted to be a writer. All I wanted was to be happy.’ What is hard to understand is the part Jean Rhys’s obsession with herself played in other people’s affection for her. ‘For some mad reason, I love you,’ David Plante said to her one day and then wondered, not why he had said it but why he loved her. ‘The most enormous influence on me in the four and a half years since I met her,’ Scott Fitzgerald once remarked of his wife, ‘has been the complete, fine and full-hearted selfishness of Zelda.’ Perhaps there is something unfailingly attractive about pretty women whose self-absorption makes them unable to cope with anything. ‘It took me three visits to teach her how to open a compact she had been given as a gift,’ Mr Plante writes in passing about Jean Rhys: maybe it was the gallantry her selfishness inspired that made him think he loved her.

David Plante had first met Jean Rhys at a ‘luncheon party’ at Sonia Orwell’s house; and when he was working on her autobiography he liked to discuss her with Mrs Orwell. Heaven knows why, since Sonia could not bear to let him think that he knew anything about Jean that she didn’t already know: ‘Everything you’ve said about Jean that she’s told you I’ve known, in greater detail, from her and there is a great deal she has told me which she hasn’t mentioned to you.’ That’s the way Sonia Orwell, who thought, perhaps rightly, that ‘most people’ didn’t like her, talked to her friends, as if telling them anything that didn’t make them feel awful would encourage in them a terrible sense of well-being. ‘When I was with her,’ Mr Plante writes, ‘her effect was to make me see my life as meaningless, as I knew she saw her own life.’ It’s a funny reason for wanting to be someone’s friend. ‘I was in love with that unhappiness in her,’ he continues. Mrs Orwell, who had more common sense than David Plante, thought it was self-indulgent to say that kind of thing about oneself – and she had a point.

Mr Plante acknowledges Mrs Orwell’s qualities, her generosity with her time and her money, and what he calls her ‘disinterested devotion’ to her friends: but it is the many unpleasantnesses, or ‘difficulties’, of her behaviour that are assiduously reported. He took her to Italy to stay in his house, though her friends warned him against it (‘When I said I was going to Italy with Sonia Orwell, he said: “You’re out of your fucking mind” ’): she didn’t like it there and the bits he was particularly proud of she particularly hated. She was often drunk; she didn’t like anyone she didn’t know (and a large number of people she did know): ‘The writer mentioned friends of hers. Sonia said: “They’re swine.” ’ One or two people, her protégés, she respected, but mostly she was contemptuous of other people’s endeavours and even more contemptuous of their reputations: ‘Freddy Ayer. He doesn’t think ... My God. I know Freddy Ayer. I know he doesn’t think.’ Having wanted to write and, in her own eyes, failed, she was particularly hard on writers, especially those who hoped for success: a writer was congratulated in her presence on a book he had recently published: ‘Sonia said: “I won’t read it. I’m sure it’s awful.” ’ It seems likely, however, that she found her own behaviour more repellent than Mr Plante did. ‘Sonia was difficult, but she was difficult for a reason. She wanted, demanded so much from herself and from others, and it made her rage that she and others couldn’t ever match what was done to what was aspired to.’ It’s an admiring remark but the rage wasn’t always admirable. When she was ill, a friend came to stay with her: ‘In the late morning, she’d bring a tray up to her, and would either find Sonia in a darkened room, her head lifted a little from the pillow, saying angrily, “You fucking well woke me up just when I’d fallen asleep,” or, in a bright room, sitting up in bed, saying, as she stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray: “Enfin. I thought breakfast would never come.” ’

Mrs Orwell disapproved of Jean Rhys for making a meal of her miseries, but she didn’t invariably do better herself. On the other hand, she at least had some idea of what she was up to:

‘Yesterday a young woman stopped me in the street to ask me the time. I shouted at her: “Do you think I can give the time to everyone who stops me in the street?” Afterwards, I wondered why I had been so rude to her. Why? Why am I so filled with anger?’

  I said nothing.

  She said: ‘I’ve fucked up my life. I’m angry because I’ve fucked up my life.’

David Plante doesn’t tell us a lot about Jean Rhys that Jean Rhys hasn’t. His portrait of Mrs Orwell is persuasive: but there is little reason for people who never knew her – who have never even heard of her – to know now how much and with what cause she loathed herself. Novelists have more tactful ways of saying what they think about their friends.

The year Sonia Orwell stayed with David Plante in Italy he decided to spend a few days with Germaine Greer before returning to England. The first thing he saw when he arrived at the house with Ms Greer was a baby sitting at a table under a fig tree playing with finger paints. ‘That’s not the way to use fucking finger paints,’ Ms Greer shouted at the child, who ‘looked up at her with a look of shocked awe that there was a wrong and a right way to use finger paints.’ Mr Plante went into the house while ‘Germaine taught the baby the use of finger paints’. Inside the child’s mother was reading a magazine. ‘Where the fuck are you while your baby is making a fucking mess out of the fucking finger paints I paid fucking good money for?’ Ms Greer shouted from the garden. Germaine Greer knows a lot more than the right way to use fucking finger paints: as Mr Plante describes her, there isn’t a single fucking thing she doesn’t know how to do. The next morning he finds her doing drawings for a dovecot she wants to build:

I said: ‘It looks as if you’re designing a whole palazzo.’

‘I’m simply doing it the way it should be done,’ she said.

They visit a local coppersmith: Ms Greer and the coppersmith speak to each other in the local dialect.

Outside I asked: ‘But how do you know the dialect?’

‘Don’t you,’ she asked. ‘You live here Shouldn’t you know the dialect?’

They go to a garage where the mechanics stare at her: ‘they have never known a woman who could swing her hips from side to side and clasp her hands to her breasts and pucker her mouth and know as much as they did about shock absorbers.’ Wherever Ms Greer and Mr Plante go together, in Tulsa or in Tuscany, it’s the same story: she is in complete fucking command: he is flummoxed. The only expertise they seem to share is an ability to take care of their own sexual requirements:

At dinner with six others, Germaine said to me across the dinner table: ‘I haven’t had sex in weeks, not since I got here.’ ‘Neither have I,’ I said. She said: ‘Well, I’ve been happy enough in my little white room taking care of it all by myself.’ ‘I’m pretty content in that way, too,’ I said.

Clearly Mr Plante is dazzled by her: dazzled by the sight of her breasts shining in the candlelight as she sits in a bath with burning candles all along the edge, dazzled by the sight of her pubic hair peeping out through the gaping buttons of her skirt, by her ‘bodily presence’, by her looks (until he noticed her ‘stubby’ feet, he had thought she ‘was beautiful beyond any fault’); dazzled by her sex life, her stories of fucks in the sea with used-car salesmen and the descriptions of her ‘long, violently fluttering orgasms’; dazzled by her ‘knowledge of the whole world and what was happening or not happening in it’; dazzled by her understanding of ‘what it is to be a woman’ (what is it?): ‘Her intelligence was to me the intelligence of a woman, because she had, as a woman, thought out her role in the world; the complexity of the role required intelligence to see it, and she had seen it, I thought, thoroughly’; dazzled, above all, by the splendour of her public persona. The chapter ends with a description of the wondrous Ms Greer giving a lecture at the Unitarian Church in Tulsa:

Powerful lights illuminated the stage so TV cameras could film the lecture; in the intense light, Germaine appeared to have a burning silver sheen about her. As she talked, she moved her arms in loose soft gestures, and I found myself being drawn in, not to a public argument in support of abortion as she defined it, but a private revelation about love ... I thought: She’s talking about herself. And yet she wasn’t talking about herself. She was talking about the outside world, and in her large awareness of it, she knew it as I did not; it was as if she had a secret knowledge of it, and to learn that secret from her would make me a different person. I wanted to be a different person. I had never heard Germaine give a public lecture; I had never seen her so personal. I thought: I love her.

What is surprising is not that Germaine Greer finds him a creep but that after everything he says about her he finds her difficult. If that adjective can encompass both the helpless Jean Rhys and the very able Germaine Greer, what hope is there for the rest of us?