One Thing

John Bayley

  • Jean Rhys by Carole Angier
    Deutsch, 780 pp, £15.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 233 98597 2
  • A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym by Hazel Holt
    Macmillan, 308 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 333 40614 1

In the introduction he wrote to the Magnus memoir of the Foreign Legion, D.H. Lawrence remarked that he hated ‘terrible’ things, ‘and the people to whom they happen.’ A reason for keeping away from Jean Rhys, but in any case they would hardly have appealed to each other. When she was young she liked adventurers, and married one, but later in her long life she preferred gentle and gentlemanly types who wanted to cherish her, though they seldom or never succeeded. As Carole Angier acutely observes, she gravitated towards men with ‘social confidence and inner uncertainty’. Adultery and promiscuity were, oddly enough, not her problems: she craved, or thought she did, ‘the twins freedom and safety’ (dissimilar twins, one might have thought) and the respectability of a married name. Her later spouses clung to her with suicidal fidelity at the cost of their finances, their health and sanity. They died worn out, but she kept going, on gin, whisky and Algerian wine, to die at a great age, famous at last, completing an early book called Smile Please.

It is probably hard for the young to imagine the one-time lure of what was known as Bohemia, refuge from a socially repressive and aggressively snobbish age. Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams, as she began, was born in Dominica in a plantation family which had seen better days but with good connections, returning to England for public school and careers in banking or the Army. Jean’s brothers frequently, if disapprovingly, bailed her out in later life. Dominica was a sinister if beautiful place, hostile and tyrannical to a child, and so in a different way was the prestigious Perse school at Cambridge, which took women’s education seriously. After that it was a relief to go on the town in some degree, settling into night-clubs and taking up with rackety gentlemen who nonetheless behaved and dressed well, seeming to offer a degree of stability along with freedom. In her story ‘Goodbye Marcus, goodbye Rose’ a girl called Phoebe recites:

 If no one ever marries me
And I don’t see why they should.
For nurse says I’m not pretty
And I’m seldom very good ...

She was pretty, if the photo on the cover is anything to go by, but it gave her no confidence. Finally she took up with a young Dutchman, John Lenglet, who came from a background as respectable as her own, though he was already married, to an actress, and was still not divorced when he and Jean celebrated their bigamous wedding in The Hague in 1919. Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight doesn’t like The Hague very much, and they soon went to Vienna, where Jean bore a son who died after a few weeks, and later a daughter, Maryvonne, who was to become, with her father, a heroine of the Dutch resistance in the second war, and who after an eventful life of her own still kept up with her mother in Jean’s old age. John Lenglet was condemned to death in the war, survived Sachsenshausen concentration camp and lived to remarry a penniless Polish countess and write books about it all.

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