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.

Jean Rhys’s father was a Welsh doctor, interested in the newspapers that came from England more than anything else, but ‘kind and gentle to me’ unlike her mother, a shrewd and capable woman, descendant of an old slave-owning family, and apparently quite uncomprehending of her daughter: ‘ “You are a very peculiar child,” said my mother.’ She seems to have said it rather often. If they had a companionable (or even characterisable) family life, Jean Rhys gives little sense of it (she had several brothers and sisters but scarcely mentions any of them): instead, in a sequence of short chapters very like her short stories, particularly the later ones, she evokes her own isolation in a place full of pleasing sights and frightening people. The white world was no more welcoming to her than the black (‘I’m very much afraid of the whole bloody human race,’ one of her heroines remarked) and she in turn was either ingratiating or aloof, finding the ways of thought of her family and their friends acutely puzzling – and, it’s implied, rightly so. She may have been unfit for the world, but it isn’t clear that she considered the world fit for her. And she didn’t altogether dislike not being a part of it: ‘I preferred being an outcast by myself,’ she observes, after describing a snub from one of the few girls she tried to be friends with.

There remained the terrible problem of looks (the girl she had wanted to be friends with had been chosen on the grounds that she too was plain) and of her incapacity to please despite the efforts she made. Thomas Staley, in his study of Jean Rhys’s fiction, discusses the sad fate of her heroines at the hands of ‘a male-dominated bourgeois society’ and refers to them as victims of ‘negative narcissism’, a condition ‘where the female, treated exclusively as an object, reaches an emotional state in which the exclusive object of her psychic energy is the self’. There is something (more obvious than the words suggest) in that. In the world in which Jean Rhys grew up women were expected first to be pretty, then to flirt and finally to marry. But Mr Kennaway didn’t think she was pretty, Mr Gregg didn’t like her (‘I knew that for the rest of his life, whenever he thought of me, Mr Gregg would send out a small shoot of dislike’) and a further reason she envied the blacks was that they didn’t have to get married: ‘I dreaded growing up. I dreaded the time when I would have to worry about how many proposals I had, what if I didn’t have a proposal?’ One could say that a world in which girls grew up in dread of not being proposed to was a bad bourgeois world: but in the case of Jean Rhys it isn’t the only thing to say.

Even worse in her eyes than not getting a proposal was being seen not to get one. ‘When you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter, ’ remarks Sasha Jansen in Good Morning, Midnight, speaking for all the women Jean Rhys has written about. In the family dining-room in Dominica there was a picture of Mary Queen of Scots going to her execution – ‘her right foot eternally advanced, walking daintily to extinction’. The crowd behind her, Jean Rhys comments, ‘was male … I have often since seen their narrow eyes, their self-satisfied expressions.’ When she was 17 Jean Rhys left Dominica for England, convinced that it would be the most wonderful place on earth. But in all Jean Rhys’s stories, including her own, hope is set up only to be dashed. England, as anybody knows who has read her novels, represented a kind of extinction. It was cold, grey and full of smug hostility: ‘Later on I learnt to know that most English people kept knives under their tongues to stab me.’

When Jean Rhys died last year, only the first part of her autobiography, the account of her West Indian childhood, was ready for publication; the second part, which covers the years from 1907 to 1920 or 1921, had been taken down from dictation by the novelist David Plante and was still substantially unrevised. A third section consists of fragments from a diary of the 1940s. The second part is dull by comparison with the first, though the events are interesting enough: a brief period at the Perse School in Cambridge, her time as an acting student and then as a chorus girl; her first love affair and the unhappiness that followed; her work in a soldiers’ canteen; and after the war her move to Paris and her marriage to the mysterious Jean Lenglet, about whom she seems to have known unaccountably little. She had now started to live the kind of futile, penurious life so well described in her first four novels: sleeping a lot, drinking a bit, clinging to sadness (‘I would have missed it if it had gone’). Reluctant to make any move unassisted by fate, she simply waited for men to arrive and then to depart. In her first published story she speaks, rather crudely for her, of the ‘curse of Eve’: ‘the perpetual hunger to be beautiful and the thirst to be loved’ – as always, she was talking about herself.

It was a curse she never allowed her heroines to overcome. Fate was kinder to her. ‘I must write,’ she noted in her diary. ‘If I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure.’ Between the end of her first affair and the beginning of the war, she moved for a short time to a bedsitter in World’s End. Here, appropriately, fate – as she describes it – took her in hand. With no apparent purpose in mind, she bought some new pens and several shiny exercise books and then, in some kind of daze, wrote down everything that had recently happened to her. She didn’t look at the books again for many years but took them with her wherever she went – ‘this is one of the reasons I believe in Fate.’ Fate subsequently introduced her to Ford Madox Ford and the notebooks ‘were the foundation for Voyage in the Dark’: with that uncharacteristically proud announcement the autobiography ends.

‘Have all beautiful things sad destinies?’ asks the sarcastic Mr Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea. His first wife said no, but she was pretty and came to a sad end. All Jean Rhys’s women thought obsessively about looks although having them never did them much good. A feminist argument would not be inappropriate here, nor would Professor Staley’s ‘negative narcissism’, but it might still be the case that good looks are a currency which can be put to good use or to bad. Take Liane de Pougy, ‘celebrated cascadeuse of the Belle Epoque’, as Anita Brookner has described her. She was, for most of her life, one of the most beautiful and elegant women in France, had a triumphant career as a courtesan (‘the nation’s Liane’), married in her late thirties a Romanian prince – which didn’t stop her having a good time – and ended up in the arms of God, or at any rate the Church. Maimie Pinzer provides another, more complicated example. She was a good-looking Jewish girl, born in Philadelphia in 1885. When she was 13 she had to leave school to work in a department store. There she started going with men and although her subsequent career was full of pain, she was in no doubt that she had escaped from an intolerable background.

Prostitution, as one of the editors of The Maimie Papers points out, is a form of upward mobility. An unwholesome form perhaps – at least in the eyes of those who have dedicated themselves to reclaiming fallen women, or women tout court – but prostitutes have not invariably found it so. A pretty but impecunious girl might not see any good reason for giving up the notion that her face could be her fortune in a world where, thanks to their faces, respectable girls regularly made respectable fortunes. ‘She has been told twenty times a day by her mother, since she was five years old, that she ’s a beauty of beauties … that she was born for great things, that if she plays her cards she may marry God knows whom’: Christina Light, the future Princess Casamassima, was uncommonly beautiful but there was nothing very unusual about her mother’s ideas for her. Gladys Deacon, another American and, according to Chips Channon, ‘once the world’s most beautiful woman’, made it her life’s business to marry the Duke of Marlborough (though she hated him almost as soon as she married him). Then, too, one has to consider the available alternatives. Jean Rhys, down and out in London, preferred to take money rather than take work of any kind. Maimie Pinzer, a contemporary of Gladys Deacon’s, was ‘rescued’ by a very Christian gentleman who, though he had no trouble in persuading her that going with men was a low activity and unworthy of her, could not convince her that the other occupations open to her were preferable. ‘I don’t propose,’ she said, ‘to get up at 6.30 to be at work at 8 and work in a close, stuffy room with people I despise, until dark, for $6 or $7 a week! When I could, just by phoning, spend an afternoon with some congenial person and in the end have more than a week’s work could pay me.’ In recent years, for God knows what awful reasons, prostitution has been moving away from the old idea of good times to a new idea of good works – or lay therapy. Anyone who doubts this, and who missed a striking film called Sex Farm which depicted everyday life in a lonely brothel in some barren stretch of America, should go and see the even more striking performance of Marilyn Chambers at Raymond’s Revuebar. In Southampton they’re trying to put prostitution on the rates.

There are, however, other connections between fortune-hunting and good looks of which economic necessity or the wish to be rich and well-married may only be a part. It’s a matter of expectations and how they can be met. ‘I was not born. I happened,’ Gladys Deacon, who was famous for her ‘brain power’ as well as her looks, once said; and although she was by then very old and selectively senile, it had always been her view that the facts of life – both biological and social – didn’t apply to her. In her confidence that she could improve on what nature had already so generously done for her she had paraffin wax injected into the bridge of her nose – nature had its revenge when the wax started to shift to other parts of her face. An exalted idea of her own destiny, of having been ‘born for great things’, was confirmed but not assuaged by a great deal of looking in the mirror (Mabel Dodge Luhan said that Gladys ‘was content to lie for hours alone on her bed, happy in loving her own beauty, contemplating it’) and a legion of famous admirers – Proust, Montesquiou, Berenson, Hofmannsthal, the Kaiser’s son and a hundred others. Her extraordinary sense of herself was matched by an extraordinary contempt for other people. When the Titanic sank she was appalled that a friend of hers should have died when so many ‘nasty femmes de chambre’ were saved: ‘I can imagine the way they howled, cannot you?’ she wrote to her mother.

Later in her life, she came to admire Hitler, who had, as she put it. ‘a telling personality’: ‘When you think how hard it is to create a rising in a small village, well, he had the whole world up in arms.’ ‘She too had disturbed some part of the world: unfortunately, the sought-for acknowledgment of her powers – her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough – proved wholly unsatisfactory, and after that there was only age and an increasingly wild eccentricity.

Liane de Pougy preferred Mussolini: ‘How envious I am of Italy with her Mussolini! Our leaders are old, white-haired, flabby ... ’ Moderation, respectability, convention: good-looking women seem to have some special difficulty in bearing with them, as if life must be made to live up to the reflection in the mirror. ‘I would rather have the highest or the lowest in everything. I find that instinctively I avoid being where I have to mix and mingle with the half-bred, the half-souled and the half-educated,’ Maimie Pinzer wrote in one of the letters to the Bostonian Fanny Quincy Howe that make up The Maimie Papers. Later on, when she had set up a shelter for young prostitutes in Montreal, she described her favourite among them as being ‘the opposite of “bourgeois” ’. Neither Gladys Deacon nor Liane de Pougy had much knowledge of the ‘lowest’, except in their own behaviour, where looks were knowingly taken to be licence. ‘For me,’ said the latter, ‘there was nothing between being pure and being dissolute.’ When Gladys Deacon was an hour and a half late for an appointment with the playwright Giraudoux, he felt, apparently, that this was ‘the minimum’ time to wait for someone of her beauty. Jean Rhys was more unhappy and more nihilistic: ‘I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care’; and because her heroines didn’t really care either, they were capable of the same capriciousness as those two far more confident and extravagant women.

In all these lives men feature prominently and not at all. Jean Rhys for long stretches of her life was wholly dependent on them, emotionally and financially: but there is nothing to suggest that she enjoyed their company. As suitors and victims, payers of compliments and buyers of presents, they provided necessary recognition. Liane de Pougy was famous for having been given the most expensive string of pearls in France but the sensuous scenes she records are scenes between her and other women: ‘At about three o’clock my Flossie [the much-written-about Nathalie Barney] arrived. We lay down to rest in the overwhelming scent of flowers. She took me in her arms and ... we were both equally stupefied by tenderness.’ Though there is little evidence to support her claim that she was ‘nervous ... in the presence of men’, it’s clear that she could find them gracelessly ‘other’. In her later years, she even had some difficulty in coming to terms with Jesus: ‘Your incarnation,’ she said, addressing him one night, ‘makes me see too much of the man in You, and that puts me off.’ Maimie Pinzer. though not put off by the man in men, was most strongly attached, for much of the period covered by these letters, to Mrs Howe, the upper-class woman she would have liked to have been. Professor Staley even suggests that the heartless Jean Rhys found her best moments in the companionship of women.

Mon semblable, ma soeur ... The world now is full of sisters, who have persuasively argued the case against looks, seeing them largely as a matter of men’s vanity and women’s collusion: but it may be that they do women an injustice in overlooking the question of women’s vanity and men’s collusion. Nor would everyone necessarily be happier if the sense of good looks were eradicated, as some radical feminists would have them be, in the cause of sexual equality. Even narcissism has its rewards, as well as its discontents. Most of Liane de Pougy’s and Gladys Deacon’s friends were artists (‘she implored Epstein to come and talk about art’), with whom they shared their contempt for the bourgeois world and their unusual commitment to appearances. It’s possible there is some connection between a sense of looks and an idea of art. Jean Rhys is not rightly praised, as Professor Staley praises her, for a ‘comprehensive’ understanding ‘of what it is to have been a woman in this century’: her understanding is maddeningly limited to what it is to have been Jean Rhys. She was a narcissist who described herself beautifully.