All I can do

Carole Angier

  • Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-1966 edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly
    Deutsch, 336 pp, £9.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 223 97567 2

Jean Rhys always said, and certainly believed, that she didn’t want to be a writer. She only wrote, she said, because she was unhappy, and when she was happy, as she was in her twenty years of marriage to her third husband, she didn’t write at all. Now comes this extraordinary book to prove that this simply wasn’t true. Jean was only half-like one of her heroines: passive, incompetent, decoratively doomed. Her letters show that she was a dedicated professional writer; that her third marriage covered some of the hardest years of her life; and that throughout it she never stopped writing, or trying desperately to write.

It is in the earlier part of this book – during her second marriage – that she sounds most like her heroines. She was passive, and drank too much, and made scenes. She fell into great troughs of fatigue, paranoia and despair. She was vague and ‘potty’ and accident-prone – every time her work was broadcast on the radio there was an electricity cut, or her clock ‘was haywire’, and she missed it. She spent her life moving, and every time she moved she got worse at it. She lost everything – clothes, rings, her manuscripts, of which she never kept copies. She had no friends (apart from people who sought her out because they admired her books) and hardly any family. She feared and hated mice, cockroaches, people, machines. She loved cats and clothes, ‘trees, shadows, a shaded light’. In each squalid room she laboured to create beauty, but it always remained ‘like a public lavatory despite all my efforts’. She had the highest standards of courage and honour, but no judgment or common sense. And she was determined ‘to avoid sentimentality and end on the astringent note so beloved of Angliche’:

Last night I was thinking ‘If I could jump out of the window one bang and I’d be out of it.’ For this is the sixth floor.

  Then I thought of Max’s story of the old lady who went to church with her ear trumpet. And so the stern Scotch sexton or verger or something, eyed her a bit. Then he said ‘Madam one toot and you’re oot.’ Perhaps that’s what it would be like, One toot and you’re oot.

So she is half-like her heroines – and her heroines show how well she understood that half. But the other half was always there. She wrote poems to ease her pain: ‘it’s better to write this foolishness than to collapse, weep, or break china. I’ve done hundreds in the last four years.’ But she knew all along that her attitude to prose was quite different. ‘I can write mediocre “poetry” so easily, and labour so over prose. Then all traces of effort must be blotted out.’ When we think seriously of those five novels and three books of short stories, all masterpieces of compression, we must wonder how we could ever have believed her ‘I only write for therapy’ story. These Letters lay it to rest for good. ‘I know that to write as well as I can is my truth and why I was born,’ ‘my only thing – All I can do’, she wrote to her daughter.

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