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.

We can see that this is true before she puts it into words, for her worst times are always caused by despair about her work. One of the worst we read about here was during 1949-50. There were personal reasons for it too, but her terrible feelings of futility were about her neglected work. ‘I have worked hard for a long, long time and it’s been no good at all – None.’ And when she was so depressed about her old books, she couldn’t write the new one. ‘The desire has gone – for the present at any rate. It’s the first time in my life ... that it’s happened.’ Then a young actress called Selma Vaz Dias sought her out and asked her permission to perform an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight. Jean was renewed, revivified; she fired off long letters to Selma about her script, and wrote: ‘I am really very grateful to you – for I was convinced that I never wished to write again.’ A few months earlier she had written: ‘I’m obstinately sure that given six months of decent food and a little encouragement I’d come alive again.’ The encouragement alone had done it. There is quite extraordinary proof of how important this was to her, in something which is made public here for the first time. In 1963 Selma persuaded Jean to sign over to her 50 per cent of the profits from any dramatic adaptation of her books, and all artistic control. (Selma’s heirs receive 33⅓ per cent of the earnings from adaptations of Jean’s work to this day.) Despite this, and despite Selma’s general neglect of her after it, Jean never spoke a harsh word either to or about her. In 1959 she had written: ‘you can have what I’ve done. I’ve always told you that,’ and she never went back on it. It was, of course, a measure of her quixotic standards of honour and loyalty, but it is above all proof of how important it was to her that someone should give new life and hope to her work.

The Letters also shed fascinating new light on the role of Jean’s last two husbands, Leslie Tilden Smith and Max Hamer. It has often struck critics as curious that she wrote so little about them, though she spent nearly half her life with them. She wrote about her first husband, Jean Lenglet, in Quartet and Good Morning, Midnight, and about her important early lovers in Voyage in the Dark and (again) in Quartet. But Leslie rarely and Max never appears in her fiction. Well: Jean always wrote about love, especially unhappy love, and by the time she met Leslie, when she was 37, that sort of love was surely behind her. She needed Leslie and Max, and she cared for them both, it’s clear: but their importance to her was not for love, but for company and support. The question is: how much support did they give?

The verdict of the Letters must be that Leslie was a great support – possibly her greatest ever. Writing in 1962, Jean said of her earlier years that she ‘was writing quickly then – far better circumstances’. Those circumstances, I think, were mainly Leslie. He was a publisher’s reader; he had, as his daughter says here,’tremendous faith in her work and considered her a “genius”. He worked endlessly, editing, typing, and walking around trying to get her novels published.’ It was while she was with him that Jean wrote almost all her books: Voyage in the Dark, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Good Morning, Midnight, the stories of Tigers are better-looking, and (another startling revelation of the Letters) half the first version of Wide Sargasso Sea.

Then we learn how different were her years with Max. Not because she was ‘happy’, and so not writing: but because she was driven to despair by worry over him, and for that reason struggling to write. Poor Max, as unworldly as Jean, and an even poorer judge of character, first (from 1950 to 1952) landed up in prison. Then, almost from the moment she began the final version of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1957, he was ill. From 1963 (when he was 79) he was either in hospital, forced to leave Jean to what she could least bear, solitude, or requiring constant, back-breaking care at home. She wrote whenever she could. But Wide Sargasso Sea took her so long, not just because it was her imaginative masterpiece, but because she was no longer protected, supported and encouraged, as she had been by Leslie. She had to do what she never could do: protect and support herself and someone else as well. Wide Sargasso Sea was finally written despite poor Max Hamer: whereas, on the evidence of these letters, Leslie Tilden Smith was – even more than old Fordie, to whom she usually gave the credit – Jean Rhys’s literary mentor.

The Letters are full of new facts. About the life, as we’ve seen: Jean’s debacle with Selma; the details of Max’s ‘smash’. And more: Jean’s own five days in Holloway for assault, which only her close circle has known about till now; her self-doubting but deeply loving relationship with her daughter. Even more important, however, the Letters are packed with information, a good deal new, about her work. We hear at first hand of her attitude to fame – unwanted and never expected; to her audience – she fears and distrusts them; to criticism – she doesn’t care, much. (‘Forget people,’ she told her granddaughter, nervous before a performance. ‘Think only of the music.’)

Titles were important to her; a basis of fact helped her. She waited for weary weeks for a book to ‘click’, for knowledge of how to put it right to come ‘out of the blue’. She worked on chaotic bits and pieces of paper only she could read, cutting and shifting endlessly in search of clarity, smoothness, the exact word. Her perfectionism was extreme, and in the end impossible. ‘The truth is that I hate everything I write when it’s finished, and cannot bear to touch it,’ she wrote to Francis Wyndham. ‘The real book will escape. As always.’

The second half of this book is a treasure trove of information about Wide Sargasso Sea: a revelation to lovers of the novel, essential to its students, fascinating to anyone interested in what Francis Wyndham calls ‘the turbulent process of literary creation’. Already in 1945 Jean knew that this half-finished novel was her best: ‘I think it might be the one book I’ve written that’s much use.’ We learn about its sources in a collection of her West Indian memories she called ‘Creole’, and in a lost book called Le Revenant. We follow her struggles, propped up by drink and pep pills, with the great problems of the novel: ‘Where to start? Who’s to speak? What to cut?’ She wrote three different beginnings; she wrote the whole book with Antoinette as narrator; she thought of cutting the whole of Part Three. She worked and worked to smooth Antoinette’s dreamlike experience into a ‘plausible’ story; to write convincing dialogue (‘I was not listening in 1840’); to write Rochester’s Part Two, ‘so much the worst and most difficult’. In 1966, nine years after she’d promised the finished book to André Deutsch, and with Max dying in hospital, she still wanted to make changes. But in March Max died, and Jean wrote to her editor, Diana Athill:

  I’ve dreamt several times that I was going to have a baby ...

  Finally I dreamt that I was looking at the baby in the cradle – such a puny weak thing.

  So the book must be finished, and that must be what I think about it really.

And so she let the book go at last. Like Antoinette, she only trusted her dreams.

Even without the first love affair, and the last terrible years, the letters report on a heartrending life. But the most extraordinary thing to come out of this book is that it was not really as strange a life as Jean Rhys, and perhaps her readers, believed. She did have an especially difficult nature. But the triumph of Wide Sargasso Sea was even more a triumph over the ordinary vicissitudes of life – poverty, illness, domestic chores – and over the ordinary vicissitudes of being a writer. She longed for time and peace to finish her book – but she never got them. She felt terrible guilt over her delays (‘Like Algernon in“The Importance of Being Earnest” [sic] saying “I never knew anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result” ’). She was afraid she would die before she could finish. In her isolation and obscurity she lost faith and begged for praise: ‘Does André Deutsch like it at all? Does anybody? – Do you? I mean sans blague?’ She felt ‘buried alive down here, everything moves with great slowness and I don’t know what is happening.’

Why, after all that, did she think she was no more than one of her own heroines? Perhaps because it suited her idea of style: she would rather seem a beautiful woman, bravely accepting a doomed and lonely life, than a prosaic professional worker, struggling inelegantly to defeat it. But mostly, perhaps, because she was afraid. Her obsessive perfectionism, her distrust of her readers, show how much she feared failure: and perhaps, like a child, she denied trying because if you don’t try you can’t fail. It is painfully clear here that she had no trust in herself as anything. Not as a mother, not as a friend, not as a correspondent; above all, not as a writer: ‘There is only trying to make something out of nothing ... [And] of course disbelief in oneself and failure and emptiness ...’

Because of this self-distrust, because she feared she was at best a misfit, a worst a madwoman, Jean Rhys did not want her story told, and Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly searched their consciences deeply before they published these Letters. But they knew the story must be told, and that it was only in Jean’s mind that it was a story to be ashamed of. They have done her – and us – the greatest service in letting her tell it herself; in editing it so scrupulously; and in introducing it, as Francis Wyndham does, with so much understanding. There is nothing to be ashamed of: there is everything to be proud of. She wrote great novels against great odds. And if in one or two of those a note of self-pity crept in, it does not here. Her voice in these wonderful letters is made up of courage, hard work, and that ‘astringent note’ of hers, unique, hard-won and very moving.