Book review: The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys
OF COURSE IT'S A FASCINATING story, especially the worst bits: the sexual "favours" required of her as a child by a family friend, the exile to grey, lonely England from Dominica, the male protectors, the pregnancies, the downward spiral from middle-class daughter to chorus girl and part-time prostitute and her later years (about 40 of them) as a violent drunk.
"I am a tormented person," Jean Rhys wrote to a friend, "and even writing is clutching at clouds and shadows." Yet despite the mess of her life, she turned out a handful of novels and stories and a remarkable unfinished memoir that are treasured for their moments of brilliance and deep feeling.
Rhys admitted: "I have only ever written about myself," about vulnerable, sensual waif-women obsessed with love and loss, but in her case this was less an artistic choice than a melting of boundaries. Much in her life was a bit of a blur and almost everything was painful. The three marriages, the sugar daddies, the difficulty with everything from calling a doctor for a dying man to listening to a radio programme about herself.
A more satirical spirit could have made plenty out of having toured with Hi Cockalorum, a Feathered Fantasy in Three Fits in the Twenties, or of having had sex with the "walrus" Ford Madox Ford, but Rhys, as a reviewer of her stories once said, "never forgot to be unhappy".
Rhys's latest biographer has decided boldly and rather unsuccessfully to convey the fascinating chaos of this life in an impressionistic style of simulated squiffiness. Unsure where Rhys was living in Paris in 1926, Lilian Pizzichini says: "Maybe Ford had found her another (flat]. It doesn't really matter," while the boss lady at a wartime canteen is "Mrs Colonel Something or Other".
Ms Pizzichini seems to be ventriloquising Smile, Please, the unfinished autobiography, and when that source dries up, gallops to a conclusion in a couple of dozen pages. She does have some odd facts to tell us, such as St Asaph being the UK's second smallest city and Baker Street the oldest Tube, but when it comes to Rhys, she seems to have decided not to look up anything. Unable or unwilling to research the war years, for instance, Ms Pizzichini concludes: "Jean's short stories suggest she managed to find shelter through constantly moving to new abodes."
Was Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, a "modernist masterpiece", as Ms Pizzichini keeps saying? Not at all, though Rhys's much better books, Good Morning, Midnight, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and the passive-aggressive Smile, Please are tremendous. Rhys was ill-read, preferring to pass out over a thriller rather than Proust or Trollope. She wasn't interested in other people's books, just as she wasn't interested in other people (part of the reason she was so impressed by Jane Eyre – to the extent of writing its prequel – was that she had read so little like it). This leaves her a singularly uncommunicative, even chilly writer.
Ms Pizzichini takes a sympathetic view of the behaviour which was at times so unruly (and included biting the local bobby and shouting "Heil Hitler!" in the pub) that the folk of Cheriton Fitzpaine, like people in a fairytale, tried to drum the authoress out of town. She suggests Rhys, as a "white Creole", had reason to feel racially discriminated against and was being "driven mad with anxiety for her Anglo-Dutch daughter", whom Rhys seemed happier not to see.
In life, this disturbing old lady would have driven you mad in minutes, or fascinated through sheer grotesquerie, as she did David Plante in his portrait of Rhys in Difficult Women. But this new book, for all its brave fictionality, seems to pass off a troubled life as mere story.