Sunday, May 17, 2009

'The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys'

By Lilian Pizzichini (Excerpt from the Wall Street Journal)

Chapter 1
Le Revenant
On 25 February 1936, Jean Rhys boarded a French ship called the Cuba at Southampton dock. The ship was bound for Dominica, her childhood home, which she had left twenty-nine years previously. Since then, she had lived in London, Paris and Vienna; she had married twice and given birth to two children (the first died in infancy, the second was living with her ex-husband). She had published a volume of short stories entitled The Left Bank, a translation of a French thriller, Perversity, and three novels, Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie and Voyage in the Dark. She had received critical acclaim, albeit somewhat guarded, and very little financial reward.

The Blue Hour takes a look at the life of Jean Rhys of Dominica.

Going home was a matter of urgency: she had to go home to keep writing. She had moved through scenes of Parisian and London life like a sponge, soaking up the atmosphere and detail, yet so absorbed in her own travails that she was unable to connect with external reality. She had met famous people and been the lover of two English gentlemen, one a famous novelist. She had been disappointed and cast aside. She had been cut adrift from her roots, and had found no haven. Dominica was calling her home.

Jean was accompanied by her second husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, an occasional literary agent and publisher's reader. The couple's families came to see them off at Southampton: Leslie's daughter Anne, Jean's sisters, and her long-lost brother Owen, who had recently returned from a failed fruit farm in Australia. He was as feckless as herself. Everyone brought flowers for the happy couple and everyone was happy for Jean. So was she; at forty-six years old, she was going home.

But the journey was hindered by the sea: the Sargasso Sea, where the Cuba seemed to flounder for long, dreary days in a mess of weed and wreckage. The sea itself was blocking her way.

The Cuba had a French crew and French and English passengers. Jean and Leslie had a table on the French side of the dining room. Jean liked French people. Unfortunately, the reality of being surrounded by people overcame her initial delight at their nationality. And they were not all French. Sitting next to her at the dining table was a voluble Italian woman with two noisy children and a thunderous husband. The woman's chatter enraged Jean. Words were exchanged, the Italian glowered, an atmosphere poisoned the nightly meal.

Close proximity to other people wiped her out, erased her. It is so hard to get what you want in this life. Everything and everyone conspires to stop you. This was how it seemed to Jean. She could not voice her feelings, and her life, as she told it to others, seemed unreal. She often found that when she told people her story, they looked at her with disbelief in their eyes. So she stopped telling them. Instead, she told it to herself in her novels. That way, she at least could believe it. As a writer, this strategy worked well for her; as a woman, it did not.

Jean put on different guises for different phases, becoming a different person depending on whom she was with; there was no continuity to her idea of herself. When surrounded by others, it was a battle to preserve even the most subtle sense of who she might be.

Jean created her own world as protection from this one, with its infuriating chatterboxes, selfish drama queens, and arrogant upstarts. When she argued with her neighbours, as she would for the rest of her life, it was not merely a matter of winning or losing an argument, it was a struggle to prove that she existed.

The Cuba stopped at St Lucia for a week. The last time Jean had stayed on this comparatively sophisticated French island was for her Uncle Acton's wedding. Acton was dead now. His widow, Evelina, and her two daughters Lily and Monica Lockhart, were running the Hotel St Antoine outside Castries. There had been a son, Don, who had shot himself. Volatility was not unheard of in Jean's family.

On both her mother's and father's sides there were instances of consuming despair and depression. Jean recognised something of her younger self in her cousin Lily, who was a bit of a loner. She went for walks by herself in the moonlight, and edited a self-published magazine for which she wrote all the stories. Leslie, an experienced man of letters, 'could see no merit' in Lily's magazine, Jean wrote in a letter to a friend. But Jean liked it. She struck up a friendship with the girl, a rare instance of mutual sympathy in Jean's family.

The couple's stay in St Lucia was pleasant. They were waited on by a woman dressed in the old style, the foulard and madras of the gwan' wobe (grande robe) of the French Antilles. The woman brought in Jean's afternoon tea on a tray. It was, she said, 'the past majestically walking in'.

But there were too many familiar faces here, too many conversations to be had and too many demands on her waning energy. Jean wanted to write. Towards the end of March they arrived in Roseau, Dominica, her birthplace. She wrote to Mother Mount Calvary, her favourite nun at the convent where she had been educated. She had come home, she wrote; she wanted to see the Good Mother. But she was afraid Mother might have forgotten her.

'How could I forget you, Gwen?' was Mother Mount Calvary's reply, using Jean's real name. She invited Jean to visit for tea.

Going back is difficult because everything always changes. Mother Mount Calvary looked old and sombre though she smiled and kissed Jean affectionately. She had sad news for Jean. Mother Sacred Heart, another beloved nun, was dead. The convent was faced with closure. One consolation was a photograph in Mother's office of Jean's father. He had been a doctor to the convent, and a favourite son of the parish. Jean visited his grave in the nearby graveyard. She was grateful to be away from the anxious, ageing nun, who had gamely tried to conceal her worry about her future. But her anxiety betrayed itself, and Jean found it painful to countenance.

Jean sat by her father's grave with its Celtic cross, almost obscured by weeds and neglect, and wept for the past. Her father, apart from the nuns, had been forgotten. His good works, his kindness to the poor, were as though they had not happened. No one tended his grave. His life had been temps perdu, a waste of time. Nature had confirmed that, wiping out the traces of his endeavour with senseless fertility.

Jean still loved her island. For her, it was the loveliest place that could be imagined. It was so conducive to sleep. The hot weather, the steady rainfall, the lushness, made sleep irresistible. She felt the usual delicious sinking sensation she always felt when tired, as though she were dying of opened veins in a hot bath. Her thoughts were of death, and Dominica was a beautiful place to die in.

A friend of Jean's dead mother offered her the use of a remote estate called Hampstead in Portsmouth, on the Atlantic side of the island. The familiar English names of the locations belied the dramatic rainforest colours that ran through the gardens encasing the house. Much to her relief, this was not the suburban England that felt so suffocating to her.

The colours enlivened her. She felt confident enough to make a joke about several years of hard drinking not making her calm enough to face cockroaches. She had sea on one side and mountains on the other. She had a beach with white sand, a good pool in the river, and a nice girl to look after her and Leslie. Most important of all, there was no one to interrupt her writing or her recovery of her self.

'The wonderful thing is to wake up and know that nobody can get at you – nobody,' she wrote to a friend.

This contentment did not last. Leslie tried to blame it on the heat but Jean sank further into a misery born of anger and paranoia. There were too many people around. She sensed hostility. The servants preferred Leslie to her. Her father had been kind to the blacks, she wanted to tell this new generation of black Dominican. Not all the whites were oppressive, she wanted to explain. But no one was in the mood to appreciate her sensitivity to the past and her need to repair the losses she and her family had incurred.

When she asked for dishes that Francine, her family's cook, had prepared, the servants looked at her in disbelief as though such dishes had never existed. When she asked drivers to take her to the places of her childhood, they shook their heads in stupefaction.

These places were no longer there, not even the Imperial Road which had been opened by the great Mr. Hesketh Bell whom she had danced with at the celebratory ball and to whom she had once been so unpardonably rude. The road was just a track now, covered with forest. Genever, the family estate, was a burnt-out wreck covered in ferns. She walked round it, trying to remember the honeysuckle and the jasmine. There was nothing left.

Excerpted from "The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys" by Lilian Pizzichini, with permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton. Copyright 2009 by Lilian Pizzichini. All rights reserved.

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This is good stuff. I am off to get that book!!!! What a Dominica!!!
This is a good book to read. Dominicans, don't read enough, they talk too much!!!!

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