The joy of a trawl around some second-hand bookshops with a few writerly names in mind is only surpassed by the joy of finding their books on the shelves and thus it was when we nipped into the bookshop next door to the teashop in Ashburton.
Smile Please an unfinished autobiography by Jean Rhys, first edition hardback £2.50.
Result, some days all the sun can do is shine.
Reading The Blue Hour has thrown my reading of Jean Rhys into a new and illuminating light and Smile Please was one of my must-find books, Jean Rhys had wanted to call it And the Walls Came Tumbling Down; how uniquely unforgettable and descriptive that title would have been in comparison.
But I also wanted to know much more about the Jean Rhys who says in her Paris Review Interview
'I'm beginning to feel I don't want to do a mental strip tease anymore...I've had rather a rum life, but I was thinking the other day, would I go through it all again. I think not.'
Diane Athill's foreword to Smile Please explains exactly why Jean decided to write it, this was about setting the record straight in the face of a great deal of personal anger and hurt at frequent misrepresentations. But this writing about herself didn't come easily.
So much on the record about how reading Jean Rhys's fiction is to hold a mirror up to her life. yet as Diane Athill suggests though her novels were not autobiographical in every detail, nevertheless a great number of Jean's life experiences had been plundered to use in them.
'A novel once it had possessed her, would dictate its own shape and atmosphere and she could rely on her infallible instinct to tell her what people should say and do within its framework.'
On the other hand a personal memoir would rely on memory and honesty and Jean's honesty was 'uncommonly strict', she could only use that which she could be sure was true, remembered exactly and therin lay the difficulty, knowing where lay the fact and where the fiction and to revisit and disentangle would be onerous in the extreme.
' I would write to forget, the get rid of sad moments. Once they were written down they were gone.'
Jean was by all accounts an 'exemplary stylist' and lived with the anguish that in her own mind Wide Sargasso Sea was an unfinished book. With a meticulous eye for detail this meant the existence in the book of two unnecessary words, ' then' and 'quite'.
With that resonating in my mind I picked up and read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and marveled at a book that I suspect might have had little impact on me prior to this current Jean Rhys foray.
Every sadness in Julia's life could be Jean's as, washed up in 1930s Paris and London at the end of an affair, Julia, now in her thirties and much the worse for wear, struggles to survive in a world where she has been disempowered and dominated by a series of men; the weak creature fighting for her life against the strong.
As Julia bemoans having sold her astrakhan coat with huge skunk collar I was reminded of Irmgard Keun's Berlin heroine of the same era, Doris in The Artificial Silk Girl, whose protective pelt shielding her vulnerability is her fur coat.
Julia somehow speaks for them both,
'Of all the idiotic things I ever did, the most idiotic was selling my fur coat...the sort that lasts for ever...people thought twice before they were rude to anybody wearing a good fur coat; it was protective colouring as it were.'
Suddenly I remembered the status that a fur coat afforded the wearer even in the 1950s, how they slowly seemed to become a vulgar expression of wealth and from there it was but a small step to animal welfare issues.
Julia sits and shivers 'outside the sacred circle of warmth' and this becomes a metaphor for the exclusion and isolation that follows as she is rejected and shunted around by family and friends.
If Jean Rhys was sub-consciously exploring her own life events in this book then how remarkable are her insights as she constantly switches narrative voice and delves deeply into the thoughts and motives of those who have hurt and discarded her. She also manages it with a stunning degree of equanimity given the distress and pain she suffered.
It's as if the fiction allows Jean to take a good, long hard look at herself and how others see her, expressing those truths in a way that would have been far too painful in life, and nor does she spare her own feelings as Mr Mackenzie reflects on his disastrous affair with Julia,
'She was irresponsible. She had fits of melancholy when she would lose the self-control necessary to keep up appearances...she began to depress him...a feeling of caution and suspicion which almost amounted to hatred had entirely overcome him..'
Coming up next week 'dovegreyreader asks...' with Lilian Pizzichini author of The Blue Hour, the book which started all this Rhysmania and there will be prize draw copies that day. Lilian offers some amazing insights into her writing of the book and what it was like to look so closely at the life and times of Jean Rhys, you won't want to miss it.