'The sensitive child never leaves home. The more contrasting the world into which the adult goes, the more the child is present, smelling the scents, tasting the food, seeing the colours and forms of the years that shaped its sensibility'
That reference to Jean Rhys doesn't actually come from Lilian Pizzichini's excellent The Blue Hour, but from a little book on Jean Rhys which has been waiting patiently for me to want to read it. The book simply entitled Jean Rhys is by Louis James, part of a 1978 Longman's series, Critical Studies of Caribbean Writers, this copy evicted from Somerset Libraries and doubtless picked up by me at a secondhand book shop, just in case.
If ever a book serves as the hors d'oeuvres to the life and writing of Jean Rhys then all credit to Lilian Pizzichini because she's done it for me with The Blue Hour, the book named after Jean's favourite Guerlain perfume, L'Heure Bleue.
It's a great title choice for its many connotations, not least because forever in Jean's mind must have been those dusky scents of the Caribbean island of Dominica, whose vibrant colours she exchanged for the dull tones of London life in 1907 at the age of seventeen. Thence to Paris and eventually settling in Devon and, much as I love Devon I doubt it competed favourably in Jean's mind with the gem of a natural paradise that is this Commonwealth island in the Lesser Antilles.
I've read Wide Sargasso Sea, it seemed a crime not to, but hand on heart I think I missed more than I grasped and I wonder if anyone else has found likewise?
We should stick together really because the slings and arrows could head our way. I had a fierce e mail from a stalwart taking me to task for sacrilegiously mentioning hints of Jean Rhys-like themes in another book on here recently and The Blue Hour has had some stinging reviews elsewhere. If there's one thing that always feels isolating in the reading world it's that sense of being stuck on the outside; everyone else has jumped in and got the book-party rocking and you just can't pick up the beat, if a book like this makes Jean Rhys accessible to those of us who may have struggled then all to the good.
Jean's life could make for very dismal reading coming as she did from such a lonely childhood and one full of volatility, anger, paranoia, plenty of emotional and sexual abuse, voodoo and mental anguish and an increasing sense of apartness and isolation, all of which gives a woman more baggage to carry into adulthood and old age than really seems possible for one person to cope with.
'The stuffing had fallen out of her when she was a child. Instead of guts and determination of self-belief and motivation, she had plenty of nothing: the desolation - the chaos- of a lonely bewildered infant.'
For Jean, the childhood abuse was insidious and prevalent and trying to categorise into 'omission' or 'commission' becomes impossible because she endured both and in quantity; either can be detrimental in the long term, combined they have the potential to be emotionally catastrophic. Read a book like Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt and know that to be true.
The profound impact of this deprivation, carried like a millstone by Jean for the rest of her life, is self-evident and her writing would often conceal her greatest yearning,
'When she wrote of Dominica she wrote of love and her compulsion to find, again and again, the loving presence that wasn't there: her mother.'
Chronically insecure, Jean was emotionally needy, constantly seeking reassurance, yet no amount of reassurance comforted her, in Lilian Pizzichini's words
'nothing could touch her because there was nothing to touch',
Jean was effectively
' the stricken deer that had left the herd.'
Horror piles on horror as life flings Jean from one tragedy, one grief, one sordid encounter to the next; it's relentless and the effects of several tragedies must have been profound, but for Jean seemingly so emotionally crippled and detached from reality, her often bizarre reactions only served to compound my impression of a woman mired in deep psychological distress and with it a feeling of utter sorrow at her inability to express what she really felt,
'Jean was mourning what she had lost, but she could not articulate her loss out loud. She would only be able to do that in novels.'
With few coping strategies beyond tears in place Jean only felt truly alive when she was anxious and became largely dependent on the goodwill and money of others for many years, fame and fortune sadly coming too late to be of benefit. Thrice married and twice a mother, Jean's mournful fragility attracted a variety of men, but if happiness seemed to have come her way it was always destroyed, usually by her own hand which reflexively reached for alcohol. Her inner resilience to adversity, never seemingly that strong, was slowly weakened and destroyed by the bottle.
Perhaps one resilience that Jean did possess was a physical one, that of her liver. If nothing else her survival into her eighties is a testament to the extraordinary recuperative powers of the hepatic system.
I found it hard to feel anything but compassion for Jean, I've worked with so many women like her who struggle against the adversity of an impossible start in life and reading this book was a bit like revisiting old case notes and sitting down with some of the most challenging I have known.
With a highly intuitive and vocal inner critic Jean had little trouble believing herself to be unloved and unlovable and rarely coped well with kindness when it was proffered,
'...she always behaved badly when someone was nice to her because she had to pre-empt their inevitable abandonment of her. She had to make them go away.'
Changing these patterns of behaviour can be done and with great and positive effect, but it takes understanding, insight, time and patience all combined with a vast amount of motivational effort which sadly doesn't seem to have been there for Jean. It is therefore to the credit of some loyal friends in her later days that Jean's writing exists at all.
Befriended, encouraged and to some extent protected by Francis Wyndham, Diane Athill and Diana Melly amongst others, Jean finally managed to embroider that life into her fiction though she always denied that this was the case. If writing is therapy, which we now know it is, then my fervent hope is that Jean found some solace and comfort in that, though I doubt she ever realised quite how rich and lasting would be the legacy of her inner turmoil for those who now read and love her work.
The sadness is palpable with so little joy to be found in a such a long and chequered life and yet did I say it could make dismal reading?
Well somehow it doesn't because Lilian Pizzichini does something different with the biographical material. I knew Jean, her foibles and her weaknesses and in her later years that raging against life itself, but also her hidden graces (and there were some) and I knew it all intimately by the final page. Now I want to read Wild Sargasso Sea again and, having just finished After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, any other books by Jean that I can find.
It was all enough to make me revisit The Paris Review Interviews (Vol III) and then track down a copy of Jean's letters too and I think these deserve a post of their own because I mentioned graces and I have seen another side to Jean as I've been reading them. More compassion dispensed Jean's way here at the boundless care she showed her daughter on paper, there is much to explore in this volume.
In my mind's eye I have that photo of Jean in her later years, standing at her Devon doorway looking slightly bemused, but look closer and see that she had obviously been a stunning beauty in her younger days and she was.
How much more trouble that vulnerable beauty created for her, becoming a fall-back in times of crisis, a lure for men to rescue her and use her then discard her. Thus disempowered and damaged Jean's dependency and fragility could only increase and with it her rage and anger as that beauty faded.
Can you just imagine what Paul Gilbert's Compassionate Mind theories would make of all this?
Equally of interest, my grateful thanks to Jennifer Sturm for a copy of her new book Anna Kavan's New Zealand a Pacific interlude in a turbulent life. The similarities in life events between Jean Rhys and Anna Kavan seem both astonishing and profound, I'm on a roll with it all and will share more soon.
It's all this and more now drawing me into a full and exciting exploration of the writing of Jean Rhys and my thanks to Lilian Pizzichini because it's been a long time happening.