"From rage to despair and back again"
Jean Rhys on writing her masterpiece, the novel Wide Sargasso Sea
Well, Covid finally got me. A mild case, fortunately, but it’s taken longer than I expected to reacquire a normal level of energy and brainpower. (I’m now on day ten—or is it eleven?) As a result, I wasn’t able to write a new issue of this newsletter. Instead, here’s one of my favorite entries from my second Daily Rituals book, on the British novelist Jean Rhys.
Jean Rhys (1890–1979)
In 1957, the BBC was preparing a radio adaptation of Rhys’s 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight, and it placed an advertisement asking for anyone with knowledge of the author’s whereabouts to get in touch. At the time, Rhys hadn’t published anything in almost two decades, and many of her acquaintances had lost track of her and assumed that she had died of suicide or alcoholism—believable ends for the Dominica-born author, who seemed to have a gift for self-destructive behavior, and who had spent much of her twenties and thirties destitute and depressed, reeling from one doomed relationship to the next, self-medicating with alcohol. But the BBC advertisement did turn up news—Rhys herself wrote back. She was living with her third husband in Cornwall, and not only was she alive, she was working on a new novel. She soon signed a contract for the book, telling her editors that she expected to be done with it in six to nine months.
In fact, it took Rhys nine years to finish the book, Wide Sargasso Sea, now considered her masterpiece and one of the best novels of the twentieth century. The writing took so long, in part, because Rhys was a perfectionist who reworked the novel over and over until it met her exacting standards—and also because she was spectacularly inept at managing her day-to-day life and was almost continually derailed from the project. As one of her editors, Diana Athill, wrote, “Her inability to cope with life’s practicalities went beyond anything I ever saw in anyone generally taken to be sane.”
A few years into the new book, in 1960, the seventy-year-old Rhys and her husband relocated from Cornwall to a primitive cottage deep in the Devon countryside, where Rhys would live for the rest of her life. The move was her brother’s idea; after visiting the couple in Cornwall and being shocked by their squalid living conditions, he felt compelled to intervene, taking it upon himself to find and purchase a new house for them. He chose the remote location, it seems, because he figured Rhys couldn’t get into too much trouble there. Just to be on the safe side, he went to the village rector with a warning. “I’ve brought trouble into your parish,” he began.
It wasn’t long before Rhys justified her brother’s concern. Although she was thrilled by the idea of the new cottage, she quickly soured on the location. “This place, which I imagined would be a refuge, is a foretaste of hell at present,” she wrote soon after arriving. She disliked the constant rain, the suspicious-seeming villagers, the lack of libraries or bookshops, even the local animals—the cows “moo at me in a very disapproving way,” she wrote to her daughter. This wasn’t a joke, or at least not for long; Rhys grew increasingly disturbed that a neighboring farmer’s cows kept coming too close to her house, and she complained vociferously. The farmer put up a barbed-wire fence to keep the cows away—but Rhys took this gesture of kindness as some kind of affront, got roaring drunk, and made a scene, screaming at the neighbor and throwing milk bottles at the fence, while the rest of the village looked on in horror.
“Her inability to cope with life’s practicalities went beyond anything I ever saw in anyone generally taken to be sane,” Diana Athill said of Rhys.
From then on, Rhys was an object of gossip and derision in the village; many of the locals wouldn’t speak to her, and one of Rhys’s neighbors accused her of being a witch. (Rhys chased her into the road with a pair of scissors, earning herself a weeklong stay in a mental hospital.) But in a stroke of luck, the village rector turned out to be one of her most important allies—a lover of classical literature, he took a look at Rhys’s novel-in-progress and was astute enough to recognize her talent. Thereafter, he visited regularly, doing whatever he could to insulate the sensitive author from her worries and keep her on track with the book. “She needs endless supplies of whisky, and endless praise,” he told his wife, “so that is what she must have.” He brought her a bed table so that she could write in bed—a longtime habit of hers—and he persuaded her to allow a doctor in for a checkup, which resulted in Rhys getting a store of “pep pills” that she took with mixed results. (She wrote in a 1961 letter, “I’ve some wonderful pep pills—they may do the trick though I feel very rum, extraordinary next day if I take more than two. Drink much safer in my opinion.”)
Even with the rector’s assistance, Rhys’s novel progressed slowly. She wrote in March 1962, “I feel I have been here for years, toiling away at my book—it’s like pulling a cart up a very steep hill.” A year later, she sounded much the same note in a letter to Athill: “I do feel that I am exhausting everybody. The only thing is that I’ve exhausted myself too—from rage to despair and back again.” In 1957, Rhys’s husband had suffered a stroke, and he was in and out of the hospital throughout the subsequent years. When he was home, Rhys was too occupied with his care to do much writing; when he was in the hospital, she was worried and lonely, although she was able to seize on these periods to work on the novel. She wrote to Athill in September 1964, a year and a half before the book was finally finished, “When I remember how light heartedly I began this book!—I thought it would be easy—my God! Quite apart from illness, moves, catastrophes and ructions galore there’s the effort to make an unlikely story seem possible and inevitable and right.”
The publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966—and the death of Rhys’s husband that same year—ushered in a period of relative calm for the author. She was freed of the burden of caring for her husband, and she had a measure of financial security and literary prestige that she had never enjoyed before. A letter to her daughter from late 1965 describes the routine she would follow more or less for the remainder of her life:
Such a funny existence here. I go to bed at eight p.m. Can you imagine it? But by that time it’s been dark for hours. So I take a shot of whisky (which is too expensive really) and pretend it’s bedtime. Then at three or four a.m. I’m broad awake. So I toss and turn a bit, then get up, still in the dark, and go into the kitchen for tea. It is, funnily enough, the best part of the day. I drink cup after cup, and smoke one cigarette after another, and watch the light, if any, appear at last.
Once she was up, Rhys spent almost her entire day in the kitchen, “the one place where I could stop feeling anxious or depressed, where the silence was bearable,” she wrote. “I can see the sun rise from one corner, the sun set from another.” (The kitchen was also, for many years, the only room in the house Rhys could afford to heat.) After a while, the newspapers and the mail would arrive, and Rhys would read and write—replying to letters, working on her last book, the autobiography Smile Please. Eventually, if she was hungry, she would plan an elaborate meal, her first of the day. If she wasn’t hungry, she would dine on bread, cheese, and a glass of wine. It was a solitary existence, but after the turmoil and anxiety that had characterized so much of her life, not an unhappy one. As Rhys wrote, “Isn’t the sadness of being alone much stressed and the compensations left out?”
Excerpt from Daily Rituals: Women at Work (Alfred A. Knopf) copyright © 2019 by Mason Currey
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