“I think human beings very complicated, don’t you?”

I found this long article among some old papers I was clearing out. It was written in 1980, a year after the death at the age of 87, on May 14th 1979, of the Dominican writer Jean Rhys, one of the most outstanding novelists of the 20th Century. It was rejected by both the New York Times and the Washington Post magazines. “Not sufficient interest in Jean Rhys at this time” one features editor wrote to me. Perhaps now there is sufficient interest. The original title was ‘A Day in July 1969”.

This is an edited version of the original post. I thank Professor Emeritus Mervyn Morris for his very helpful comments and for reminding me of my duty to my reader to wield the editors red crayon with greater ruthlessness. 2/11/201

“Take her a bottle of Scotch” Diana Athill, her publisher said. “She’d like a bottle of Scotch.”

I picked one up at an off-licence in Paddington and now, as we twisted through the Devon countryside, it lay on the back seat of the taxi beside my tape recorder.

Jean Rhys in the Paris years

It was late in July, 1969. Two years before, I had discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, her novel telling the story of Antoinette Cosway, the first Mrs Rochester, but seen not from Jane Eyre’s perspective. The first Mrs Rochester was a Jamaican Creole, and in Rhys’ novel we follow her voyage from her marriage to Rochester at her home in Jamaica, through the unhappiness of the crumbling marriage on Rochester’s estate in Dominica to the final, terrible scene in the attic of Thornfield Hall. It shows Antoinette’s progression through a number of alien worlds, in which she is gradually lost to view as she becomes the seemingly mad Bertha in the attic. But Rhys’ Antoinette is not the dangerously exotic Creole of the European fevered imagination portrayed by Brontë, but a real person, torn apart by the clash of the two cultures that define her as a Creole and by European ideas of racial and cultural superiority.

The exact meaning of the term ‘creole’ is hard to pin down; it differs from island to island. Although it had its origin in Portuguese, where it meant a European white person born and raised in the colonial empires, by the end of the 18th century it came to mean people of mixed African and European origins but whose looks and culture were closer to their European than their African ancestors. ‘Light-skinned’ was the label often attached to them. Although white people considered them to be better than the free or slave black people, they nevertheless saw them as somehow tainted and dangerously exotic.

Rhys was a Creole from the British colony of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. For the most part, her heroines are Creole women coming to terms with European life and attitudes. An odd feeling of not quite fitting in bedevils them. I had wanted to meet her for a long time and it had not been easy to arrange a visit to her home in Devon to record an interview.

The sun shone as the taxi entered Cheriton Fitzpaine. It was a hot day and at first we could not find Landboat Bungalows. When we did, they were not picturesque, but part of a dull terrace, disappointingly low and mean and small and much too grey.

I walked up the short path clutching the bottle of Scotch, past a few scrappy bedding plants wilting in the sun. Before I could reach it, the door opened and an elderly man in a clerical collar came out, followed by a small, grey haired woman in an old, well cared for grey suit.

“We saw you arrive,” she said and introduced me to the man, a retired Church of England vicar who lived in the village and came from time to time to chat about books. “Goodbye Mrs. Hamer” he said and set off down the path.

Jean Rhys, known in the village by the name of her third husband, was much smaller than I had expected. Her large, fawnlike eyes dominated a face that in its late seventies still spoke of the prettiness which had earned her the nickname ‘The Dresden Doll’ during her career in the chorus line before the First World War. Her hair had recently been set and she wore a necklace of large wooden beads.

She showed me into the sitting room and I hit my head on the lintel as I entered.

“It’s dreadfully low for you.” she said, “Are you alright?”

I gave her the Scotch.

“Oh! that is kind of you. We’ll open it later.” She took it through to the kitchen.

“I’m a bit alarmed about this interview.” she said when she returned. “I tire easily and sometimes have difficulty getting all the answers right.”

I tried to reassure her, told her it did not matter, that we could edit the tape. We discussed how we would order the interview, worked out a system of signals for when she wanted to rest. She asked me about Jamaica. Had she got it right in Wide Sargasso Sea? (She had never been there.) We swapped the names of friends and relations back in the Caribbean and came up with some we had in common. She spoke of her brief visit back home to Dominica in the 1930s.

“I’ve never been back, you know. I don’t know anyone there anymore. I’m quite out of touch now.” A long pause. “No, that’s not quite true. I know the editor of a newspaper in Dominica.”

She lapsed into silence, staring out the window.

Then she said, suddenly “I’ve lived here six or seven years. I loathed it at first; then I got resigned to it. Fixed it up, found it better. I miss a lot living in Devon, miss meeting the people who wrote to me after the books were re-published. I don’t think I’m liked in the village, they think I’m strange. I’d like to get away but I won’t now.”

Another long, sad silence followed, after which she came and sat in a comfortable upholstered chair beside which I was setting up a microphone.

I asked her about the letters she got from readers. “A lot of them write telling me their problems. That pleases me, but it also rather worries me for sometimes I don’t know what on earth to say, I can’t really help them. I just don’t know what to say.”

She speaks softly, with long thoughtful pauses between sentences. She talked about her childhood in Dominica; of her father, the Welsh Dr Rees Williams; of her mother, daughter of a Creole landowning family. It had been a happy early childhood and she remembered Dominica as a “gorgeous place for children”. But eventually her brothers were sent away to school and, with only a much younger sister to play with, she felt loneliness for the first time. Her father had a good library; he imported books from London and also English newspapers. She read her way through the books and was soon writing plays which she produced, in which she, her brothers and her friends acted.

“I became very popular because all my friends wanted glamourous spots in my plays. It also helped my popularity that I didn’t mind what part I played as long as I was allowed to write the plays.”

She did not think that growing up on a small, isolated island was a deprivation but it did give her some odd ideas. She read of theatres but never saw one, so she produced her plays in the round. She imagined that in London theatres, the plays took place in the middle of the room and the audience sat around the edges.

“And I also thought that everything was real – real horses, real houses, real everything. When I went to the theatre for the first time I was terribly disappointed. There was a backdrop of a kitchen and it was waving in the breeze. I realized it was only a painting. It took me a long while to get used to this.”

Antoinette Cosway, the heroine of Wide Sargasso Sea, and the first Mrs Rochester, found that the world she was growing up in was a world of strange conflicts – between the world of the black people, free or slave, on the one hand, and the British residents who governed colonial society on the other. Within Creole society too, there were divides based on degrees of shade. These tensions survived Emancipation, and continued well into the 20th Century. Although she described this so well, Jean Rhys, surprisingly, admitted that, at the time, she had not been aware of these currents herself.

“I wasn’t disturbed by the difference of black and white. I just accepted it. I’m sure there were conflicts but I didn’t, as it were, notice them as a child.”

She kept returning to memories of her father whom she obviously loved; and to the houses she knew as a Child: ‘Bona Vista’, her father’s house in the hills; ‘Geneva’, her mother’s family’s place, a big estate-house built by her great-grandfather Lockheart, the first of her line to come to the West Indies; and her father’s town house in Roseau with its wide verandas all around the first floor. Elements from all three had served as models for the newly-married Rochesters’ house in Wide Sargasso Sea. ‘Geneva’, she said, had been burnt down three times, and on the last occasion, had not been rebuilt. Her memory for houses was remarkable, she seemed to count time in houses and they are used as potent symbols in her novels.

In 1907, when she was about sixteen, her father sent her to school in England, an unusual decision. At the time, well-off Creoles and expatriates sent their boys to Europe to be educated but not their girls. She was not happy at her first English school but her father, recognising her love for the theatre, agreed to her going on to RADA, the leading Drama school in London. She loved it there but by the end of her first term her father had died and the family was pressing her to return home.

“I didn’t want to go, so I got a job in the chorus line of a musical show. It was a tough time. I was in all sorts of plays like The Count of Luxembourg. Sometimes it was pretty miserable.”

She had her first love affair, with a wealthy stock broker; bouts of unemployment; appeared in films; produced the first draft of a novel (Voyage in the Dark, published in 1934) as well as writing bits of a diary. At the outbreak of the Great War she took work in a soldier’s canteen near Euston Station. Then, after the war, she met and married a half-French, half-Dutch journalist, poet and part-time spy, Jean Langlet. For a while they lived in London, then Paris and Vienna, both of which Jean Rhys loved. Then back to Paris, and two babies, one of whom only lived for three weeks. Shortly after, her husband was arrested for a currency offense and deported. Had she written anything during the happy times in Vienna and Paris?

“I didn’t want to write then. I didn’t want to write when I was happy. Back in Paris things became unsettled and difficult, so I translated some poems by my husband and tried to sell than to a newspaper. I also kept the diary.”

This contact with the newspaper led to Mrs B. M. G. Adams, wife of the Times correspondent, who found out about the diary and showed it to Ford Maddox Ford, the novelist, poet and literary critic who arranged for the collection of short stories, The Left Bank, to be published in 1927 in London and New York. Then in 1928 followed her first novel Postures, republished in 1929 as Quartet, a title she told me she much preferred.

The Blue Plaque on the block in Paultons Square, Chelsea where Jean Rhys lived, in Flat 22 (1936-38)

Over the next twelve years she lived on in Paris and London, producing three more novels – After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning Midnight (1939).  These five books were largely autobiographical, a fact she freely admitted.

“Of course there is a great deal of me in them, but, on the other hand you must remember a book is one thing, a life is another. You can’t take life and make it into a book because a book must have a sort of shape, life never has any shape; it’s shapeless really. It has to be reordered and formed to make a book.”

The novels were critical successes but financial failures. Good Morning Midnight, her 1939 novel, promised to be a great success but the outbreak of the Second World War ruined that. Not even selection by the American Book-of-the-Month Club helped, sales were low and, with the war, she slipped into obscurity.

During these years she had divorced Langlet, and married an English editor, eventually settling in Devon in 1939 where they lived until his  shockingly sudden death in 1945. After this there was growing poverty, bouts of heavy drinking, moonlight flits. In 1947 she married again, but her new husband was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. He died in 1966.

“My life became very difficult… too difficult. It was rather tough for me. I did write some short stories, some poetry too. I didn’t stop altogether but I couldn’t settle down to a book. I remember once writing a lot of poetry. I was staying in some very disagreeable rooms which I eventually left. When I went I found I had left all the poetry behind. I’ve always been rather sad about that. You see, I thought I’d brought them away but I hadn’t. I just couldn’t have gone back to that house for anything on earth, so I lost the poems. Perhaps they were no good but I thought one was not bad.”

She was silent now, once again staring out the window. I offered to make some tea and when we had finished that, we opened the Scotch. A greengrocer’s van stopped in the road outside the cottage and a few of her neighbours came out to shop. She showed no interest in all this but was lost in her own thoughts.

Eventually I asked her about the men in her books. They seemed so callous, so often the root of all the conflicts. Was that really how she saw men? She thought about this for a long while, so long in fact that I thought she had not taken in my question.

“I don’t understand men. I marry them and I don’t understand them. So I prefer when I’m writing about a man to just more or less say precisely and exactly what I remember without drawing any conclusions.”

I suggested that, like her characters, she had just cause to be bitter about men. She said she was not bitter, nor did she hate men. I pressed her on this.

“Perhaps I write it out in the same way I write out all my other pain. Then afterwards, you see, it’s gone. There’s nothing left. It’s just as it was before it started.”

Wide Sargasso Sea - the original Penguin cover
Wide Sargasso Sea – in the original Penguin cover

We turned to Wide Sargasso Sea. Published three years earlier in 1966, it was the culmination of a process of rediscovery which had started in 1957 with the broadcast by the BBC of Selma Vas Diaz’s radio dramatization of Good Morning Midnight. The BBC and Vas Diaz, like most other people, had assumed her dead and had advertised for more information about her. To their surprise Jean herself replied. Francis Wyndham, the writer, learning that she was alive, encouraged Andre Deutsch the publisher to take an interest in republishing her early novels. Diana Athill, a Deutsch editor and a splendid writer herself, discovered that Jean had been working on the unfinished Wide Sargasso Sea, and encouraged her to finish it. This proved a great struggle both because of ill health and problems with the structure of the novel. But when finally it was finished and published, the new book was a runaway success, winning thousands of readers, the critics’ praise, and the 1967 W.H. Smith & Son Literary Award. Eventually, all her earlier books were republished.

The success must have surprised her because, despite the amount of herself in her Antoinette Cosway, it was her first departure in fiction from the reality of her own life.

“I’ve always been a little angry at the character of the Creole lunatic. I don’t think she comes to life like Jane and Mr Rochester. I think when I first read Jane Eyre I thought ‘The lunatic is just an impossible character. She’s so horrible and she’s just a cardboard figure.’ So I was always very sorry for her. But the idea of writing her life as it might have been came to me one day, so I just tried it.”

I suggested that the book is essentially about the state of mind of the Creole. Reluctantly she agreed that there might be some of this in the book, but she said firmly that it was not central. She had left the West Indies so many years ago, could not remember having felt estranged or bitter or anything like that. As a child she had accepted it all as natural. It was Antoinette the individual that concerned her, not the nature of being Creole. ‘The white Cockroach’ was a name for Antoinette, and not necessarily for anyone else.

She seemed to sense that this was not the answer I had expected. I think she was also annoyed that I seemed to be imposing my interpretation on her work. We sat in silence. I tried to reopen the discussion by asking her if she felt a part of this English world, whether she felt it conflicted with her West Indian upbringing.

“Well, I’m afraid I have now got to exist in a very small world, mostly my own world. When I worry about problems, it’s about other things now. Not domestic problems, or race, or politics. You know, I feel sad about men going to the moon” (only a few days earlier Armstrong and Aldrin had become the first to set foot on the Moon) “I feel sad about it. It depresses me; I feel they are meddling with everything natural.”

“Yes, that’s how I feel and perhaps that’s why I feel this, almost, oppression that human beings have got onto the moon and say they are going further. Of course it’s tremendously brave of them and very miraculous, but I’m sad about it.”

She talked about other things which made her sad. Not being able to get up to London often enough; having friends who lived too far to visit; intrusions from an outside world which prevented her from getting on with the autobiography she intended to end at the point where she left Dominica. She explained that even in the darkest days she wrote not in the expectation of publication but because the urge to write was too great to resist. It did not seem to matter at all that no one might read it; she only wanted to write it down – and out. Readers meant little to her. Of course she was pleased when they liked her books, but the idea that she might be influenced by what the reader thought alarmed her.

By now it was after six. She was clearly exhausted. Getting ready to go, I packed up my notebook and recorder. As she saw me to the door, I asked her which book she wished to be remembered for.

“I think Voyage in the Dark is my best book and after that Mackenzie. Nobody likes Mackenzie but it’s a little of what I felt. It wasn’t a success and I don’t suppose it’ll be a success now that it’s out again. It was almost a success in terms of writing, I suppose, and that’s what’s important.”

Jean Rhys at Landboat Bungalows, Cheriton Fitzpaine.

I said goodbye and she invited me to come and see her again. She thanked me for the Scotch and apologised for not being good at being interviewed. When I got to the gate she called me back.

“I almost consider After Leaving Mr Mackenzie a success” she said. “Not quite, of course, because it never really is, never quite a success.”

Months later she sent me a short note in her shaky hand to thank me for a book I had sent her. She enjoyed my visit, she wrote, was not as alarmed at being interviewed as she had expected. Would I come to see her again? Then she added:

“I wish that instead of saying I don’t understand men, I’d truthfully answered: I don’t understand anybody. I think human beings very complicated, don’t you?”

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