When I am asked who my favourite authors are, the person who comes top of the list is Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning Midnight, and more (Find some of my other favourite authors below).
So imagine my delight when by chance I saw a tweet saying there was to be a Jean Rhys Reading Week, organised by JacquiWine and Eric Karl Anderson reading and re-reading her books, discussions, blogs, starting on 12 September.
My voyage with Jean Rhys began in about 1969 – I was at Birmingham University, I was 18 and on my occasional trips into Birmingham Town Centre I would drop into Hudson’s Bookshop and browse the novels. What took me to the R section I can’t remember, but I was intrigued by the description on the cover of Wide Sargasso Sea. Jane Eyre was my mum’s favourite book and there were several copies in our house. I had been reading and re-reading of Jane’s doomed affair with Mr Rochester for as long as I could remember.
I wasn’t a feminist in 1969 but did have a strong sense of justice and injustice and I was very pleased to find a book that gave Mrs Rochester’s side of the story. Her life in that bleak bare room at the top of Thornfield Hall was awful (as was Grace Poole’s – surely a novel waiting to be written). I was glad someone was rooting for her. I bought the book, took it back to Mason Hall (the hall of residence I was living in), read it and loved it. I took the 63 bus back down the Bristol Road into town and once more made my way to the R section in Hudsons. I bought Voyage in the Dark, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and Good Morning Midnight. Although Voyage in the Dark was written after After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, it tells the beginning of Jean Rhys’ story. In it she describes leaving the West Indies and coming to the cold grey world of England. She is something of a dancer, she becomes a chorus girl, travelling around the country, and begins a doomed affair. She mentions Chelmsford.
Jacqui Wine suggested it might have been quite a frightening book to read at that age, but I liked that tragedy, I liked her life, being on the stage, staying in dreadful boarding houses, meeting and charming new people, having periods of despair. I wanted to be an actress, I wanted to have affairs, I told myself I knew what despair was. And I loved her humour, her dry way with words. She had supreme confidence in herself when she spoke to people coupled with a sense of uncertainty about her place in the world – which is how I felt most of the time.
I was also writing my own stories (earlier work to be found in the recycling bins of history) and reading Jean Rhys’ own story I was fascinated by the way her work was criticised by those fancy schmanzy boys she hung about with who said it was too easy to read, too accessible. I think it was Ford Madox Ford who said something about her sentences or her words not being long enough. And I thought, that’s how I write, short easy sentences, very few long words. Jean Rhys is my kind of writer!
In the 70s there was an article in the Guardian about her and I wrote to her via the Guardian. I never had a reply. It was probably not the best way to contact her. I kick myself for not pursuing it – I wanted her to know she had written the lives of many of us. And a few years later she died. There was a more recent, lovely article in the Guardian about her by Linda Grant.
I haven’t read Voyage in the Dark for a long time. This is the book I have chosen to read this week as part of #ReadingRhys. I’m really looking forward to it.
The other writers in my top three are Rosamond Lehmann (especially The Echoing Grove) and Barbara Pymm (especially Excellent Women). More on them later.