Smile Please is Jean Rhys’ autobiography, or rather a collection of vignettes about her life in Dominica, London and Paris, left unfinished at the time of her death. She revisits much of the same ground that she has already addressed in her fiction, although it is dangerous to assume that her fiction is confessional. However, it is close in subject matter and style to her short story collection Sleep It Off, Lady, so this is the comparison I shall make.
Where Jean Rhys succeeds so well, to my mind, is how she takes a certain experience from her own life (her husband’s jail sentence, an abortion, being educated by Catholic nuns, being abandoned) and heightens it, polishing it until it catches all the light of universality.
The first tales in both books are remarkable for their vivid evocation of the Caribbean smells, sounds, heat and colours. But what is remarkable is how there is always something sinister under the lovely trappings. In Smile Please the author does allow herself some wallowing in nostalgia when describing her aunt’s estate in Geneva or carnival or riding or musical evenings, although she also mentions her terrifying nurse Meta, the Englishman who superciliously declared her ‘not a pretty little girl’, the racial tensions. But in the fictional accounts of her childhood the danger is much more apparent, the disillusionment all the more acute. In ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose’ a twelve-year-old girl is inappropriately fondled by an old Englishman, a war hero, on holiday in Jamaica. In ‘Fishy Waters’ white privilege, sense of entitlement and child molestation all come together to create an unpalatable truth which is never explicitly stated, only hinted.
What we do get to see in Smile Please is Jean’s family: her opinionated, generous and charismatic father, her withdrawn, cold mother, early separation from her older brothers and sister, a slight resentment but also protectiveness towards her younger sister who ‘was now the baby, the spoilt and cherished one’, and her great sense of loneliness. She found companionship and consolation in books.
When she goes to England however (where the dominant first impression is of a grey, cold, unwelcoming place), she loses her love of books for many years. Scenes from her first encounters with London, falling asleep in the Wallace Collection, her mediocre acting career, dirty bedsits and suspicious landladies are very similar in both books and have indeed been described in other books. This is the landscape and state of mind we associate with Jean Rhys. The narrative voice so often echoes the author’s thoughts that it’s no wonder we confuse the two, yet it’s worth remembering that she liked shape and said, ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’
You can detect some of this ‘shapelessness’, a meandering through memories (where one memory gives rise to another), in her autobiography, and not just in the unfinished second part of it. There is a rawness and immediacy to her work in Smile Please. The words are perhaps less carefully measured out than in her fiction, but we feel we are participating in the author’s thought processes.
Is the following truth or fiction? And does it matter? It certainly explains the self-destructive and passive tendencies of the female characters in Rhys’ novels and stories.
I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.
Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. There remains something untamed about the narrator. Her language is simple, eloquent, almost child-like in its simplicity. The narrators come across as pathetically naive at times, cynical and world-weary at other times, but they often surprise the men in their lives or the reader (and even, occasionally, themselves).
Inevitably, you’ll find the fictional account (because it was finished) far more lucid about the fear of illness and old age, the inevitable decline and raging against it, and finally some kind of troubled acceptance of death. But there is a lot more self-deprecating humour in her autobiography. Take for instance, her delightful anecdote about being a governess to a small, solemn little boy and getting lost on the way back from the park. So typical of the well-meaning but accident-prone and muddled heroines of Rhys’ novels.
Sometimes now I smile when I think there is a middle-aged, or even elderly, man in Paris with an unnecessary hatred of everything English, and vague memories of a thin Englishwoman in black who tried to kidnap him.
In today’s world, when everyone bares their soul and the kitchen sink on their blogs and in personal memoirs, does Jean Rhys’ brutal honesty still have the power to shock? Perhaps not, but it’s not about the subject matter, the relentless drabness and numbing one’s senses in alcohol. It is about transcending greyness, about turning it into luminous prose. Thank you to Eric and Jacqui for initiating #ReadingRhys week and thereby reminding us once more just what a consummate artist she is.