“Three Books on Jean Rhys”

As the quotation marks in the title suggest this is another entry handling several books at once. This time the emphasis is on Afro-Caribbean (Creole) author Jean Rhys. The books in question-Smile Please (her unfinished autobiography), The Blue Hour (by Lillian Pizzichini), and The Letters of Jean Rhys (Edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly)-are in the spotlight. Each looks upon Rhys’s life differently and yet are, in their own way, best seen in conjunction with one another. As such, this entry will be brief, to the point, and revelatory of a different aspect of her life.

The first two books are chronicles of her life. Smile Please, written by Rhys herself, was the autobiography which remained unfinished at the time of her death. Authored from the first person perspective, Rhys imbued the work with a sense of melancholy; suffering her whole life from depression this was not a surprise. She saw her life as a kind of burden. That, combined with partial poverty and hand-outs from friends in order to maintain her lifestyle, spelt an emotionally and mentally toxic combination. So obviously the project is fiercely loyal to her own interest, you will not see the others in her life as presented anything other than caricatures; provided this is criticism which can be leveled at any autobiographical work. Even so the book is a fascinating read, like most autobios, for examining how the person in question views themselves. For Jean Rhys this obviously manifested as a deeply conflicted identity wracked with self-aggrandizing thoughts. To call her emotional life and uphill battle would be an understatement.

Understanding Rhys’s life as many do, as someone overly dramatic, somewhat lazy, and dependent on the handouts of others, it is easy to cast her aside. To snarl at her, in other words. This, however, is not the route Lillian Pizzichini takes. Her approach, however, is to support Rhys and take her side as one would a mentally or physically invalid. Pizzichini’s biography interoperates Rhys’s life as somebody caught between a rock and a hard place: someone who was trying to belong but constantly failed to integrate into typical society. Expanding the story of Rhys’s life from where the autobiography left off, the content paints a lucid picture: Jean is revealed to be a fragile, unstable person clearly in need of not simply professional help (help which didn’t seek to simply confine her to a padded room) but of close friends who understood and sympathized with her and her struggle. In the end this is the treatment Pizzichini gives Rhys: a friend’s shoulder.

The last book is by far the simplest: the “Letters of Jean Rhys” are exactly what it says- the letters which Rhys wrote when alive. Provided, these are the selected letters. What is considered the most relevant to her life as a whole. Many have been omitted which were seen as redundant or simply completely uncritical of any aspect, large or small. Edited by two of her closest friends, the letters, though with a repugnant introduction by a Transphobic-ignorant editor- display a powerful aspect of her life which reveal her personality in a sense more pure than that of an autobiography or even a biography. The letters are strewn with powerful events and written in the heat of the moment, as well as the cool of insanity. Taken at face value these originally represented Rhys’s life before her autobiography was published. So to say that you can get an idea of her life from reading these letters is also an understatement.

Over all I would not say there is one book which should be read over the others. Obviously if you are interested in merely an overview of her life, then The Blue Hour should be your go-to consultant; the entire life is presented here, free of the author’s intent and organized in a manner more accessible then mere letters, the style is modern (as is the publication date) and well written. Though not published by an academic press, Pizzichini’s project is an adequate launching pad for further exploration. I liked them all, but seeing as how I identity with Rhys’s struggle, this is not a surprise. From beginning to end- read them all and judge for yourself.

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