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Earning Death

Enda O'Doherty writes: Dominica (pronounced DominEEKa) is one of the Windward Islands, part of an extensive hook-shaped archipelago which extends from Cuba in the northwest to Trinidad, just off the coast of Venezuela, in the southeast. From the eighteenth century the island was an important staging post in the “triangular trade” operated by first the French and then, after 1763, the British, which saw slaves imported to the West Indies from West Africa, and the sugar and coffee which came from the plantations they worked on exported to Europe.

Slavery was abolished in 1833 but of course this measure did not end exploitation or greatly improve the fortunes of blacks or mixed race people. One future slave owner who arrived on the island from Scotland in the late eighteenth century was James Gibson Lockhart. His great-granddaughter, Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, born in 1890, later wrote of him: “He died before the Emancipation Act was passed, and as he was a slave owner the Lockharts, even in my day, were never very popular. That’s putting it mildly.”

Rees Williams, who grew up in Dominica but was sent to school in England aged sixteen, was better known to the world as the novelist Jean Rhys. Rhys spent much of the 1920s leading a vagabond existence in Europe, chiefly in Paris and Vienna. She had managed to publish a number of critically well-received but not enormously commercially successful novels before the Second World War (After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight) but disappeared from public view from the late 1940s.

Of the character Sasha Jansen in Good Morning, Midnight Francis Wyndham wrote that she was another version of the composite Jean Rhys heroine (this is not meant as criticism):

She is often unreasonable, and at moments one even pities the well-meaning men who found her so difficult to deal with. But she is not malicious: pity extends beyond herself to embrace all other sufferers. For her suffering transcends its cause. This is not only a study of a lonely, ageing woman, who has been deserted by husbands and lovers and has taken to drink; it is the tragedy of a distinguished mind and a generous nature that have gone unappreciated in a conventional, unimaginative world. A victim of men’s incomprehension of women, a symptom of women’s distrust of men, Sasha belongs to a universal type that is seldom well written about ...

By the late 1950s no one knew where Jean Rhys was or even if she was still alive. From what was remembered of the turbulence of her life many assumed that she had drunk herself to death in obscurity. But after a BBC radio adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight in the late 1950s she was finally traced to Cornwall, where she was living with her third husband. Francis Wyndham and then Diana Athill (who died aged 101 in January this year), both associated with the publishing firm Andre Deutsch, entered into correspondence with her and learned that she had completed several short stories and was working on a novel based on “the untold story” of the mad wife of Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (later identified as a type in feminist literary criticism as “the madwoman in the attic”). That novel, which became Wide Sargasso Sea, universally recognised as her masterpiece, was eventually published in 1966, nine years after Athill had first written to her. The book won the WH Smith Literary Award and another from the Royal Society of Literature and Andre Deutsch set about reprinting most of Rhys’s earlier work.


The delay in publishing the manuscript can be attributed to the author’s old age and chronic ill health, her disorganised working methods and, no doubt, her fondness for drink, but also her scrupulousness about the text. (It is not a long book.) Diane Athill wrote:

... Jean Rhys allowed no piece of writing to leave her hands until it was finished except for the very smallest details. An example of her perfectionism; some five years after the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea she said to me out of the blue: ‘There is one thing I’ve always wanted to ask you. Why did you let me publish that book?’ Here a gloss is necessary. She was a writer addressing her editor – a writer hampered by unusually beautiful manners. For ‘let me publish’ you must read ‘badger me into publishing’ – an unfair accusation as it happens. I was indignant when I asked her what on earth she meant. ‘It was not finished,’ she said coldly. She then pointed out the existence in the book of two unnecessary words. One was ‘then’, and the other ‘quite’.

In the last year of her life Jean Rhys began dictating the book which was later to be published as Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography. The book, which is perhaps more memoir than autobiography, consists of three sections, an account, which she considered finished, of her childhood and youth in Dominica; a second section, “It began to grow cold”, unrevised and dealing with her arrival in Europe, and a third, consisting of fragmentary notes, entitled “From a Diary: at the Ropemakers’ Arms”.

From this section comes the following, a dialogue with self:

The trouble is I have plenty to say. Not only that but I am bound to say it.
Bound?
I must.
Why? Why? Why?
I must write. If I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people. But it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death.
Earned death?
Sometimes, not often, a phrase will sound in my ear clearly, as if spoken aloud by someone else. That was one phrase. You must earn death.
As a reward?
Yes.

Jean Rhys earned her reward, aged eighty-eight, on May 14th, 1979, forty years ago.

14/5/2019