books · science

The Discovery of Jean Rhys

With thanks to the inimitable James Wood in the New Yorker.

The books overlap enough to disclose a composite type: an outsider, a youngish Englishwoman of ambiguous ethnicity (“But you are English—or aren’t you?” Marya is asked), curiously unidentifiable by the traditional English markers of accent and education (“She was born in the West Indies or somewhere,” a character says of Anna). Barely afloat in London or Paris, recently separated from a husband or otherwise single, the Rhys heroine is seductive, vulnerable, touchy, acute, reduced. Notably, she has no money. Moving between grim hotel rooms and the men who pay for their interest in her, she knows that, as one of these men says, women are much cheaper than the clothes they wear, since you “can get a very nice girl for five pounds.” The Rhys heroine constantly negotiates trauma and calculation. Sasha Jansen had a baby who died; a botched abortion brings Anna Morgan close to death. Despair is temporarily banished by alcohol and sleeping pills. A characteristic line, from “Quartet”: “Then the vermouth warmed her throat and chest and she felt less physically miserable.”

Adding Rhys to my summer reading pile right now.