Jean Rhys, Under the Surface and Beyond the Erasures

June 2023

Sue Thomas, Jean Rhys’s Modernist Bearings and Experimental Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2022); 220 pages; ISBN 978-1350275751 (hardcover)

Sue Thomas’s deeply researched new book, Jean Rhys’s Modernist Bearings and Experimental Aesthetics, joins a rich and varied library of scholarly responses to Rhys.Each reading, each approach, contributes a unique strand, a pathway through Rhys’s work to be added to all the others, a collective tribute to her writing. Those who read, study, and write about her have become a community, a woven fabric of response in the sense that we all need one another’s perspectives to attempt to see her fully. We might consider this a triumph for Rhys’s well-known antipathy to hierarchies and separatisms.

Thomas is well known within this community as a meticulous researcher of contexts of Rhys’s work. Thomas’s first monograph on Rhys, The Worlding of Jean Rhys, established her scholarly depth and attention to detail and has been a valuable resource.1 So it is a great pleasure to see another reading of Rhys’s work by such a painstaking scholar as Thomas.

Rhys was a quintessentially private person. Like most artists, she preferred to be known more through her work than through the public surfaces of her lived experience. Thomas is a sleuth who follows up on what is implied, hinted at, or provided in plain sight. In the introduction, she describes her book as unearthing “the tacit, silent and explicit textual bearings she [Rhys] offers.” She sums up her purpose as a literary historian for this project as falling into three areas: exploring the “yet untold histories of Rhys’s literary career”; “the formation and scope of her experimental aesthetics”; and “the meaning of the Americas and the tropics in her writing” (1).

The map Thomas offers is largely of material we could call groundwater, key layerings under the surface of Rhys’s stories. Thomas is a literary historian whose work reminds one of that of Peter Hulme, well known for his Caribbean work: both focus on contexts and subtexts rather than literary (textual) criticism.2 Unlike Hulme, however, Thomas is not known as a Caribbean scholar. Her strongest area of interest and research experience is Rhys’s relation to European culture, including that of Britain. Though focusing each chapter on particular texts—Rhys’s early fiction such as “Vienne”; After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie; Voyage in the Dark; Wide Sargasso Sea; and the stories “Till September Petronella” and “Tigers Are Better-Looking”—each chapter also has a topic (for example, Rhys and kineticism; tropicality; temporality; depressive time; repressed and repressive homosexuality; the doudou; hurricane poetics). These are all opportunities for Thomas to investigate leads into culture running from elements in Rhys’s texts. For example, in chapter 5, the stories “Till September Petronella” and “Tigers Are Better-Looking” are connected to musical trends (ragtime and swing, respectively) and places and social conditions of the early 1960s (such as well-known clubs in London). In chapter 1, Thomas has us think about how Rhys’s first novel, Quartet, published in 1928, employs tropes of mechanism. In all these examples, Thomas encourages us to think of Rhys as working within and contributing to cultural strands in places and times important in her life. We might call this a cluster of modernisms rather than the singular idea of modernism and modernity, for Rhys was a transcultural writer who incorporated diverse elements into her work.

Thomas makes tropicality an important motif in Rhys’s work, a tricky thing to pull off because, as in the case of modernism, what the term means depends on where you stand. This is not helped by the sometimes unhelpfully complicated language, such as her discussion in chapter 2 of how the “intertextual juxtaposition” of Rhys’s After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie “with other explorations of the tropics establish[es] motifs and the thematic domains of the hybrid, the stakes of assimilation, creative evolution and the species boundary human-animal” (52). Thomas’s focus on the tropics can add useful detail, as in enriching the vague representation of Julia’s Brazilian mother in the novel, giving us something to deepen what has often been taken as simple background filler in Rhys’s text.In a similar way, in chapter 7, the last, Thomas’s discussion of the doudou in relation to the narrative of the unnamed husband in Wide Sargasso Sea (which takes up much of the novel) links this figure to landscape and a critique of “a Eurocentric discourse of tropicality” (166). In her extended discussion of the doudou in chapter 6, Thomas follows Jacqueline Couti in linking French Creole Caribbean culture with that of France, contributing to the profile of the Caribbean woman abroad. Thomas usefully points out Rhys’s comment on the work of Daniel Thaly, a poet from Dominica just over a decade older than her: “He ‘has written some poems that aren’t bad. Some lines aren’t bad.’”3 The link is through the doudou as well: Thomas points out that Thaly’s poetry was described as “doudouist” (144). This is quintessential Thomas scholarship, enabling us to think beyond the text and to embed it in complicated contexts. But given Rhys’s interest in French culture (no doubt linked to her experiences in Dominica), it is surprising that Colette’s account of her beginnings as a writer is not mentioned, since it is so close to Rhys’s recollection of her own in her autobiography and furthers our sense of textual connections between Rhys and writers working in French.

We are all shaped by the places in which are born and spend our early years, and for Rhys that was Dominica: she left at sixteen.4 Thomas’s book rightly starts from the assumption that Rhys is a Caribbean writer—the old claim that she was English was defeated two decades ago. But there is no entry for Caribbean in the index to Thomas’s monograph, though Derek Walcott’s work is discussed at some length. As Thomas writes in the introduction, “The very term ‘Creole’ in Creole modernism is ambiguous and contested, having multiple meanings across languages and cultures” (2), but more clarity could have been found by beginning with the exploration of creolization by the historian/poet Kamau Brathwaite.5 He offered the crucial insight that the African majority shaped the European minority as much or more than the other way round. This is the sense we get of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. In terms of language, Brathwaite’s famous “nation language” for Creoles succinctly indicates that each country in the Caribbean has its own version of creolized metropolitan languages.6

Thomas’s final chapter has a very interesting discussion of storms and a blight impacting Rhys’s great-grandfather’s plantation wealth. This chapter also reflects Thomas’s strength as a historical scholar. But sometimes the context seems to drown Rhys’s text, which is, after all, an imaginative creation, a fictive world in which disparate elements serve purpose there. One example of this is in Thomas’s examination of the name of an important house in Wide Sargasso Sea: “Read in this way the name Nelson’s Rest encrypts the predicaments of James Lockhart’s sons after his death.” The imperial Admiral Nelson of course was lauded in the Caribbean (for example, the infamous statue of him in Barbados), which is irony enough, but this belaboring of the name—“Nel might be read as a pun on knell”—does not add much (178). It would have been interesting to consider the ironies of Antoinette being offered as an heiress to a money-poor younger son after her mother remarries (her own property transferred to her husband, as was legal and customary at the time).

Thomas’s account of Rhys’s work is provocative and interesting, a richly detailed addition to the body of scholarship on this fascinating writer who never seems to be quite contained by any analysis but is so deserving of such illuminating and meticulous exploration.

Elaine Savory is Emeritus Professor of Literary Studies, the New School. She has published widely on Caribbean and African literatures, especially the writings of Jean Rhys and Kamau Brathwaite, women’s writing, drama and theater, and literary history. Her most recent work is in postcolonial environmental humanities. She is also a poet and is presently working on a memoir.

[1] Sue Thomas, The Worlding of Jean Rhys (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999).

[2] See Peter Hulme, “The Place of Wide Sargasso Sea,” Wasafiri 10 (1994–95): 5–11,; and Remnants of Conquest: The Island Caribs and Their Visitors, 1877–1998 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[3] Thomas’s source is a letter from Jean Rhys to writer Evelyn Scott (1936), in Jean Rhys, Letters 1931–1966, ed. Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (New York: Penguin, 1985), 29.

[4] It is surprising that Thomas does not reference Lennox Honychurch, the leading historian of Dominica and invaluable guide for any Rhys scholar, making absolutely necessary research trips there. See his The Dominica Story: A History of the Island (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1995).

[5] See Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971); and Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean (Kingston: Savacou, 1974).

[6] See Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon, 1984).

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