Jean Rhys writes so beautifully about the sadness and loneliness beneath the façades of cities. In my early 20s, I spent a year living in Paris, working as a nanny and an English tutor. I had very little money, and I rented a tiny attic room on the outskirts of the city, which didn’t have a shower or hot water. At that time, a romantic view of the world was a mode of survival; I read Jean Rhys and imagined her moving from café to café in her fur coat, looking for something or someone to lift her out of herself, not knowing where her next meal would come from.
Yet, I also learned that romanticism is a fallacy, which is evident in Rhys’ work. A cramped attic in Paris sounds romantic on paper, but when you’re cold, hungry and dirty, it is simply disempowering. The women in Rhys’ books are angry, hurt and disillusioned; they want frivolous things like nice dresses and glasses of wine, yet Rhys shows us that these things aren’t really flippant; they are symbols of desire caught in a complex intersection of gender, capitalism and need.
In, ‘The Insect World’, Rhys writes, “almost any book was better than life, Audrey thought. Or at least, life as she was living it”, which encapsulates how it feels to be caught in a difficult reality and attempting to dream your way out of it. She writes about the desire for transcendence or elation, to be lifted out of oneself for a moment, before crashing back into the cold, hard reality of your own circumstances and a life trapped within your own skin.
First published in The Sunday Times Magazine, 19 August 1973, and collected in Sleep it Off, Lady, André Deutsch, 1976. Also available in the Collected Stories, WW Norton, 1987 and then Penguin Modern Classics, 2017, and in the Penguin 60 Let Them Call it Jazz, 1995