‘The Insect World’ by Jean Rhys

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

‘Trio’ by Jean Rhys

This is a piece of what we would now call ‘flash fiction’ that sits alongside Rhys’s more substantial stories, including the masterful ‘Let Them Call it Jazz’ with which it shares some characteristics. The narrator is an outsider looking in (the definitive figure in Rhys’s work), in this case through the window of a café in which a group of three people – a man, a woman and a teenage girl – are enjoying themselves. Rhys was proud of her ability to prune her stories to the bare essentials and here she provides more questions than answers. We don’t know if the narrator is black or white, whether she (I’m assuming) has anything in common with the people in the café or (more likely) desires to be like them. Does “I remember the Antilles” express a longing to return to the Caribbean or a sadness that she knows she never will? The uncertainly extends to the young girl in the story, who may or may not be the daughter of the older man being so affectionate towards her.

First published in Left Bank, Jonathan Cape/Harper & Brothers, 1927

‘A Night’ by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys is one of my all-time favourite writers, which is odd to say when you consider I didn’t read her for the first time until very late on. I work in libraries and we’ve always got copies of Wide Sargasso Sea kicking around but I never thought to pick it up. A couple of years ago I went to house sit for a friend of mine in Cambridge and picked up After Leaving Mr Mackenzie from her bookcase. I caned it in an hour, fell head over heels, and read everything Rhys ever wrote in the space of about two months afterwards. I love the bleary-eyed poeticism of her work, the lip curled into an arch sneer, eyebrow raised in mockery at the futility of it all as the gin goes down and the fag smoke fills the room; the way her stories are suffused with a despair so deep and apathetic it can barely even be arsed to feel sad anymore; it simply is, just as it was, and always shall be. In a similar way to so many of Elliott Smith’s lyrics, there’s a sense of being out of step not just with everyone else and the world around her, but also completely, irreconcilably out of step with herself. It’s the story of my life but I’ve never seen it articulated with such unflinching clarity. 
Her writing really touches me where it hurts, and there are very few writers I can think of – if any – that I connect with on such a profound emotional level. This one’s so short it’d probably be called flash fiction these days, although it was written a century ago, way before that term entered the lexicon. The title refers to a typically Rhysian dark night of the soul, in which the protagonist ponders Le Saut dans l’inconnu and the various ways she may go about it, before signing off with the exasperated impotence that characterises so much of her work. “Ridiculous, all this. Lord, I am tired. A devil of a business…..” Wonderful stuff.

First published in The Left Bank, Jonathan Cape, 1927. Currently available in the Collected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2017

‘Who Knows What’s Up in the Attic?’ by Jean Rhys

Rhys was approaching the end of a tumultuous life when she wrote this story. A woman living alone in a remote English town receives a visit from a man she’s only met once before. She wonders how things might have turned out in a different time and place. And so do we: it’s impossible not to think of the author’s early novels and their doomed, wrenching affairs. This time, nothing much happens. The action is all in the opening and sudden closing of the woman’s heart as she contemplates where one last voyage in the dark would surely take her: “The abyss. Despair. All those things.”

First published in Sleep it Off, Lady, André Deutsch, 1976, also in the Collected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2017

‘Mannequin’ by Jean Rhys

A story for September

This short story opens with Anna, dressed in black, searching along dark passages in the Parisian couture house where she works. She’s paraded around, alongside other doll-like models. For Anna, it’s a strange, exhausting dream. At the close of the story, a feeling of freedom rises, escape, movement: “All up the street the mannequins were coming out of the shops, pausing on the pavements a moment, making them as gay and as beautiful as beds of flowers before they walked swiftly away and the Paris night swallowed them up.” I admire Rhys’ handling of the subject—women’s bodies as commodities—and her spare, terse language, each word chosen like it’s a precious thing. 

Originally published in The Left Bank and Other Stories 1927, Later collected in The Collected Short Stories, Norton 1992. Available to read here

‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ by Jean Rhys

Selina, the Caribbean narrator, is part of the Windrush Generation, and trying to survive in London. The story opens with her being evicted from her flat and offered a new home in a richer neighbourhood where she is unable to find a job and spends her days drinking, singing and sleeping. Out of frustration with her white neighbours’ outright hostility, she throws a rock through their window and is sent for ten days to Holloway Prison, where she stops drinking and learns a tune sung by the other prisoners. Some time later, having found a job, she whistles that tune at a party at a colleague’s house, where a man “plays the tune, jazzing it up”. She thinks nothing of it until she gets a letter from him informing her has sold the song and containing £5 to thank her for her help. This short summary cannot do justice to the craft and rhythm of this tale of exploitation, this portrait of 1960s London, and the protagonist’s powerful presence.

First published in The London Magazine, 1962, and in Tigers Are Better-Looking, Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1968. Collected in The Collected Short Stories, W.W. Norton & Co, 1992, now Penguin Modern Classics. Also published as one of the Penguin 60s in 1995

‘Sleep It Off, Lady’ by Jean Rhys

’You know Letty, I’ve been thinking a great about death lately…’

Old Age…

Another late story from another great writer unafraid to look old age squarely in the face, ‘Sleep It Off, Lady’ opens with its elderly protagonist, Miss Verney, confessing to her friend, Letty, that her thoughts have started to take a morbid turn. 

Her friend tells her that this is “quite natural. We old people are rather like children, we live in the present as a rule. A merciful dispensation of providence.” But Letty is voicing these platitudinous assurances from the relative comfort of being “only sixty-three and might, with any luck, see many a summer” whereas Miss Verney, being “well over seventy, could hardly hope for anything of the sort.”

And so we follow Miss Verney into her final months (then weeks, then days) as trivialities grow to all-consuming tribulations: her unwanted garden shed, her fear of the rat she has seen in the garden, her loneliness and frustration at having to rely increasingly on others as her health continues to fail. Until, finally, one morning she wakes up “feeling very well and very happy. Also she was not at all certain where she was. She lay luxuriating in the feeling of renewed youth, renewed health and slowly recognized the various pieces of furniture.

‘Of course,’ she thought when she drew the curtains. ‘What a funny place to end up.’

First published in The New Review. Collected in Sleep It Off Lady,André Deutsch 1976, and The Collected Short Stories, Penguin 1987

‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

As with Sylvia Plath, it is a mistake to muddle the life and the work. Why is it that we repeatedly fail to see that creative women are just that – creators? Rhys may have struggled in almost every aspect of her life. Yet her writing exhibits formidable control. This story may draw on the isolation she experienced while living in Devon, but it also takes inspiration from Saki’s short story ‘Sredni Vashtar’. The result is a kind of noir whodunit that has affinities with ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Is Miss Verney herself responsible for her troubles? It is the fault of the villagers with their blend of hostility and indifference? Or do the problems spring from Miss Verney’s shed and its terrible inhabitant?

First published in The New Review. Collected in Sleep it Off Lady, Penguin, 1979

‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ by Jean Rhys

This and the following selection are from my two favourite literary collections of short stories. Although it wasn’t published until 1968, Tigers Are Better-Looking is the missing link between Jean Rhys’s incredible novels of the 1930s and her return from the missing-presumed-dead with Wide Sargasso Sea. The stories were written piecemeal during the 1940s and 50s and no one wanted to publish them until WSS had become a huge success (Rhys: “It has come too late”). They are utterly magnificent, each one a languid study in fatalism and defeat. The worst has happened; well, so what? Let them call it jazz and let them play it wrong. That won’t make no difference to the song I heard.

First published in The London Magazine, 1962, and in Tigers Are Better-Looking, Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1968. Collected in The Collected Short Stories, W.W. Norton & Co, 1992, now Penguin Modern Classics. Also published as one of the Penguin 60s in 1995

‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

A superb story from one of my favourite writers, a woman who understood the loneliness and alienation of life as an outsider. The story – one of Rhys’ last – focuses on Miss Verney, an elderly lady who lives on her own in a cottage in the country. Her garden is dominated by the presence of a large iron shed, a looming presence that seems likely to outlast her. Add to this the problem of rats, and life for Miss Verney is beginning to seem hopeless. It’s a sobering piece, dealing as it does with the challenges of ageing, isolation and a feeling of helplessness. There is a sense that the Miss Verneys of this world have been abandoned by society, left to fester away without care or support. By the time it was first published in 1976, Rhys was in her mid-eighties and only a few years away from death herself, a fact that adds an extra note of poignancy to the story.

First published in Sleep It Off Lady, André Deutsch, 1976. Collected in The Collected Short Stories, Penguin Classics 2017

‘Till September Petronella’ by Jean Rhys

When I go for a drink by myself, something I enjoy, I always entertain the fancy for at least a few minutes that I am a woman in a Jean Rhys story. Living in a Bloomsbury bed-sit perhaps, or soon to be chucked out of my lodgings in Paris. I’m an ex-chorus girl. My friend was killed by her gigolo lover. I’m tired of men and being poor and lonely. Can I have another drink? In this particular story Petronella Gray recounts a series of encounters with not very satisfactory men, the last of whom was nothing more substantial than someone in the front row at the theatre when she was on stage and forgot her lines. An endearing, funny heroine, Petronella too knows what it is to be immersed in the world of a story, in her case French or German or Hungarian romantic novels: “[you] go about in a dream for weeks afterwards, for months afterwards – perhaps all your life, who knows? – surrounded by those six hundred and fifty pages, the houses, the streets, the snow, the river, the roses, the girls… the old wicked, hard-hearted women and the old sad women, the waltz music, everything.”

First published in The London Magazine, January 1960 and available online here. Collected in Tigers are Better-Looking, Andre Deutsch, 1968 and The Collected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 1987