‘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