Dear Common Readers,
Jean Rhys Reading Week (September 12–18, 2016) was co-hosted by Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal and lonesome reader. They also co-host a discussion group on Goodreads that will remain open. Check out #ReadingRhys on twitter for links to some great posts about Ms. Rhys’ novels, short story collections, and related works.
The Left Bank, a 1927 collection of short stories by Jean Rhys, was on my Classics Club list, so I figured why not join the party? Then I discovered that The Left Bank is out of print and copies of it are very difficult to come by, so I decided to read a more accessible collection called Tigers Are Better-Looking. Luckily the edition I chose also includes nine stories from The Left Bank.
I got the feeling that I was surrounded by a pack of timid tigers waiting to spring the moment anybody is in trouble or hasn’t any money. But tigers are better-looking, aren’t they? (p. 68, “Tigers Are Better-Looking”)
This observation (from which both the title story and the collection take their names) also describes how most of Ms. Rhys’ protagonists feel most of the time. When I first read the title, I took it to mean that the animals are better-looking than mean-spirited respectable people. Upon reflection, though, I wonder if she means that the “tigers” of the world are more attractive than other people to her protagonists even though these characters know the “tigers” will rip them to shreds the moment they stumble.
Of course what the tigers have that Ms. Rhys’ protagonists don’t is money, good reputations, and respectability. Her heroines are precariously placed on the fringes of respectability, always in danger of taking one last Downward Step from which they will never recover.
What I like best about this collection is that Ms. Rhys’ protagonists are not women we normally see as main characters in fiction. Ms. Rhys chose to tell the stories of the kind of female characters who usually serve as cautionary tales in other novels. These are the “fallen” women who reside just off the page in a Jane Austen novel. They are the very opposite of Virginia Woolf’s heroines. They are writers, artists, and models, but there is nothing glamorous or genteel about them. They live from poorly-paid job to poorly-paid job with no guarantee that there will be a next job. These characters are single women who struggle with financial insecurity, illness, anxiety, loneliness, sometimes with alcoholism and mental illness, and nearly always with despair. They desperately want a better life but are constantly penalized by the harsh judgments of others. They are women that our society would classify as “losers.”
Though some of the characters are deliberate nonconformists, many of them are simply unwilling outsiders who are unable to fit in no matter how hard they try. Ms. Rhys took a far less romantic view than Henry David Thoreau of what happens to a woman who does not keep pace with her companions.
Because she was outside the machine they might come along any time with a pair of huge iron tongs and pick her up and put her on the rubbish heap, and there she would lie and rot. “Useless, this one,” they would say; and throw her away before she could explain, “It isn’t like you think it is, not at all. It isn’t like they say it is. Wait a bit and let me explain. You must listen; it’s very important.” (p. 88, “Outside the Machine”)
Ms. Rhys was acutely aware that women who lack respectability don’t get heard in our society. They rarely get the chance to tell their side of the story. It is these women that Ms. Rhys represented in the stories in this collection.
Another reason to dive into these stories is Ms. Rhys’ writing style. Her use of imagery vividly captures both the sensory details and emotional atmosphere of her settings and characters. Here are a few examples:
The sunlight fall down and die there. (p. 63, “Let them Call it Jazz”)
It’s a smoky kind of voice, and a bit rough sometimes, as if those old dark walls theyselves are complaining, because they see too much misery — too much. But it don’t fall down and die in the courtyard; seems to me it could jump the gates of the jail easy and travel far, and nobody could stop it. (p. 64, “Let them Call it Jazz”)
The yellow dress appeared malevolent, slouching on its hanger; the black ones were mournful, only the little chintz frock smiled gaily, waiting for the supple body and limbs that should breathe life into it. (p.155, “Illusions”)
As a feminist reader, though, I had difficulty with the way Ms. Rhys depicted relationships among women. Ms. Rhys’s heroines distrust women and their relationships are rife with jealousy, competition, malicious gossip, and cruel behavior. I’ve never been one of those feminist who believes that women are somehow more morally pure and high-minded than men. On the other hand, I’ve never believed that women are more likely than men to be underhanded, manipulative back-stabbers either. I believe women are simply human, that is, they are just as likely to be good and bad as men are. It seems as if Ms. Rhys did not share my views to put it lightly.
I remind myself that the all of the stories in Tigers Are Better-Looking were written before 1968. I’m sure things were very different when women had fewer means of supporting themselves and were therefore more dependent on men for financial survival. This would certainly explain the attitude of all of Ms. Rhys’ female characters toward both women and men.
Men have spoilt me — always disdaining my mind and concentrating on my body. Women have spoilt me with their senseless cruelties and stupidities. (p. 220, “Vienne”)
The male characters are depicted as friendlier, more empathetic, and more helpful than women but the male characters also clearly expect sex in return for their generosity. They never offer love and universally seem eager to avoid further entanglement with the main character. Meanwhile, the female characters are always sharpening their knives and eagerly waiting to push the heroines down.
As a reader, I interpret this as depictions of respectability politics in action, though I doubt Ms. Rhys would describe them that way.
For God knows, if there’s one hypocrisy I loathe more than another, it’s the fiction of the “good” woman and the “bad” one. (p. 208, “Vienne”)
Unlike Sor Juana, though, Ms. Rhys never seemed to notice it was men who set the rules for respectability. Other women were merely the enforcers for the sexist rules that all women are expected to live by and to judge each other harshly for every slip in dress, speech, and deed.
So soon does one learn the bitter lesson that humanity is never content just to differ from you and let it go at that. Never. They must interfere, actively and grimly, between your thoughts and yourself — with the passionate wish to level up everything and everybody. (p. 174, “Mixing Cocktails”)
Because a woman’s livelihood depended upon male approval and protection, the respectable conformists punished other women in order to more clearly distinguish themselves from the “bad” women. Being mistaken for a “bad” woman can ruin a woman’s future prosperity as surely in a Jean Rhys story as it does in a Jane Austen novel. As her stories show, the penalty for failure to conform was a lifetime of poverty and loneliness, a lifetime of being a “Doormat in a world of Boots.” (“Vienne” p. 214)
This sort of thinking is not so far removed from our own time. We’ve all seen how much the outcome of rape and domestic violence cases hinge on the respectability of the victim. We need look no further than the media-created and media-driven “mommy wars” that pit full–time homemakers against full–time paid employees or the debate about work requirements for public financial assistance for poor single mothers for some modern examples of women being constantly judged and found lacking.
“Respectable” of course is defined in these stories by money, social class, ethnicity, and race.
The neighbors in “Let them Call it Jazz” try to get rid of the black main character, complaining “This is a respectable neighborhood” and “At least the other tarts that crook installed here were white girls.” [emphasis in original] (p.57) Mrs. Sawyer’s ill opinion is dismissed as unimportant because she is not white in “The Day they Burned the Books.” The white female main characters in this collection are considered not quite English and therefore not quite respectable because they were born in the Caribbean even they were born of English parents.
There are exceptions to this dour view of female relationships in this collection, though. In several of the stories, the main character has a female friend whom she cherishes and whose loss she mourns. In “La Grosse Fifi” it is the vulgar, disreputable title character who consoles the protagonist over her dying relationship, not the protagonist’s “respectable” friends who insist she move to a better hotel. Petronella misses her friend Estelle who has moved back to Paris and seems to have been the only compassionate person in Petronella’s life who doesn’t have some ulterior motive in “Til September, Petronella.” In “Outside the Machine,” it is an elderly woman who gives the protagonist some much needed financial help. And in “Let them Call it Jazz” it is a song sung by a sister prisoner that gives the main character back her fighting spirit.
Selina, the protagonist of “Let them Call it Jazz,” is a rare exception of a character who is able to pull herself back up into a semblance of respectability. In general, Ms. Rhys’ characters keep falling.
Every few months there is bound to be a crisis. Every crisis will find you weaker. (p. 183, “Hunger”)
But at the fifth or sixth disappointment you cry more easily.
After the tenth you give it up. You are broken — no nerves left.
And every second-rate fool can have their cheap little triumph over you — judge you with their little middle-class judgment. (p. 218, “Vienne”)
Once down you will never get up. Did anyone — did anybody, I wonder, ever get up … once down? [emphasis in original] (p. 182, “Hunger”)
We can see Ms. Rhys’ continuing influence in such characters as Rachel Watson, the unreliable narrator of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Megan Hipwell from the same novel, and Olivia, the friend without money, in the film Friends with Money.
Some readers may not be able to relate to the circumstances in these stories, but I believe the emotions Ms. Rhys describes, feeling as if one doesn’t fit in, the pressure to conform, feeling lonely, unheard, and misunderstood, are universal and timeless.
Maybe it is because I live in the United States, the land of obligatory optimism, constant personal re-invention, and the deep-seated belief that failure is ultimately impossible that I found these stories not just bracing but refreshing. More than that, I found it comforting to read work by a writer who refuses to reassure readers that everything will work out in the end, who instead admits that sometimes obstacles really are insurmountable and that for some people things really will only get worse. Sometimes stoic resignation is all one has. Or, as Ms. Rhys put it in “Mannequin”:
“It is hard at first, hein? … One asks oneself: Why? For what good? It is all idiot. We are all so. But we go on.” (p. 166)
In my opinion, Ms. Rhys has earned her place in both the literary tradition of women writers and in the Canon of Great Literature by giving voice to a previously unexplored aspect of women’s experience with empathy and eloquence. She has definitely earned her place in my personal canon as well.
Your sister reader,