Lilian Pizzichini’s new biography is sharply written and readable. It certainly doesn’t dispel any of Rhys’s reputation as a difficult person, but The Blue Hour is sympathetic in that it tries to understand why Rhys was how she was and it certainly does give an insight for the reader into her behaviour.
The book begins with Rhys’s return to Dominica as an established writer in 1936, using it as a springboard to describe her upbringing on the island and to start a generally chronological narrative. The point for Pizzichini is clear from the beginning, though. The facts of life in Dominica are merely stepping stones to help reveal the developing psychology of her subject. From the beginning she lays the ground out of which Rhys’s difficult character grows, presenting a logical train of events that makes her later actions and her bitterness the more inevitable.
Even before the author is a teenager, disappointment and happiness roll around in her like the proverbial cannon - her mother doesn’t love her, the island spirits terrify her, there is her father whom she idealises, but he is quickly followed by her wilful tantrums. There is early alienation, something that was to become a theme of her life. Dominican society was strict and her family was not quite respectable. And of course there were the obvious black and white issues too. And then there were men – abuse at the hands of a 70-year old and her early but complex forays into the power struggle between man and woman – as she saw it at least.
Rhys – actually born Ella Gwendoline Rhys Williams – was to become a classic outsider. It was true of almost every aspect of her life, but particularly because of her Caribbean heritage in a place that she couldn’t be a part of - one that she eventually hated – England.
Lilian Pizzichini has set herself the task of presenting ‘…the facts of Rhys’s life in such a way that the reader is left with an impression of what it was like to have lived such a life.’ And she does it well, and evocatively, though often imaginatively (because she simply cannot have known Rhys’s thoughts for sure). She has done considerable research into Rhys’s opinions though, and she then puts these into Rhys’s head, using indirect free speech, so that we see them from the inside. Additionally, much of Rhys’s writing, if not auto-biographical, was taken from life, so Pizzichini is able to use a number of the passages from her novels to describe Rhys’s actual life.
And there’s no doubt that Rhys led an extraordinary life. She went to England to complete her education and found that she hated it. She took to the fringes of Edwardian life – she couldn’t bear to commit to the core of its respectability – and became a chorus girl and dancer. This she was fascinated by and observed acutely, but of course she could not belong. She took lovers and was a prostitute in a manner of speaking. She married a Belgian crook and occasional spy and moved to Paris and Vienna. She knew some of the leading literary figures of the day. She became the lover of Ford Madox Ford (inevitably in a complicated ménage à trois with his long time lover Stella Bowen). Rhys lived life on the edge in so many ways.
Rhys had disappointments that would deeply have affected a normal person too - her baby boy died of pneumonia aged three weeks, and there were rejections by lovers – but they only served to increase her alienation and dissatisfaction. There was short-lived critical recognition around the Second World War - the critics acknowledged her talent as a writer, though her world view was simply too depressing for the time. Eventually she descended into drunkenness and sometimes violence, given to disputes with her neighbours and anti-English rants.
As the reader you really get to a sense of how complex and self-destructive she was when you come to sentences like this - ‘…she savoured the sweet bitterness of having been abandoned by so many loved ones.’ And ‘She always behaved badly when someone was nice to her because she had to pre-empt their inevitable abandonment of her.’
For all of this Rhys was also a charismatic and attractive figure. And lucky, too. She found many people who were resolutely kind to her and loyal. Of course she was innovative in her writing as well, though inevitably success was too long in coming.
So, did Dominica contribute to her character? She wrote about the island, and about colonial life. It was her one proper home, she said, though of course when she returned in 1936 she hated it. She fell out with the people there and saw her childhood dreams smashed to boot. But in a different way it pervaded the last years of her life – through her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea and in a strange way, the story of this book strikes a subliminally positive note in a substantial part of Pizzichini’s narrative. It represents a well of latent success that simply has to spring forth and force aside the author’s unease with herself. The book stayed with Rhys for twenty or thirty years, bubbling under in her in tandem with her madness. It survived the burning of an early draft, but finally it came out in 1966 and she received the acclaim that was hers.
Generally The Blue Hour is a successful evocation of the woman. The impressions we get of being Jean Rhys are largely convincing and it is a compelling enough story to want to keep reading. Like Rhys’s novels it is frustrating, but that is less to do with the biographer than the material. It’s just hard to believe that someone, even the most sensitive of writers, could be so perverse and destructive to those around her -
‘… the person who was most against her was herself’.