Jean Rhys, “Good Morning, Midnight” (1939) – There were a lot of ways for your twentieth century to suck. While lacking a certain “genocide” quality, one pretty bad one was to be a talented woman in one of the roughly umpteen “epoch-making” art/culture scenes of the century of my birth. Seemingly all of them, whatever their political pretenses, were real boys clubs, and the only women they wanted around weren’t there for their direct artistic contributions. These scenes tended to be both profoundly socially incestuous while also full of strangers whose best motives were gawking and whose worst were bad indeed Throw pretense, money, drugs, and other twentieth century party favors like intense ideological posturing into the mix along with the misogyny and fame, and it’s not a fun scene.
Jean Rhys did not have a fun twentieth century. She came from a white creole family on the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica, and crossed the Atlantic for education, socializing, and art. Her father died when she was young and she may have made her living as essentially a high class escort — the lines could be blurry (still can, I imagine) — until she had a stroke of luck, of sorts. She started writing and her stories started garnering praise from big shots like Ford Maddox Ford. This was at the height of the Jazz Age, and she lived it up while she could in London and Paris. But she was always a little too stringent for the fizzy/tragic Fitzgerald-esque party, it seems. She didn’t do gazing out at the lights, she did gazing into the black. Her characters didn’t lose themselves- they knew just where they were, and it sucked. She never pretended that money, status, and pain weren’t basic realities of life as she knew it.
This did not endear her or ensure her popularity with readers looking for the usual Jazz Age tropes. She was managing a living with her second husband, looking back at the bad (or anyway, worse- I get she wasn’t happily married exactly) old days when the money started to run out, when she was writing “Good Morning, Midnight” – and, in a struck of bad geopolitical luck, the war hit and no one wanted to read about sad decaying women in a Paris that would soon have bigger problems.
That sucks, because it, and everything I’ve read of her describing life in London and Paris in the interwar period, is great. It’s raw and affecting. The narrator is stuck, stuck by her failed marriages, her inability to do much, the positions both mainstream society and the bohemian fringe assign to women. One of the worst places to be, as far as relatively lucky nationalities like Anglos (not poor inhabitants of the real killing fields in Eurasia, say) at that time was in the declining middle class. You didn’t have any real ability to work for money — you often effectively couldn’t — but you didn’t have enough money to go on, especially if you were on the outs with family.
The narrator has burned every bridge, or someone burned it for her. Every cheap boarding house or dress shop in Paris reminds her of another failure. She meets people, including men who at least pretend to want to help her, but can never know their real motives, and worst of all, she’s starting not to care. She mulls over drinking herself to death, or just making life as tiny as possible — stay in her room, live off of coffee, bread, and regret — not so much as an economizing measure as just to live in accordance with her inner self. It’s a brutal read, but I love it because it seems real in ways that flashier depictions of inner failing and falling don’t. Rhys eventually won international recognition when she was in her sixties for “Wide Sargasso Sea,” a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the madwoman in the attic (another white creole from the Caribbean who had a miserable time in England). When interviewed about her newfound success, she dismissed it as too little, too late. Ouch. *****