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BOOKS: ‘The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys’

- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

THE BLUE HOUR: A LIFE OF JEAN RHYS
By Lillian Pizzichini
Norton, $29.95, 336 pages
REVIEWED BY MARION RODGERS

There have been several biographies written about Jean Rhys, the celebrated British author. Much of her fiction was autobiographical, dealing with helpless females, financially dependent on men and victimized by them. The direct manner in which she told her stories drew a large audience. Her books include "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie," "Voyage in the Dark" and "Good Morning, Midnight." But it was not until 1966, when the prize-winning "Wide Sargasso Sea," was published, that the elderly Rhys was lifted from obscurity, and it is this book for which she is remembered best.

Born in 1890 to a Welsh physician and Creole-Scotch woman in Dominica, Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams was sent to London at 17. She never adjusted to the life of British boarding schools, and when her father died, leaving her penniless, she took to the theater, changing her name to Jean Rhys. She became a chorus girl, then an artist's model, then the lover of various married men. Her love affair with an older man left her feeling abandoned and betrayed. A series of lovers and two failed marriages followed. One child died; the other was abandoned. In Paris she met the writer Ford Maddox Ford, with whom she had an affair.

"I never wanted to write," Jean Rhys once wrote. "I wished to be happy and peaceful and obscure." Instead, she was "dragged" into writing by "the need for money" and the men in her life, chiefly Ford Maddox Ford, who recognized her talent and introduced her to his publisher, who brought out her first collection of stories in 1927. Despite Rhys' protests to the contrary, Lillian Pizzichini portrays a woman for whom writing was not only her life, but her lifeline.

Hers was the dilemma of many colonial writers living in England at a certain time (V.S.Naipaul comes to mind): of not being white enough, of never being quite accepted. Rhys' dependence on alcohol (drinking as much as a bottle of whiskey a day) momentarily made her feel stimulated, but the result was a descent into "maudlin aggression."

Ms. Pizzichini has made a point of writing about Rhys "on her own terms." In one of the strongest passages in this book, an enraged and drunken Rhys throws a brick through the window of a neighbor's house because her dog had killed her cat. As Pizzichini writes: "[Rhys] made good copy for the suburban English, who would have no sympathy for her lack of logic. … Women who go public with their rage are cast out."

Writing did not come easily to Rhys. As she put it, "It isn't a penny in the slot" that could systematically produce her art at will. It is not until the very end of "The Blue Hour," in the author's note, that Ms. Pizzichini reveals how "illuminating" it had been to examine Rhys' manuscripts housed at the British Library. "The pages were stained with grease, sweat and face powder. Each word had clearly earned its place on the page." How much stronger this biography would have been if its author had allowed herself to examine the process of Rhys' literary creations.

And herein lies my criticism. With little primary material of Rhys' life to be had, the temptation to take liberties is paramount. The British writer Hermione Lee has spoken of the challenges all biographers face when confronted with gaps of material. She dealt with some of those when writing about the life of Virginia Woolf.

In "The Blue Hour," readers must take a leap of faith that Ms. Pizzichini has given us a life as she says her subject saw herself. There are no footnotes giving us any indication from which autobiographical fragment, letter, novel or short story the biographer has borrowed from in which to form her statements.

In fairness, Ms. Pizzichini is upfront in admitting that this is not strictly a biography, that her aim was "to present the facts in such a way that the reader is left with an impression of what it was like to have lived such a life."

All of this is well and good, if Ms. Pizzichini were as gifted an essayist as V.S. Pritchett, whose examination of the connection between the life and art of Anton Chekhov still remains a joy to read. In Pritchett's case, the style of writing enlivens every word. Instead, most of the sentences of "The Blue Hour" are uniformly short, so that their staccato predictability becomes tedious. Nor is the text helped by clichs that read: "Jean's happiness was pulled away from her like a rug from under her feet," "She was a stricken deer who had left the herd," or "He growled like a dog."

Missing is the voice of Jean Rhys. Enough of that primary material is actually available. Here we see her ability of being able to see the ridiculous and the poignancy of her situation. Instead of being given such quotes, Pizzichini has given us summaries, even though she states the letters have been "excellent source material" and how "entertaining" they have been to read: "Her humour and joie de vivre shine through, and show her in a quite unexpected light. One can only assume that sometimes, when she was writing to friends, she forgot to be unhappy."

Unfortunately for us, we are denied the entertainment and given only one dimension: the unhappy Rhys, full of "rage and hatred and fear." We see Rhys in monotone: endlessly moping page after page, depressed and dejected, sponging off any male or female who can offer support — then turning against them in combative fury.

How Rhys remained such an attractive figure is found elsewhere, in another volume, written by Rhys' literary executor, Francis Wyndham. For him, the ghost of Jean Rhys was not "the hunted, lonely woman who figures in her novels, nor the restless spirit so often near despair" but "the slant-eyed siren with whom one could enjoy the full intensity of a treat as no one else — those sacred moments of frivolity (an old tune, a new scent, a perfect cocktail, a wonderful joke) which for her nearly made life worth living."

As such, this biography will probably be popular among those who prefer reading short, undocumented treatments that read like a novel. If this style is "groundbreaking," as the blurbs attest, then woe to those other subjects that receive the same shrift. Whether intentionally or not, "The Blue Hour" has propelled this reviewer to seek out the original, multidimensional voice of Jean Rhys — not the summary.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the biographer of "Mencken: The American Iconoclast" (Oxford).