For the love of Jean

Jean Rhys came to fame quite late in life and, despite having a reputation for being difficult, had a coterie of supporters. Diana Athill recalls the trials of being her editor, and what the writer thought of the feminist interpretation of her books

'I don't understand why you were all so fond of her.'

A friend said that to me about Jean Rhys, and I understand why she said it. So much emphasis has been put on Jean's inability to cope with the practicalities, such as filling a hot-water bottle or turning on a shower; on her disastrous muddles in more important matters such as marriage and the handling of her books once they were written; on her paranoia and her drinking. And her own assessment of her attitude to other people was that she saw them 'as trees walking.'

Everyone starts out wanting simply 'to be' in his or her own way. Nearly everyone soon learns that they must accept constraints of many kinds if they want to be seen as responsible adults. Jean was one of the few who cannot (or who, for whatever reason, has become unable to) accept such constraints - a disposition that became her subject - ways she wrote as an outsider who was trapped inside, showing the 'grown-up' world as it looks and feels to such a prisoner.

Those who dislike her books are the people wholly committed to their hard-won adulthood. Most of us, however, are aware from time to time of our own inner child fidgeting against its rules and demands, and Jean's novels speak to that awareness with startling immediacy. It was her childlike disposition that made her the extraordinary novelist she was - but in life it did often cause pain to her and those closest to her, and gave a good deal of trouble to many other people, including me.

When André Deutsch Limited published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 Jean was 76. I, as their chief editor, had been in touch with her for eight years by then, and was to see a lot of her from then on. We reissued all her earlier work except for a few short stories, and we published her two last books. I feel a fraud when described as 'Jean Rhys's editor', because in her writing she was such a perfectionist that she needed no editing. But she did need a nanny.

It was a task much less onerous than I expected it to be. Jean loved her daughter, Maryvonne Moerman, very much; but she was no better at motherhood than she was at filling hot-water bottles, so when she hinted that she might move to Rotterdam, where the Moermans lived, Maryvonne panicked. She came to London, took me to lunch, and told me that although she would continue to visit her mother, and could be called on in any emergency, she most definitely could not have her in Holland: 'It would be the end of my marriage.' So it was me, she said firmly, who would have to look after Jean.

By then I had a clear idea of Jean's helplessness, so I knew there would be endless muddles to be sorted out and a constant need for reassurance. I would have to find her somewhere better to live than her dreadful little flimsy bungalow in Devonshire (this was never achieved because she always said: 'Better the devil I know' when it came to the point - but the bungalow was made much more comfortable). As soon as she had earned enough money to be taxed, I would have - oh God! - to deal with the resulting problems...

No one who knew the history of Jean and Maryvonne could possibly blame Maryvonne for her attitude, but to say that I was dismayed is an understatement.

As it turned out, my part of the job was easy in the end. Francis Wyndham, who had introduced me to Jean's work, was able to help her in many ways. Sonia Orwell was to do an enormous amount for her, and gradually the whole 'support team' expanded to include many other people who were drawn to Jean by their admiration of her work, some of whom were prepared to go to great lengths for her. None of us was unaware of how difficult she could be - and all of us were very fond of her. So my friend's question set me thinking.

If you came upon Jean unexpectedly she was always sunk in her chair, gazing into space with a deeply sad expression. Her face would light up as she turned towards you, exclaiming: 'Oh darling - there you are!' as though she had given you up (she probably had - she expected to be let down).

The once lovely girl had shrunk to a slightly distorted old woman with hands so cruelly twisted that she could hardly hold a pen, on whose body clothes sat awkwardly. The skin over her high cheekbones was still clear, her soft silvery hair was still pretty, but it was her huge, grey-blue, wide-apart eyes that showed how beautiful she had been - that made you sure there had always been an elusive, half inviting, half out-of-reach quality about her... something much more interesting than the prettiness of a Dresden doll, though 'the Dresden doll' was what she had once been called when she was a chorus girl in musical comedies.

On bad days her talk could be querulous, but usually it was charming, seemed unreserved and intimate, although the field in which she was unreserved was narrow, partly because of an old-fashioned sense of decorum and partly because there were things in her past which she wanted to wipe out. She said that she had no sense of humour, but her enjoyment of the absurd was great, and she was the only person I ever knew who'd laugh till she cried. One thing she found very funny was when a critic attempted to impose a women's movement interpretation on her books: 'Women's Lib - me!' she'd say. Although when talking more seriously she always insisted that what her critics made of a writer's work was their business, not the writer's.

About her own work she always said the same things: that what she aimed for was 'getting it right, getting it as it really was'; and that one must cut and cut and cut again. (These simple-sounding rules were, of course, not simple at all, being a convenient shorthand for a scrupulous and subtle precision and the fine art of implying more by less.)

She would also say that ending a novel based on things that had really happened, as hers all were, was difficult because a novel must have shape, and real life usually has none - the ending of Good Morning, Midnight had given her a great deal of trouble, she said, which made her rather proud of it. Two of her statements, both made more than once, seem to be contradictory: if she really did hate having been good at writing because it was so difficult, how could she sometimes feel more like a pen being used than like a person using a pen, which sounds effortless even if frightening?

She liked to pass on a tip given her by Ford Madox Ford when she was with him in Paris: when doubtful about a sentence, translate it into French - if it works in French it is good. (I never asked her if she had done this, but I suspect that it's nonsense, and that she hadn't.)

I never heard her talking about other people's writing, beyond saying that a book was good, or that she did not much like it. To tear a bad book to pieces would have been as displeasing to her as unkind gossip, which she abhorred. She used to laugh at how often she had re-read The Prisoner of Zenda because books found for her in the Exeter library by a neighbour's daughter had proved unpalatable. No doubt, she said, The Prisoner was romantic rubbish, but it must be well written or she could not have read it so often.

The most fascinating thing about Jean was how consistently she was her stubborn, beleaguered, central self. People, particularly women, are so often modified by other people such as a spouse, a child, a parent, an interesting stranger, a boring old friend, becoming a little (or sometimes a lot) different according to their company. Jean was always Jean, as a cat is always a cat: a being with an an essence too strong to be altered by anything but its own emotions, such as fear or anger. Just as one gets positive pleasure from watching a wild creature being itself, so I always got pleasure from watching Jean being Jean.

And, of course - this was by far the most important element in people's affection for Jean - the more one realised her frailties and inefficiencies, the more one marvelled at her steely strength as a writer.

It is impossible to describe briefly the burdens inflicted on her by poverty, loneliness and the strain of living with a very ill man during the many years when she struggled with her greatest novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. It is no exaggeration to say that it nearly killed her: her heart went into failure on the day she was supposed to hand the book over to me, and it was two years before she recovered enough to add the two or three little finishing touches without which she would not let us publish it. It remains a mystery how someone so ill-equipped for life, upon whom life had visited such tribulations, could force herself to hang on, whatever the battering she was taking, to the artists at the centre of herself.

She kept a diary once, when she had hit rock bottom, in which she imagined herself being cross-examined by a judge.

'I must write. If I stop writing, my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people, but it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death.

'Earned death?' Sometimes, not often, a phrase will sound in my ear clearly, as if spoken aloud by someone else. That was one phrase. You must 'earn death'. A reward? 'Yes.'

It is not really at all surprising that one was fond - that one loved - Jean Rhys.

Diana Athill

The GuardianTramp

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