Tuesday 24 February 2015

After Ford Madox Ford, Jean Rhys, Quartet, which is about the ménage she shared in Paris with F. M. F. and Stella Bowen. After you read Quartet, F.M.F. is no longer the narrator in The Good Soldier, he is the gentleman philanderer, Edward Ashburnham, who maybe doesn't love women at all, and Stella Bowen is his wife, the clean-run Leonora, who sets him up.

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in Dominica, came to England aged nearly seventeen. England was never England as she'd imagined, it was just another set of lies. No wonder she decided to study drama, where at least lies were de quoi vivre, even a métier. As Ella or sometimes Emma, or Petronella, she was cast adrift, often ill, always poor, easily led, either beholden or in despair.

Among the characters of The Good Soldier she would fall somewhere between Maisie Maidan on the boat back from India, and Nancy the convent girl who by the end of the novel is mad, with touches of the Russian Grand Duke's concubine and an uncertain taste in hats. In Wide Sargasso Sea, her prequel to Jane Eyre, she conflated all of them in Antoinette/Bertha/the first Mrs Rochester, madwoman in the attic: her story.

Ford Madox Ford named her Jean Rhys (he changed his own name, changing hers was part of his predatory move). He opened doors for her, made her a writer. Other doors he closed. He gave her shelter but he ate her alive. There's a fine line between people doing things for you and people controlling you while their wives or procuresses listen outside doors and sneer.

Jean Rhys must have read The Good Soldier or the Saddest Story Ever Told. Did the upright Englishness of Edward Ashburnham fool her for a while? Wouldn't she have been warned? Did she suspect the affectless American narrator? Was she seduced by the conversational intimacies, the wave upon wave of language, The Good Soldier as Venus flytrap, consuming the susceptible? Or did she just feel completely inadequate?

Jean Rhys's main characters are all women alone, looking for safety in bars and hotels, uncertainly dressed, pulled this way, pushed that, drawn to the ideal of the English gentleman, the physical type anyway, of the successful pretender, like Ford Madox Ford, with his clean-run, scornful wife Leonora, or Stella.

Jean Rhys is not a pretty writer. The reader must scuttle and wilt and watch, full of pity, confusion or revulsion at the seediness of it all. This is not a gathering of uncertain hearts at a German spa, it's the transit lounge of 1920s Paris, where there are no good soldiers, only international vagrants, petty thieves and gigolos.

Jean Rhys's novels are The Saddest Story. Ford Madox Ford knew nothing of sadness.

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