Discussed in this essay:
• The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, Lillian Pizzichini. W.W. Norton. $29.95, 336 pp.
“I think we do ourselves and literature a disservice which [when?] we try to untangle what we call the facts from the fiction. As if there were two parallel lines which never met.” — Jeanette Winterson
The biography of Jean Rhys which has just been published by W.W. Norton is not a biography. It is a biopic in narrative form.
This is not entirely the fault of its writer, Lillian Pizzichini; writing a biography of Jean Rhys is a tricky proposition. She led a boozy, louche life during a period of time about which it is easy to mythologize (Paris in the 1920s and ’30s) , and wrote some astonishingly good novels and short stories which, it is commonly accepted, are taken from her own lived experience. The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927), Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), Good Morning Midnight (1939)—all are narratives of her down-at-heel years in Paris, her love affairs, her disappointments, her desperation. The temptation for a biographer to sensationalize her story is great. And there are very few factual materials standing in the biographer’s way: there is a limited archival material available; she did not keep a diary, and wrote only a fragmented autobiography; her friends seem on the whole not to have kept her letters, and most of them have died now anyway; she left only eleven published manuscripts and at least five unpublished ones (these are housed at the University of Tulsa). Finally, there is the fact that Rhys herself did not wish anyone to write her biography—which further explains the lack of archival material—she may have simply destroyed it. 1 Pizzichini, who has some chops as an author of crime fiction (winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2002), might from this perspective be considered the ideal candidate to write the unwritable biography—it would certainly take a fair amount of sleuthing to pull one together.
Between the scarcity of traditional biographer’s material and the mythical allure of the subject matter, it is no surprise that few writers have dared undertake Rhys’ biography. Carole Angier did it in 1990, and although that volume has its faults, the exhaustive amount of research Angier performed—which still left her grasping and speculating to account for much of Rhys’s early years—has left scholars in general agreement that the strengths of that volume outweigh its shortcomings.
As Pizzichini points out in her Afterword, she wanted to go in a different direction from Angier, who, she says, “leaves no stone unturned”; she elected 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.” Pizzichini improvises, conjectures, assumes, and imagines herself into Rhys’s shoes. The “facts” are culled largely from Angier’s volume (as far as I can tell she did not consult the Rhys archives in Tulsa where Angier herself got more of her primary source material); a good deal is cobbled together from Rhys’s own work, resulting in a narrative that reads like a mash-up of everything Rhys ever published. Were I to cut up my copies of Angier’s biography, the Collected Novels and the Collected Stories and paste them back together, the result would not be so far off from what Norton has just brought out.
When she isn’t rewriting as biography what Rhys already wrote as fiction, Pizzichini is engaged in an ongoing pastiche of Rhys’s own inimitable style. “It was winter 1925 and Jean was back in a Paris as cold and grey as London after love has left you.” It sounds like Rhys, but—is it Rhys? The clue that it is not—or at least, if it is, it has been lifted out of context—is that moaning kind of wistfulness in the rhythm and the alliteration. Rhys herself would never have let such a sentence stand. It may have her trademark simplicity and sinew, but it is also utterly sentimental, something Rhys never was. Anytime she felt herself verging towards sentiment—which is really just a plea for pity, or an expression of self-pity—she would stop herself, go off in a different direction, or self-criticize. Pizzichini aims to channel Rhys’s blues, but what lets Rhys get away with it is her fight—her spunk, her refusal to take herself seriously. Pizzichini herself says she took a “more poetic approach” to writing this biography, but there is neither poetry nor biography here, only a weepiness and self-indulgence for which Rhys is utterly blameless, and ought not to have attributed to her.
Rhys writes, in Smile Please:
When my first love affair came to an end I wrote this poem:
I didn’t know
I didn’t know
I didn’t know
Then I settled down to be miserable.
Pizzichini fills in the wails and moans which Rhys must have emitted and omitted—and Pizzichini knows just how she must have felt, because we girls all know how it feels to lose a bloke, eh girls?—writing:
She had lost not just her saviour, Lancelot, but herself. All her certainties—that love lasted forever, that she was beloved—had fallen away. She wrote a poem to express her despair:
I didn’t know
I didn’t know
I didn’t know
The fantasy was over. Jean needed the loving kindness a mother would offer, and that she never had. She needed someone who loved her to assure her she existed; she needed unconditional love.
Rather than making herself at home with the fragments and excisions from the record—this would seem to be more in line with her project of writing a “poetic biography”—Pizzichini forces a narrative, which drags down the level of the proceedings into a weepy pity-fest. Pizzichini replicates some of Angier’s mistakes without following the good example she sets in terms of bibliography, clear writing and referencing. Angier regrettably indulged in the practice of confusing Rhys’s life with her fiction, thereby reducing the fiction to the status of roman à clef rather than imaginative creative work, 3 and Pizzichini follows suit. Where it is not possible to establish precisely what happened, or how Rhys felt, Angier, and Pizzichini even more so, rely on the fiction. This is Angier: “When she heard of her father’s death I’m sure that she cried inconsolably, as she describes in ‘Overture and Beginners Please.’ But that was the next year, in June 1910. In the summer of 1909, at her uncle’s house in Harrogate, what made her cry was disappointment and frustration.” With Angier, this is problematic, but forgivable, given the extraordinary amount of material consulted, referenced, and organized. Angier wins the reader’s trust, for better or for worse; Pizzichini does not earn this trust, only a disappointed sort of impatience.
There are no footnotes (but this has unfortunately become common practice), and the bibliography of secondary sources is only a page long, but worse, within the text there is very little attribution. The reader is told certain things without being given any clue as to where Pizzichini came up with them. “She only felt alive when she was anxious,” Pizzichini writes. Where is this coming from? Or later: “She swam in the sea’s coddling waters every morning, washing away the stains of having been touched by so many men. This is what it felt like. This is how purifying she found luxury.” Where is she getting this? Is it true? Did Rhys say this somewhere? Did Pizzichini get this from a letter, from the diaries, from on the back of a napkin? Or is she just guessing? Not providing any reliable guidance as to the source of Pizzichini’s “facts” poses two significant problems for the book: one, it makes it pretty much useless as a source for further work on Rhys, unless you’re willing to go and track down everything interesting to find in Pizzichini to find out where she cribbed it from, and two, it comes across as completely untrustworthy, even for the general reader.
Let’s look at another example. Here is what Pizzichini writes:
The villa’s current occupants, and her employers, were Mr and Mr[sic] Hudnut, owners of an American cosmetics firm. They were millionaires and their daughter was married to Rudolf Valentino. They were glamourous rather than vulgar. Their handsome English butler wore elegant livery and had the most marvelously supple bow that he delivered from the waist. Their five Pekinese dogs distributed themselves gracefully around the white sofas. Their paws were never muddy, their coats were always combed. Mrs Hudnut wore velvet gowns with drooping satin sleeves and Mr Hudnut wore purple smoking suits. Music from the casino came wafting in through the French windows every evening, carried on a wave of bougainvillea scent.
And here is how Rhys wrote it:
The very faint sound of music could be heard from the distant Casino at intervals, and on the sofa opposite Mrs Robert B. Valentine reclined, dressed in a green velvet gown with hanging sleeves lined with rosy satin. Mr Robert B. Valentine, the Boot-Lace King, sprawled in another huge arm-chair, and five Pekinese were distributed decoratively in the neighborhood of Mrs Valentine
Charles was like the arm-chairs, English. He was also, strange to say, supple, handsome, carefully polite. . . . Charles retreated with grace, carrying the tray. He looked as though he enjoyed the whole thing immensely. His good looks, his supple bow from the waist, his livery.” (“At the Villa d’Or”)
The words are exactly the same. It’s as if Pizzichini were writing not a poetic biography, but an Oulipian one.
Then there is the governing metaphor. Every time you turn around you’re hit on the head with some variation of a blue hour. Conjuring up the Guerlain perfume L’Heure Bleue makes for a lovely image 4 , and captures the rarified idea of luxe to which Rhys always aspired, but by the end of the text we’re been spritzed so many times with it we stink like the perfume counter at Macy’s. What is less forgivable is that despite her haste to use the metaphor as often as possible, lest we forget the title of the book, and despite her tendency to cram in as much of Rhys’s own writings as possible, she completely neglects to mention one of the most important mentions of a blue hour in Rhys’s oeuvre—the concluding lines of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. “The street was cool and full of grey shadows. Lights were beginning to come on in the cafes. It was the hour between dog and wolf, as they say.” Instead we get, from Pizzichini: “For the novelist Jean Rhys, the blue hour was also the hour when the lap dog she saw herself as being during the day turned into a wolf.” Clunk.
It does get better. Pizzichini hits her stride in the later chapters. Recounting Rhys’s run-ins with her neighbors, Max’s illness, her journey through old age, the writing of her masterpiece, the drinking, the bills, the help from friends and relatives, Pizzichini gets out of her own way.
The general reader may find Pizzichini guilty of no worse infraction than awkward writing (“the lap dog she saw herself as being“?). She gets Rhys’s story in and offers a way of looking at Rhys that is in line with a journalistic view of the author. But she merely synthesizes the previously available texts by Rhys and offers nothing new. What we do get, which is occasionally an interesting, if un-original, relating of events, is nevertheless extremely suspect.
Certainly, other biographers use a moment in a subject’s work to elucidate the subject’s life. Graham Robb, in his top-notch biography of Victor Hugo, does this often, taking a moment to quote from Hugo’s poetry to describe his march through the Alps as a young child, or pointing out how his absent father’s traipsing around after Napoleon fundamentally influenced Hugo’s anti-Imperial politics. This is what biography does. The difference between a biography like Robb’s and one like Pizzichini’s is threefold: first, to slip in outside references without specifying where they come from (or passing off outside references as one’s own ideas) fatally impacts the level of trust the reader will have for the biographer; second, the quote must be used skillfully, not awkwardly, to gloss a moment in the life, and three, particularly crucial in the case of Rhys, it confuses fiction and reality so that instead of elucidating the artist’s life, it further confuses the matter. In Pizzichini’s portrait, Rhys emerges as inseparable from her characters.
To be fair, this seems like a logical strategy to adopt in order to fulfill Pizzichini’s stated goal—to present Rhys’s life as it felt to live it. But then—to take Pizzichini’s theory to its fullest extent—if Rhys’s fictional writings are going to be used as primary biographical sources, if they faithfully recount what it was like to be Jean Rhys, why do we need Pizzichini’s biography at all?
Rhys was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in the British colony on the island of Dominica in 1890. Her parents had lost another baby nine months before Jean was born; Angier writes that Jean was probably “the baby they had to assuage their grief over the loss of her little sister,” which prompts her to speculate that being the child of a mourning mother may be what led Jean to feel insubstantial, as if she didn’t really exist, “like a ghost. . . . She never said that her own names, Ella and Gwen, were both the names of dead girls, her mother’s sister and her mother’s baby daughter.” Pizzichini follows suit (and worryingly close to what Angier wrote): “Nine months before her mother had lost a cherished baby—Brenda Gwenith—to dysentery, and many years before that, a beloved sister called Ella, so Ella Gwendoline was named after two dead girls. For a long time—almost the entire duration of her childhood—Jean Rhys felt as if she were the ghost of her mother’s baby.” And that is how your biography sausage is made: something that is a suggestion on Angier’s part becomes hard fact in Pizzichini’s version. 5
Her childhood on Dominica was no “cathedral space,” as Woolf called hers, but hot, sticky, damp, and plagued with cockroaches. With the exception of her great-aunt Jane, who later in life became Rhys’s “favorite thought,” the adult figures surrounding Rhys were terrifying at worst and undependable at best. Her nurse, Meta, was the terror of her life, threatening her with “tears of blood”—”you’ll weep tears of blood!”—and playing tricks on her that reduced Rhys to a terrified mess of tears of salt water. Her mother never got over the loss of the previous baby and treated Rhys with disdain or impatience. She had little faith in her father, Pizzichini writes; “She sensed there was some nameless anxiety behind his recklessness, his insistence on charity, and the cocktail hour”; this mistrust of menfolk would increase exponentially when a friend of her father’s, whom she calls Mr. Howard in Smile Please, began to “interfere” with her, as they used to say, at the age of twelve. She described the afternoons with Mr. Howard in her unpublished exercise books, but, according to Pizzichini, “she returned to this scene of seduction again and again.”
Rhys was eventually shipped off to England at the age of seventeen to live with her father’s sister Clarice. The story has been told and retold—how Rhys, accustomed to the tropical climate of Dominica, could never get used to the English cold and damp, not until the day she died. The contrast between colorful Dominica and dreary grey England could not have been sharper; Jean could not have been more exotic and different. In Dominica she was too white; in England she was too West Indian. England looked nothing like she had pictured it, and worse, one was expected to play hockey and ride bicycles. (Pizzichini’s description of Rhys learning to ride a bicycle is taken almost verbatim from Rhys’s short story, “Overture and Beginners, Please” with absolutely no reference to the short story at all). That autumn she entered the Perse School for girls, where her accent was mocked, but where she found she had a real talent for debate and the theatre, standing out as Autolycus in a production of The Winter’s Tale. Still, her lilting West Indian accent and high-pitched voice drew negative attention to her; Pizzichini reports, echoing Angier word for word, that the disapproving deputy head of the school, Miss Osborn, would frown and say: “‘Your voice. Drop it. An octave at least.’” Her success on the stage of the Perse School led her to enroll at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London in January 1909. But it was her accent that did her in again—she was asked not to return for the fall term because she was “slow to improve with her accent” which would almost certainly have a negative impact on her career in the theatre.
By August 1909 Rhys was on tour as a chorus girl in a musical comedy called Our Miss Gibbs, under the stage name Ella Grey. Pizzichini draws a picture of Rhys learning the lingo and “acting the part of the cynical chorus girl” so expertly that she began to believe the act was her true self. “It was precisely during this time that Jean lost her love of books—she threw herself into being a chorus girl; she went to parties, she gossiped and complained that she could not even read a newspaper. . . . Her imitation of the chorus girl was word perfect.”
It was years later, in Paris, when her uncanny knack for imitations, set down in writing, would draw the attention of Ford Madox Ford, then the editor of the transatlantic review. Ford helped Rhys into print (with The Left Bank, a 1927 collection of short stories) and into his bed. But from then on Rhys could impersonate and inhabit her characters, playing out on the page what had happened or could happen or could never have happened in real life; she found she had a gift for language, and her craft became her lifeline. The line dividing autobiography and fiction in Rhys’s work is not easily mapped—but this does not mean it does not exist. Rather than plotting out what happened, and what did not, we need to acknowledge the transformative power of life-writing, that domain of imagination where the real cannot be summoned up as easily as a court record, and where the imaginary comes to seem as real as anything that happened.
Autobiography Versus fiction
Where we place Rhys’s novels on the continuum between fiction and autobiography, when they hover so suspiciously in between the two, has high stakes for Rhys criticism. The way we understand Rhys’s novels may tell us something about what we expect from the genres of “fiction” and “autobiography,” which is not at all clear these days. 6 The traditional, popular view of Rhys’s characters (which is always automatically assigned to Rhys herself—you can find it in any one of the hundreds of articles which have appeared in the press about her, but in particular see the Washington Post’s obituary of May 18, 1979) is of “lonely and disconsolate women in a male-dominated world,” “powerless heroines” who are “victims of their own insufficient intellects.” The pejorative implication is that Rhys’s novels are thinly veiled episodes from her own life dressed up as Ford Madox Ford–engineered fiction. This may explain a bit why Rhys’s last editor Diana Athill begins her foreword to Jean Rhys’s autobiography, Smile Please, with the statement “Jean Rhys first began to think of writing an autobiographical book several years before her death on May 14, 1979. The idea [of writing an autobiography] did not attract her, but because she was sometimes angered and hurt by what other people wrote about her she wanted to get the facts down.”
Upon first reading, the contemporary reader is confused. Is Athill being ironic or simply coy? “Get the facts down”? Don’t we already know Rhys’s personal story through her novels? The dissonance between Athill’s apparent blind spot, as Rhys’s friend and author, and the current assumptions about Rhys’s novels indicates further investigation of this assumption may be warranted. Athill may in fact have been quite sensitive, on Rhys’s behalf, to accusations of the fiction being veiled autobiography, and perhaps was attempting to draw a firm line between the novels and the autobiography.
It has become a critical truism that each of the Paris novels fictionalizes a stage in Rhys’s own experience: Quartet her marriage to Jean Lenglet and affair with Ford Madox Ford; Voyage in the Dark her early career with a provincial travelling theatre company as well as her journey to and disappointment in England; After Leaving Mister Mackenzie the fallout and immediate consequences of Rhys’s affair with Ford; Good Morning Midnight her later years in Paris. No one would refuse to acknowledge their autobiographical basis, even Athill; Rhys wrote down everything that happened to her in order to make sense of it, and from these diaries her novels were born. But she did not—as Athill points out—write down the “facts” in her novels; inspired by real events, she fabulated her novels. The “facts”—which Rhys so ardently cleaved to, and which she felt all her life people were getting wrong about her—are reserved for the autobiography, Smile Please.
Athill writes in her introduction to the Collected Novels, “In a novel the smallest touch of autobiographical special pleading, whether it takes the form of self-pity or exhibitionism, will destroy the reader’s confidence. To avoid such touches the writer must be able to stand back from the experience far enough to see the whole of it and must concentrate with a self-purging intensity on the process of reproducing it in words.” But that Athill feels she has to say this at all amounts to a kind of special pleading on Rhys’s behalf, an entreaty not to read the fiction as disguised autobiography, and a suggestion that to do so would be to do a disservice to Rhys’s artistry as a writer.
The attempt to segregate Rhys’s experience from the writer’s text is a misguided attempt to protect the writer from more of the pejorative treatment she has suffered for years. We must treat Rhys’s texts as a hybrid species of autobiography and fiction, for they have none of the earnest commitment to transmit one’s experience —which Philippe Lejeune calls the “autobiographical pact” of traditional autobiography. 7 The autobiographical narrative often involves “the desire to create a portrait of growth and maturation,” which “informs, indeed often incites, life writing” (Claire Marrone, Female Journeys: Autobiographical Expressions by French and Italian Women) and cannot be claimed to be wholly invented. Autobiography is highly selective, restricted on one hand to what the subject remembers and how she remembers it. Or, if composed based on contemporary diary entries, there is the problem of the subject’s limited knowledge about the situations in which she found herself. A diary entry, a memoir, an autobiography—each of these texts takes what “actually happened” and transforms it into narrative. The biographer must compare the subject’s narratives against other sources (that do not necessarily come from the subject) in order to establish some idea of what happened. Rhys’s novels are problematic—but deliciously so: in their very incapacity to hew to one genre or another, they are all the more subversive.
Rhys Makes Genre Trouble. 8
Annette Gilson argues that that “the autobiographical components of Rhys’s fiction must be understood in terms of genre as well as psychology and biography since all of these concerns are fused for Rhys the fiction writer. Recent theorists of autobiography discuss the ways in which fiction interpenetrates texts that claim to represent the truth about the ‘I’; as a result, there is growing interest in hybrid genres such as the autobiographical fiction that Rhys writes, generally termed ‘autography.’” Rhys’s heroines, every single one, from the stories to the fiction, do not fit into society, and indeed make the rest of the world uncomfortable—although they don’t know how or why. Why should her novels fit any more neatly into a generic category?
Angier acknowledges the fine line that exists in Rhys’s oeuvre between autobiography and fiction inspired by real life events.
Jean began to write about her childhood in Dominica. Some of these memories she used in Voyage in the Dark, some in Wide Sargasso Sea, some in short stories like “Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers” and “Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose.” At the very end of her life she got out her autobiographical writings, and set herself to remember more; and wrote her autobiography, Smile Please. . . . She was a writer of fiction, and chose carefully what to tell of her later life: can we trust her at all about her childhood?
Not completely, of course. She left out a great deal, both happy and unhappy. But this is what she always did, in Smile Please as in her fiction, and in her conversation too: she cut out, she kept silent. Unless it was absolutely necessary she didn’t lie.
But did she not consciously distort? Did she not see the child in the shadow of the woman, and always look for explanations, even justifications, of what she’d become? Yes, she did. But it went the other way too; it went the other way more. For what became of her, as for what became of Antoinette—of all the heroines—only something deep in her childhood could account (“the girl must have had some tragedy in her life which she cannot forget,” she wrote of Antoinette. “As a child. I have got that.”). It was, rather, the child who threw her shadow forward. Jean always remained a child, and the reason must have gone back to the beginning.
The fact that Angier goes on at such length about this issue indicates how problematic she found it as a biographer. She concentrates here on the possibility of Rhys’s evoking a certain image of her childhood to fit with the woman she became, suggesting at the enormous amount of creative work which is involved in transforming one’s lived experience into fiction. 9
What Rhys herself has said on the matter seems inconsistent. When Mary Cantwell asked her, “And has most of what you wrote about happened to you?” she replied “It’s hard to explain how, when and where a fact becomes a book. I start to write about something that has happened or is happening to me, but somehow or other things start changing. It’s as if the book had taken possession. Sometimes a character will run away from me, like Grace Poole, the nurse in Wide Sargasso Sea, and get more important than I intended. It happened beyond my will. But the feelings . . . the feelings are always mine.” To David Plante, who took down her autobiography for her, and then painted a cruel and catty portrait of the elderly Rhys in his book Difficult Women, Rhys said: “I can’t make things up, I can’t invent. I have no imagination. I can’t invent character. I don’t think I know what character is. I just write about what happened. Not that my books are entirely my life—but almost.” It is statements like this that hold the key to what I understand to be the biggest interpretive problem Rhys’s work has faced: what she has said, and what she has written, has been taken at face value to be more or less “true” and sometimes “false” and if both at once than she has been called “inconsistent” and “eccentric.” It is in this way that both Rhys’s detractors and her admirers have dealt with the problems of her “truthiness.”
Because Rhys’s novels so closely transcribe her own experiences, and because the same anxiety manifests itself across each novel—produced by fears of running out of money, of being left by a man, of being taken advantage of, of growing older and of diminishing female beauty—it is tempting to identify this as an anxiety proper to the author herself. It is fair to see the Rhys heroines as stand-ins for the author herself at various moments during her life. But obviously it is not because an author’s hero or heroine shares much in common with the author that we are obliged to consider them to be one and the same person. Robert C. Elliott argues the figure of the persona helps critics “clarify the relationship between the writer—the historical person—and the characters the writer creates. . . . The situation becomes even more difficult when the writer uses the first person singular pronoun, when he writes ‘I.’” For example, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories; Marcel Proust’s simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the autobiographical nature of the Recherche; Flaubert’s declaration “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” “The history of confusions arising from these rhetorical situations,” Elliott assures us, “is vast.”
Jeanette Winterson has refused, in speaking of her highly autobiographical first novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, to indulge in any sort of gossiping about what happened in real life and what didn’t. (And Winterson named her protagonist “Jeanette!” Imagine what an uphill battle this argument would be if Rhys had named any of her heroines “Jean!”) During a 2008 literary festival at the Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, Winterson lectured on truth-telling in fiction. It is impossible to tease out fact from fiction, Winterson says, because, in writing a narrative, the two grow together. Ford Madox Ford may have provided inspiration for Heidler, but in writing Heidler Ford is transformed. Ford is no longer recognizable as Ford. ” The character is called Jeannette. Is it me, or is it not me?”
Of course it’s partly me, but it’s very much not me. The thing we have to look at when we’re looking at fiction and biography are the necessary re-tellings, in order to arrive at a truth which is closer to something, which is no longer approximate. . . .
[I]n a world like ours where we’re obsessed with reality television, and real-life dramas and celebrity stories, . . . it often seems as though fiction, even to compete, must somehow be a way of a heightened biography, or a disguised biography, that fiction itself as an imaginative experience cannot exist. I think this is a pity. I think what any writer is doing is trying for a moment to get into the life of the thing as it really is, into the heart of the thing, into the core of the thing, and leave all of us with a truth that doesn’t tarnish so easily, which doesn’t come apart in your hands, which isn’t approximate. I’m not talking about something… that’s set in stone, but rather something that is a touchstone, a place where you can go, a talisman that you can hold onto in your own life when things are difficult, I think fiction has a way of making that happen, and it allows it to happen because it operates in this created space between a world which is entirely real and a world which is imagined. . . .
It is that moment between the inner life and the outer life which allows us a sense of balance.
Still, even now, as reviews of The Blue Hour hit the press, the same old conventions about the way we read Rhys are repeated. “These pre-war novels are almost entirely autobiographical,” writes Laura Thompson in The Telegraph. But that’s just it. We have no way of knowing what is autobiographical and what isn’t. And it ought to be the biographer’s task to differentiate—to set the record straight, or at the very least, to reflect an up to date view of her subject.
No one contests that Rhys transformed her real-life experiences into fiction. However, to assert this about Rhys without a fuller discussion of how she did so is to greatly underestimate her talents as a writer of fiction, and to invite all manner of allegations against Rhys as a person—which makes for great newspaper copy, but sloppy criticism.
A New Kind of Biography
So it is far from scholarly and far from accurate, but perhaps that is not the point. In that case, Norton has done Pizzichini a disservice by labeling her work biography. To call it biography is to set a certain standard of accuracy and diligence (even if much of what is published under that heading fails to meet these requirements). It is more a hagiography of the patron saint of victimized women.
In spite of all of its faults, it is commendable that Pizzichini reaches toward some other form of life-writing; as Virginia Woolf said in her essay on Boswell, “Since a life has to begin with birth and to continue through the years these facts must be introduced in order. But do they have anything to do with him [the subject of the biography]? That is where doubt begins; the pen trembles; the biography swells into the familiar fungoid growth. . . . Facts have their importance.—But that is where the biography comes to grief. The biographer cannot extract the atom. He gives us the husk. Therefore as things are, the best method would be to separate the two kinds of truth. Let the biographer print fully completely, accurately, the known facts without comment; Then let him write the life as fiction.” A biography like Hermione Lee’s offers new ways of reading Woolf. Pizzichini’s, on the other hand, is a cloying wallow in the most sensational aspects of Rhys’s life.
Woolf herself, Lee writes, “spent most of her life saying that the idea of biography is—to use a word she liked—poppycock. In her essays and diaries and fiction, in her reading of history, in her feminism, in her politics, “life-writing”, as she herself called it, was a perpetual preoccupation.” Can the biographer get at some kind of truth by other non-scholarly means? It may be possible, but if so, serious writer’s chops are needed to get there, which Pizzichini, for all her empathy, doesn’t have. Also, it takes a certain knowingness, an instinct. As Lee writes in her biography of Woolf, “There is no such thing as an objective biography. . . . Positions have been taken, myths have been made.” The biographer is always coming from some relationship to the writer, and has to—just as Athill says was necessary for Rhys in her own life-writing—pull back and be sure the writing is free of pity or exhibitionism. The problem with Pizzichini’s biography is not strictly methodological, nor is it stylistic. It’s that by allowing herself these faux-lyrical self-indulgences, she ends up painting a portrait of Rhys as this two-dimensional depressed figure, unchanging, compressed, flat, weepy.
Rhys makes some present-day feminists uncomfortable. Because she “turned to men to prop her up and pay for her,” hers is “the kind of narrative we don’t really want to read in a post-feminist age,” wrote Lesley McDowell in the Independent. Pizzichini seems to anticipate the judgment her readers might bring to bear against Rhys, without acknowledging that it is she herself who is providing the dubious version of Rhys as victim. “It is easy to forget that Jean could be good company. Leslie does not seem to have ever forgotten that.” She wants the reader to like Rhys as much as she does, to see her as she sees her, instead of acknowledging that Rhys was a complex woman and will be seen in different ways by different people. And that’s okay.
The Blue Hour has received positive feedback from several people who were close to Rhys, which lends it an almost inarguable validity: Francis Wyndham (Rhys’s literary executor), Diana Melly, and David Plante. But we have already discussed the dubiousness of Plante’s relationship to Rhys; Wyndham, for his part, is the one who said in 1950 that Rhys’s heroines “could be said to be similar women in different circumstances,” and Diana Melly effused “this engrossing account of Jean Rhys’s painful life is as near as we are likely to get to how Jean saw it herself.” Given that Pizzichini’s narrative is cobbled together through Rhys’s writings, this praise rings at worst off-key and at best tautological. Pizzichini does a gross disservice to Rhys’s reputation, and her contribution poses a real threat to the scholarship that exists on Rhys, in which critics have taken great pains to theorize the role of Rhys’s lived experience in Rhys’s fiction. I fear a general public will be attracted to Pizzichini’s volume and that the myth of Rhys as weak clinging vine will be perpetuated as a result. Rhys would have hated that.
“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf asked Vita Sackville-West in a 1938 letter. Not like this.
Lauren Elkin is a writer, literary critic, and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. She writes about books and French culture on her blog, Maîtresse, and lives in Paris.
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