headbutler.com – Jean Rhys
READER REPORT: “Wearing sandals, I stepped in a fire ants nest this evening while walking the dog. Beastly stinging and itching and annoyance at the world and everyone in it. Got the bright idea to slather on Egyptian Magic. Amazing.”
Harper Lee, Harper Lee: Doesn’t it seem like a year ago that Harper Lee’s publisher unleashed “Go Set a Watchman” and a million people bought it? Now that’s over and we can consider a truly great book written by a woman. Strike those last three words. Strike that entire literary ghetto. Consider a great book. Period.
The favorite writer of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is rumored to have been Jean Rhys (1890-1979). If so, that says a lot, for the main character in a novel by Rhys tends to be a woman in her 30s who is losing her ability to attract men. She drinks. She lives in a cheap hotel. She has no expectations that things will get better for her — indeed, she almost wills life to get worse.
Jean Rhys was a first-tier writer who deserves to be widely known, and I can easily understand why — on literary grounds alone — Mrs. Onassis would elevate her to her personal pantheon. I can also understand why Mrs. Onassis might identify with a Jean Rhys character: Mrs. Onassis was notoriously tight. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet she had an irrational fear that she had to hold on to every dollar lest she end up poor and alone — a bag lady. She wouldn’t be the first to feel this way; any number of rich people I know seem to tell themselves daily, “This could all go away.” [To buy the paperback of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ from Amazon, click here.]
For Julia Martin — the main character in ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ (1930), probably the finest of the novels by Rhys — it has all gone away. It’s the late 1920s, and Julia’s in Paris, where her nightly companion is a bottle rather than a man. Outside, there’s an endless party, but she stays in her gloomy room all day, reading. And musing:
She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen.