Friday, December 15, 2006


The third of the three women I’ve been identifying with so much in recent years might seem the least likely.

Jean Rhys is best known for her novel THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA, written late in life as a reinterpretation of Jane Eyre, from an islander’s perspective (Rhys was born and grew up in “the Windward Islands”).

It was a big hit with the academics and literary critics, who claimed it was her “masterpiece”. I think it’s the weakest work of everything she wrote.

But her short stories (THE COLLECTED STORIES) and her earlier novels (VOYAGE IN THE DARK; QUARTET; AFTER LEAVING MR. MACKENZIE; GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT) knocked me out from the first time I read them back in the 1960s, despite what some people take as her gloomy outlook, her series of depressed, female “failures” at life and relationships and any kind of financial security.

Based on some of the realities of her own early life, the women were often from the islands, transported to London while still in their teens, dependent upon men who use them and then discard them, sometimes making an inadequate living as actresses or models or kept by “gentlemen”—all of which Rhys experienced.

But they were often survivors, as Rhys was. She found a way to turn her depressing experiences as a young woman on her own among men who usually only wanted one thing from her, and women who looked down on her, into great literature. Even if her first four novels, published in the 1920s and ‘30s, went mostly unnoticed, until THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA was published in 1966 and made her briefly famous.

One of her early mentors and lovers was the much more successful novelist Ford Madox Ford. He may have helped her get published at first, but whatever his influence, as with Gellhorn and Hemingway, or Lee Miller and Man Ray, Rhys took what she learned from Ford and transformed it into something uniquely her own. No one has the voice her work has.

Yes it is sometimes depressing that her female protagonists find themselves in such dire straits, (if you can even call them that, since they are often so incredibly passive and unable to stir themselves out of their inability to better their circumstances). But in the end, her ability to create, through words, the worlds of these un-heroines is so forcefully clear, you end up, or at least I do, completely sympathizing with them, and more importantly, understanding why they do what they do, or more often don’t do.

She too lived well into her eighties, alone, a widow for years, never as widely acclaimed as the men she’d known, like Ford and others, in early 20th Century London and Paris. But as a stylist, she has no equal in my book.

But again it’s her commitment to the truth, to getting down as honestly as she could what she knew from her own experience and doing it despite the losses, the lack of recognition for so long, the bad relationships and failed marriages and price of being an independent woman a century ago, that impresses me so.

And doing it clearly, precisely, with no frills, or as she herself put it in a letter “I didn’t want to use any stunts and haven’t…”

The older I get and the more I’ve been through, the more enamored I am with these three female creative forces. What they have that I love so much and identify so much with is a capacity to keep going, to endure, to accept the blows fate delivers, the unfairness of so much of life, the mistakes made, the bad decisions, the missed opportunities, the suffering and pain of so many more unfortunate, and their own suffering and pain, and the ability to rise above all that, to transcend it through the creative act, whether anyone notices or cares or responds or supports it or ever even acknowledges it.

You know you’ve done your best, and you go on doing that, smiling or not, aching or not, confident that you gave it your best shot and bore witness to your times and your experience and those less capable or able to express their similar experiences, their disappointments and achievements, no matter how trivial they may seem to others.

Just knowing they were there—Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, and Jean Rhys—that they did what they did, and being able to connect with them and their lives and perspectives through their work, gives me solace.

So, I wanted to publicly acknowledge that, and them. Maybe you have writers or others that have done the same for you.

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