Jean Rhys: Voyages in the Dark
The writer Jean Rhys is best known for Wide Sargasso Sea, her haunting prequel to Jane Eyre, yet her own life would have made for an equally compelling novel.
Miranda Seymour, author of the definitive Jean Rhys biography I Used to Live Here Once, joins the Slightly Foxed team to follow Rhys’s often rackety life and shine light on her writing. Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams on the island of Dominica, she dreamed of being an actress. And she did play many roles over the years: raconteur, recluse, wife (three times), grieving mother, enthusiastic drinker . . . But her most important role was that of a writer.
We begin in the Caribbean with Smile Please, Rhys’s unfinished autobiography of her early years, where we meet a white creole girl who feels like an outsider. This feeling lingers, whether she is living in squalid London, on Paris’s Left Bank or in rural Devon. The women in her novels feel it too: Anna adrift in London in Voyage in the Dark, Julia leaving Paris in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Antoinette bound for Mr Rochester’s attic in Wide Sargasso Sea. The voice of Sacha rings out in a BBC radio play of Good Morning, Midnight many years after its publication, bringing Rhys into the spotlight. Embezzlement, incarcerations, fisticuffs in the street and an unsuccessful menage à trois all trouble her at times, yet she wins over many supporters along the way, among them the writer Ford Madox Ford, the editors Francis Wyndham and Diana Athill, and her loyal friend Sonia Orwell.
Then we’re back in Paris, browsing the shelves of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, and selecting some New Year reading recommendations – post-apocalyptic science fiction by John Christopher, travels Along the Enchanted Way in Romania, and the artistic life of Alison vividly told in words and pictures by Lizzy Stewart.
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– Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (0:14)
– Miranda Seymour, I Used to Live Here Once (0:36)
– Jean Rhys, Smile Please (2:48)
– Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (8:10)
– Jean Rhys, The Collected Short Stories, which includes the stories mentioned in this episode: ‘Let Them Call it Jazz’; ‘Vienne’; ‘Till September Petronella’; ‘I Spy a Stranger’ and many more besides (9:31)
– Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark (12:00)
– Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (13:47)
– Jean Rhys, Quartet (22:05)
– Ford Madox Ford, When the Wicked Man is out of print (22:12)
– Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight (34:34)
– Jean Rhys, ‘I Spy a Stranger’ can be found in The Collected Short Stories (46:04)
– John Christopher, The Death of Grass (53:17)
– William Blacker, Along the Enchanted Way (55:00)
– Lizzy Stewart, Alison (57:55)
Related Slightly Foxed Articles
– Voyage in the Dark, Patricia Cleveland-Peck on the novels of Jean Rhys, Issue 4
– Not-so-gay Paree, Rowena Macdonald on Jean Rhys, Quartet and Voyage in the Dark, Issue 51
– Episode 38 of the Slightly Foxed podcast: Literary Drinking (29:40)
– Episode 42 of the Slightly Foxed podcast: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (55:25)
- 1 December 2004
Voyage in the DarkGood Morning, Midnight is in fact the fourth in a series of novels that draw largely on Jean Rhys’s own life. Sasha Jansen is a lonely, ageing alcoholic who, at the instigation of a worried friend, goes to spend a recuperative fortnight in Paris, where she had lived during her brief marriage. Now she wanders the streets, ‘remembering this, remembering that’. She has been so damaged by men that when happiness is within her grasp she is unable to prevent herself seeking revenge with a futile gesture of self-destruction.
- 1 September 2016
Not-so-gay PareeI first read Jean Rhys in my mid-teens; a copy of Quartet from my parents’ bookshelf, which drew me with its undemanding slimness and its cover featuring the beautiful face of Isabelle Adjani in soft focus above a chessboard with the heads of Maggie Smith and Alan Bates floating around her. (The three starred in the Merchant Ivory film of the book, which I have never seen.) From the back cover I learned it was set amid ‘the winter-wet streets of Montparnasse, Pernods in smoke-filled cafés [and] . . . cheap hotel rooms with mauve-flowered wallpaper’. Chic Parisian misery: just what teenage girls love.
- 15 December 2021
Episode 38: Literary Drinking: Alcohol in the Lives and Work of WritersBooze as muse or a sure road to ruin? In this month’s episode, William Palmer – author of In Love with Hell: Drink in the Lives and Work of Eleven Writers – and Henry Jeffreys – author of Empire of Booze and The Cocktail Dictionary – join the Slightly Foxed team to mull over why alcohol is such an enduring feature in literature. From the omnipresence of cocktails in John Cheever’s short stories and ritual aperitifs in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels to Mr Picksniff falling into Mrs Todger’s fireplace in Martin Chuzzlewit and P. G. Wodehouse’s hangover remedies for booze-soaked Bertie Wooster, drinks are social signifiers in fiction. Charles Dickens was fond of sherry cobblers and Jean Rhys knocked back Pernod in Paris, while Malcolm Lowry was a dipsomaniac and Flann O’Brien dreamed up alcoholic ink for the Irish Times, rendering readers drunk from fumes. We ask why gin denotes despair and port is always jovial, and question whether hitting the bottle helps or hinders the creative process in writers.
- 15 July 2022
Episode 42: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An AdventureArtemis Cooper, Paddy’s biographer, and Nick Hunt, author of Walking the Woods and the Water, join the Slightly Foxed team to explore the life and literary work of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Equipped with a gift for languages, a love of Byron and a rucksack full of notebooks, in December 1933 Paddy set off on foot to follow the course of the Rhine and the Danube. Years later he recorded much of the journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. In these books Baroque architecture and noble bloodlines abound, but adventure is at the heart of his writing. There was to have been a third volume, but for years Paddy struggled with it. Only after his death were Artemis and Colin Thubron able to see The Broken Road into print.
– Shakespeare and Company, Paris (48:45)
Opening music: Preludio from Violin Partita No.3 in E Major by Bach
The Slightly Foxed Podcast is hosted by Philippa Lamb and produced by Podcastable
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