I have a craft essay on Jean Rhys’ “Voyage in the Dark” now up at Fiction Writers Review:
“My violent objection to the notion of “unlikeable characters” began in fall 1996, in a UC Santa Barbara literature seminar. I was 20 years old and on the edge of a near-suicidal breakdown, having thrown myself for a full year at Eric, my elusive not-quite-boyfriend, while also fighting repressed childhood memories of my father’s sudden death. The professor for “Readings in the Novel” was an avuncular, brandy-voiced novelist from the Caribbean–what a lovely, safe escape from my obsessions this class would be. Then, on the second day of class, in walked Eric. Painful honesty compels me to report that I hoped this marked a fateful new chapter for us, and I adjusted the strap of my tank top to reveal more shoulder.
Fortunately, Eric was a lazy, mostly absent student. Did he show up the day we discussed Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark? I feel like he did, but back in those days I lived with an illicitly thrilling and demented sensation that Eric was always with me, so it’s hard to remember.
What I remember best is the other students’ reaction to Voyage in the Dark’s narrator, Anna Morgan, a stand-in for Jean Rhys’s younger self, and a girl who, ahem, throws herself shamelessly at her lover and longs to die, while fighting repressed childhood memories of her father’s sudden death. “She’s pathetic,” the other students said. “She’s just a victim.” “There’s nothing you can like about her. She just seems like a waste of time.”
They weren’t just talking about Anna. They were talking about me.
I burned with shame but also with a vague sense of vindication, because I knew that Rhys’s third novel, published in 1934, was not just good. It was great. Most people know Rhys for Wide Sargasso Sea, her final novel, which resurrected her reputation in 1966 after she had disappeared from the literary world for more than two decades. Wide Sargasso Sea, a “prequel” to Jane Eyre set in Rhys’ childhood West Indies, is more academia-friendly, laced with “inter-textuality” and featuring a “colonialist setting.” But Voyage in the Dark is better.”
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Hi. Hope I am not being spammy, but I tried to post this comment on your fictionwriters.com post, and it wouldn’t work, and I really appreciated your essay, so I found you here. And here it is: I was really happy to find this post–there aren’t many about Jean Rhys and even my well-read friends haven’t heard of her. As for me, I got a copy of her collected works for 99 cents at a book fair, and that’s the only reason I know about her. The book sat for my shelf on a year before I decided to delve into it, and then I couldn’t put it down. With Voyage in the Dark, though, I had the strong impression that Ethel was prostituting herself to her clients and expected Anna to do the same. And maybe because I read it like that, I had a lot of sympathy for Anna, at least from where I sit in 2013. She couldn’t even get drunk and pass out alone in her own bed without worrying about what her landlady might think of her. When I read that book, I had such a strong sense of her confinement and how limited her options were. I identified with her sulkiness and her unwillingness to compromise, but then, I am one of those unreasonable types that expects the world to conform to her–better to die on your feet than live on your knees! Anyway, I really thought Ethel was an aspiring prostitute who offered full-service massages and manicures. But, I tore through the first four novels in about two weeks, so I really ought to go back and read them with a little less appetite for “what happens next”.
@Rae: Oh, not spammy at all! Thanks so much for finding me here. I have been having a bit of tech trouble with Fiction Writers Review, too.
I completely agree, it surprises me that Jean Rhys still isn’t widely read, though her following among writers is growing, and a cultish admiration seems to be growing for “Good Morning, Midnight.” I love your point about how constricted Anna was in her choices, and I think there’s a strong feminist reading of the book in how starkly Rhys captures this–though I think the constriction of her situation is often lost on people because of Anna’s bitter attitude–which is a problem on the reader’s side, I think, not Rhys’. Generally, we want our victims unembittered and loveable to deserve our care. And I think Rhys was aware of that, and said “screw that,” and that’s what I love about her.
I have to reconsider Ethel’s role now! I wouldn’t defend my reading of that to the death. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts after your re-read.
Thanks again for writing, and here’s to the sulky non-compromisers of the world–