HEROES & VILLAINS The writer Lucretia Stewart on her doom-laden heroine, the Dominican-born bohemian and novelist Jean Rhys
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
I heard of Jean Rhys for the first time in the early Seventies, when I was 20 and at Edinburgh University, where I shared an apartment opposite the Royal Infirmary with a woman called Lindsay who wrote short stories and poems and had a baby, a boy called Gabriel, and no husband or live-in boyfriend. I had an American boyfriend who belonged to a theatre group which had been formed in San Quentin prison, and the four of us lived together.

There was no central heating in the big, gloomy flat but there was an endless procession of visitors: actors, musicians, poets, aspirant novelists, deadbeats. I thought that I wanted to act and actually ended up playing Nell in Beckett's Endgame because the actress who had been playing the part got pregnant and became too fat to get into the barrel. Endgame was part of the group's repertoire, what they termed "the San Quentin Beckett cycle". Beckett was thought to have a particular appeal for prisoners.

When I think of Jean Rhys, the memories of that time come flooding back: Lindsay and I in that terribly cold flat, trying to lead glamorous lives. In the mornings we would sit in the kitchen in our dressing gowns, drinking coffee and discussing men and the trouble they brought.

Lindsay was very keen on Jean Rhys; she saw herself, in some ways, as a Rhys character - abandoned by the father of her child, eking out a bohemian existence, alone against the world - though she was more of a survivor and had a more robust sense of humour than any of Rhys's tragic heroines. She wanted to have carved on her tombstone the words: "She never had a future but, Lordy, what a past!"

Jean Rhys is an unlikely heroine. She is too sad. A Daily Telegraph review of her first novel, Quartet, said: "She is supremely the voice of the lonely woman crying out in pain," and, in an interview in 1974, she said that if she had to choose, she would rather be happy than write: "When I was excited about life, I didn't want to write at all and when I was happy, I had no wish to write. I've never written about being happy. Never. Besides I don't think you can describe being happy. I've never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anybody has?"

It is her painful awareness of life's difficulties that I find so moving and the fact that her problems - and those of her heroines - seemed to have much the same causes as mine: men, money and drink. At my worst, I feel a gloomy, almost fatalistic, sense of identification with her. When everything is going badly, it is a world created by Rhys that I inhabit. But it is a measure of the force of her writing that despite her slender output - just five novels and three collections of short stories - she manages to create a world with which one feels utterly, if miserably, familiar.

When I first went to the Caribbean I re-read Wide Sargasso Sea, her haunting evocation of the early life of the first Mrs Rochester. I wanted to see the island which had inspired that novel and from which Rhys had come (she was born in Dominica in 1894). Its spirit lingers in all her work. In Voyage in the Dark, the heroine describes an island "all crumpled into hills and mountains as you would crumple a piece of paper in your hand - rounded green hills and mountains and sharply cut mountains."

The house where Rhys was born in now Vena's Guesthouse, a rundown establishment attached to a restaurant called The World of Food; it was disappointing - shabby and cramped. And the Dominican landscape, for all its lushness, seemed bleak and forbidding. Places had doom-laden names: Massacre, the Boiling Lake, the Valley of Desolation, Morne au Diables, Morne Diablotin, Point des Fous. It rained all the time. When it rained, the ground would hiss and steam, making a noise like a wet saucepan on a hot stove. In the morning, sometimes, it came clear for a bit, then the rain would start again, the whole sky clouding over so you could no longer see the end of the island.

It was there that my view of Rhys crystallised into an enduring admiration both for her as a writer - there is not one wasted word - and for her courage. If she really found life as grim as she seems to have done, it is amazing that she could bear to get out of bed in the morning. It also went a long way to explaining why the 16-year-old Rhys had wanted to come to England, and also why she never could settle. Everywhere in the Caribbean I met people who had left, often for years, but had come back.

The combination of languor and beauty, the intensity of colour and smell and light, that are so characteristic of the Caribbean, had left an indelible imprint on Rhys. The fact that she didn't or couldn't go back (she returned to Dominica only once in 1936) was, I'm sure, a source of constant sadness to her.

As my heroine, she inspires resilience rather than self-pity (she died in England in 1979, aged 84 - for an unhappy life, it was a long one). When I get particularly depressed, I cheer myself up by recalling a conversation with an American woman friend. I had said, sobbing into my red wine: "None of my relationships ever work out."

"Oh," she answered brightly, "they do for a while."

Some such thought probably kept Jean Rhys going.