What Jean Rhys Taught Me About Loneliness

by Liska Jacobs


My father told me during my rebellious teenage years, “Just please go to college.” After a few scrapes with boys and drugs and sex, I did. I went to UCLA and studied English, where I was introduced to Jean Rhys, the Caribbean-British writer whose turbulent life was filled with lovers and failed marriages, alcoholism and poverty, trips across the continent and even a stint at Holloway Prison.

As a junior I read Good Morning Midnight, a 1938 novel in which an aging beauty named Sasha wanders Paris after an attempted suicide in a London hotel room. In one scene, she daydreams:

Perhaps one day I’ll live again around the corner in a room as empty as this. Nothing in it but a bed and a looking-glass. Getting the stove lit at about two in the afternoon — the cold and the stove fighting each other. Lying near the stove in complete peace, having some bread with pate spread on it, and then having a drink and lying all the afternoon in that empty room — nothing in it but the bed, the stove and the looking-glass and outside Paris. And the dreams that you have, alone in the empty room, waiting for the door that will open, the thing that is bound to happen…

This was some of the loveliest prose I’d ever read. The repetition creates a mood of content; this “empty room” is something desirable, then it changes midway through — the bed and looking-glass are poor company — and she is alone, waiting for what is bound to happen, and we are with her, waiting for that thing just outside, which has been waiting to come in. It comes down to “the dreams you have.” Your misery is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After graduation I worked at the Getty Research Institute, retrieving and returning special collection materials. Non-profits are the devil to work for: they offer themselves up as places of good intentions, but are really giant bureaucracies with a pedigree. The Getty is all buy this, purchase that, build, build, own, own. It’s perched high on a hillside commanding everyone on the 405 to look.

Rhys writes in Good Morning Midnight, “There are some fish in the pool of the Medicis fountain. Three are red and one gold. The four fish look so forlorn that I wonder whether they are just starting them, or whether they have had the lot, and they have died off. I stand for a long time, watching the fish. And several people who pass stop and also watch them. We stand in a row, watching the fish”.

That was how working at the Getty was — we were the fish. I quit after five years. It’s been nearly seven since I first read Rhys. During this time there have been two Olympics, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and Detroit, the Haiti earthquake, the Japanese tsunami; there was the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, Arab Spring, the Boston Marathon bombings — and Osama Bin Laden, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston died.

But none of these things touched me. I don’t mean they didn’t show up on my newsfeed or that I skipped the articles, but rather that I felt like I was watching from the beach as waves hit the shore. Since college I’ve been in this strange purgatory and almost everyone I know is there with me, overeducated and underemployed. When I was at the Getty we hired masters students as interns, and those without three years library experience did not get past human resources. At the bookstore the manager has a masters in nineteenth-century literature, the cashier has a degree in film, the girl who answers the phone — younger than us all — studied cultural anthropology and got her masters from the University of Edinburgh. “The passages will never lead anywhere, the doors will always be shut,” Sasha says about her job prospects.

Much of Rhys’s work is influenced by her life, which was often an exercise in ruthless self-exploration. In Good Morning Midnight, Sasha’s Paris holds both unpleasant and wonderful memories, and wandering the city forces her to confront them all. “My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.” This is my life, Sasha is saying. It’s this or that, a future that can be trusted or a future that cannot. But it is the distrust of the future that resonates. We do not trust our future either.

In the 1960s Rhys was thought to be dead. An advertisement placed in the New Standard on behalf of an actress broadcasting a radio adaption of Good Morning Midnight read: “Would Jean Rhys or anyone who knows her whereabouts please get in touch with Sasha Moorsom, Features Department, BBC, in connection with future Thirds Programme broadcast of Good Morning Midnight.” Rhys responded. Turned out she was living, as the town drunk, in suburban Beckenham, England. She was soon signed by a sympathetic publisher and in 1966 put out her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, the invented biography of mad wife Bertha from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

But it is Sleep It Off Lady, her last collection of short stories, that I love most. Rhys was nearly eighty when the book was published (in 1976), and the collection finds her facing her age. Miss Verney, the title story’s protagonist, is elderly; she is the town drunk and a recluse. Rhys writes, “Then feeling too tired to eat, she would beat up an egg in cold milk, add a good deal of whisky and sip slowly. ‘I don’t need a lot of food now.’ But her work in the house grew slower and slower, her daily walks shorter and shorter. Finally the walks stopped. ‘Why should I bother?’ As she never answered letters, letters ceased to arrive, and when Tom knocked at the door one day to ask how she was: ‘Oh I’m quite all right,’ she said and smiled.”

Miss Verney dies taking the dustbin out. She sees a rat and falls and no one comes to help. She dies alone and the doctor declares it was “a very widespread heart condition.”

Widespread indeed. Rhys’s fear of turning into the crazy old hag who dies alone — or worse, someone who has grown dependent, a nuisance — is prevalent not just in this late story but also earlier on, in Good Morning Midnight. There Sasha sees a mad old woman trying on hats: “Hat after hat she puts on, makes that face at herself in the glass and throws it off again. Watching her, am I watching myself as I shall become? In five years’ time, in six years’ time, shall I be like that?” Rhys is aware of how society reacts to this mad woman, how alone she is, useless and a subject of ridicule. She is confronting her fear through her protagonist. “Am I watching myself?” Sasha asks.

I have a work friend who goes to see her mother a lot. This mother lives somewhere in Illinois and refuses to get on a plane. She is only 55, but already she doesn’t like to go outside. My friend saves her vacation time to fly home. Her mother is scared of everything: she is afraid of the bus driver and will not ride public transit, she fears the mailman, her second ex-husband, her first husband’s ghost, the dentist, and especially the mall. My friend took two weeks off last Christmas to help her mother move into an apartment. She came back thinner and nervous about everything. Her mother had sold her car and refused to drive. When my friend asked how she planned to get to the grocery store, to work, to the doctors. Her mother replied, hesitant: “I don’t know.”

I found my friend crying in the photocopy room at work. Her school loans are mounting, she’s still finishing her Ph.D, and she’s scared — really terrified — that what is happening to her mother will happen to her.

And then there’s my sister, who married young and worked full time approving loans for a bank while finishing her undergraduate degree in business. She looks at life as a trajectory. Sometimes when we’re together I think I can see her actually visualizing: this year the degree, next year the house. A baby in between. But a baby hasn’t come, and after tests there may not ever be a baby. She and her husband bought a three-bedroom house and she remodeled the kitchen, doing most the work herself. Within a couple of weeks she had assembled a desk for the office, reupholstered an inherited grand piano for the living room, dug out a tree in the backyard, planted an herb garden (she trellised green beans, for God’s sake) and cut a doggy door in the side wall. Still she called me crying, slumped in the middle of the empty third bedroom, “What do I do with it?” she asks. My sister sees a timeline attached to “motherhood,” a baby girl and dresses and ribbons, prom and mother-of-the-bride.

Rhys had a handful of imagined timelines too — all of them with a certain promise. She was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, one of five children, named after two sisters who died before her birth. She felt at home neither with the white community nor the black. At sixteen she was shipped to England to attend the Perse School for Girls. After her father died she dropped out and worked as a chorus girl under the names Vivienne, Emma, Jean, or Ella Gray. She took up a string of lovers; one was Ford Madox Ford, who gave her the name “Rhys.” “It’s more modern sounding,” he told her. She published Voyage in the Dark in 1934, which followed a girl from the West Indies through the ordeals of the chorus. It’s a slim novel, one about the prospects of life — the imagined trajectory — and, as the title suggests, the inability of the protagonist to foretell how the voyage will progress.

The book was a success, due in part to her affair with Ford, her editor and also her champion. After this affair ended Rhys fell into a relative obscurity. She was always the first to admit she was useless without a man. She married three times, and had lovers throughout her life. To her, passion was dependence: her characters are bound to their passion and hence their doom.

In one of her most haunting novels, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, a character named Julia is down on her luck and starting to show her age. In one scene, the well-to-do George Horsfield comes up to her room:

He leaned forward and stared at her, and she looked back at him in a heavy, bewildered, sleepy way. ‘She asked me up here, ‘ he thought. ‘She asked me.’ When he kissed her, her body was soft and unresisting. There was a subdued rumble of trains in the distance. He thought again: The Great Western.’ You are thirsty, dried up with thirst, and yet you don’t know it until somebody holds up water to your mouth and says: ‘You’re thirsty, drink.’ It’s like that. You are thirsty, and you drink. And then you wonder all sorts of things, discontentedly and disconnectedly. ‘But the worst of it is,’ he thought,’ that one can never know what the woman is really feeling.

Passion is like thirst — you are dried up with it — yet it’s impersonal. He leans, he kisses, thinks of trains. Her job is to be unresisting. Rhys tells us his thoughts, but then moves to second person, conflating the characters neatly. Everyone is thirsty, disconnected. Pleasure is sustenance the human body needs.

A girlfriend of mine has been in a long term relationship for several years, terrified that either he will leave or (perhaps worse) she’ll be stuck with him forever. She wants it both ways. So she treats him badly, cheating first with a football player and more recently with a lacrosse coach. “He fucks me so hard,” she tells me on the phone. “I let him come on my face.” I’m trying to remember how she said this to me: there was excitement, apprehension, defiance, anticipation of judgment.

Rhys understood that all these things compete. After her father died in 1910, she became part of the pleasure-seeking demimonde. She fell in love with a married wealthy banker who made her his mistress and supported her until the relationship ended two years later. It is the half world where Rhys existed, where many women still do: a life full of competing desires, where the greatest fear is always loneliness. I don’t mean that Rhys minded being alone — remember Sasha’s desire for an “empty room”? She was naturally a solitary person, aware of how alone she was in a crowd — how alone we all are. Navigating this human condition is the ultimate subject of her work.

In another year I’ll have completed my masters, and then what? This question rolls around in my head, a companion I almost wouldn’t know what to do without. But we wrestle our fears and keep marching. My friend will continue to take care of her mother. My sister will eventually be artificially inseminated. My other friend will brag about her conquests and secretly be revolted by them. The gallery will go on and on: an exhibition of failures and success, but more importantly, a tribute to our strength. “It’s all right,” Sasha says, in Good Morning Midnight. “Tomorrow I’ll be pretty again, tomorrow I’ll be happy again, tomorrow, tomorrow…”

Liska Jacobs co-runs DUM DUM Zine, an alt lit publication based in Los Angeles. She has been nominated for the Kirkwood Literary Prize in Fiction twice, selected for the New Short Fiction series, and a recipient of a Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s scholarship. She’s currently pursuing an MFA at the University of California Riverside, and has just completed her first novel, which explores woman’s struggle for identity and meaning in a postmodern world.