Jean Rhys, 1975 by Bill Brandt
When I was younger and more carefree, I really admired the flâneurs of Paris. Baudelaire, Baldwin, Sontag, Rilke. What I loved about these writers who went to Paris to sit in cafés and talk about art was that they were dreamers. They were destitute, they were lonely, and they were all wearing haloes of poetry. Something about this appealed to me. And Jean Rhys was one of the best of them. She had an amazingly fluid style, which I have often tried to copy. A lot of writers who try stream-of-consciousness end up just rambling, but Jean Rhys can pull it off. Her books feel like she is right there talking to you. When I was in my twenties, especially, I thought she would have been fun to be friends with. I could have sat in cafés in Paris and listened to her for hours.
Last December, while waiting at Planned Parenthood, I was flipping through an old copy of Good Morning, Midnight. I wanted to read it again because I had started working at a French bilingual school, and I was thinking about sharing the book with students. I was at the part where Rhys gets a job in a dress shop. Rhys’s inner thoughts, as the hours tick by in this shop in Paris, meander between boredom and nervousness and declaration, then back to boredom again. She helps a customer. She gets scolded by her boss. Then, at the end of the day, she quits. She walks out into the street and never goes back to the job. When I was younger, I loved Jean Rhys for this. This grab for her own freedom. Reading it this time, though, I felt sad for her. She had a single beautiful fur coat to wear—a gift from some absent, former boyfriend—but zero francs in her bank account. Walking out on her job was a reckless, desperate move.
Later in the book, of course, it comes out that she was haunted by the memory of a failed romance, a difficult pregnancy, and a dead baby. The way Rhys writes about hospitals, you know she did not have any money. Her biographers will tell you this, too—but you can absolutely feel it in her fiction. The fear of cold metal beds and hospital bills.
In a way, it was timely that I was revisiting Good Morning, Midnight on the same day as my doctor’s visit. I had been postponing the doctor for fear of cost. As a writer, I have learned to make my life work by living lean. I am 30 years old, single, no kids. I am lucky. To have the opportunity to pursue a career in writing is tremendously lucky. So it is embarrassing to now be in the position of admitting that I did not, at that time, have health insurance. It was a vulnerability that I, by myself, was responsible for—easy to ignore when you’re healthy, but glaring and shameful when you’re not. I was frightened to find myself alone at the clinic that day, worried that a recent spell of excessive bleeding might be a sign of something more serious.
The doctor who welcomed me into her office was a short woman with deft manners, square glasses and a graying blond bob. When I explained my concern about insurance, she blinked and typed some notes into her computer. Doctors who choose to work at Planned Parenthood are a particular breed. It would be easier to work at a clinic that is less politicized (and better funded) than Planned Parenthood. But then, some people are driven by their ideals. Their missions. This doctor’s knowing nod said everything. A mixture of emotions chased across her face—compassion, indignation, fatigue—and pity, too, as she typed away at her computer.
I thought about my mother, briefly. Planned Parenthood is a fraught topic in the part of the country that I grew up in, and I do not think my mom has ever set foot inside of one. On the other hand, my mom has never had to go to the doctor as a single adult woman. Single women face a different set of pressures from the world, I think, than married women do. But I was relieved to be there, in the care of this kind and competent doctor. To put my pride aside, and take a step toward fixing myself. A word to anyone who needs to know it: the Planned Parenthood in Long Island City is well-equipped, and they will not charge you more than you can pay.
In Good Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys’s narrator never tries to get another job. She drifts around hotels and restaurants, worrying that the strangers around her imagine she is wasting her life. At one point, she splurges on a nice haircut because she is terrified of looking shabby. This is a theme with her: this fixation with personal appearance. Looking pulled-together was Rhys’s armor—her only defense against the cruelty of the world. In biographies, I have read that Rhys spent at least an hour every morning on her make-up. She even dressed up to write. All writers have their rituals—walking the dog, cooking breakfast for the kids—mundane tasks that you build into your day, which are somehow just as valuable as the time you spend knocking words out at your desk. (I myself have been an early-morning gym rat for years, to the point that I’ve opted to scrimp on other necessities on more than one occasion, at times when money was tight, rather than close my gym membership.) That has been my choice.
So I think, as readers, it is not our place to judge Rhys for how she spent her money or her time.
Except, in Good Morning, Midnight, the hotel rooms she stays in are increasingly not nice. As the plot advances, it becomes painfully clear that Rhys’s narrator is living beyond her means. “A room is a place where you hide from the wolves. That’s all any room is,” she reasons to herself. It is a fascinating counterpoint to that maxim from Virginia Woolf, actually: “If a woman is to write fiction, she must have money and a room of her own.” These words are famous because they are true, of course, but they are also a little unfair. Virginia Woolf herself was born into a rich family. It was thanks to Woolf’s inherited wealth and social standing that she was able to write A Room of One’s Own at all. She had medical problems, too, but she always received the best care. On the other hand: Jean Rhys was equally worth her snuff as a writer. Obviously, Rhys could write. Only: she did it by staying in hotels she could not afford, and by spending money she did not have.
Lying on my back in a blue paper gown, with the doctor’s gloved hand inserted up my cervix—probing for swelling or abnormal growths—I saw all of this with a sudden, new clarity.
“I am reading a book,” I blurted in response to small talk from the doctor, “about a woman who tries to forget about her stillborn baby by going to Paris and sitting in cafés.”
“Hmm,” the doctor nodded.
“I was thinking about sharing the book with high school students,” I explained. “But maybe it’s too grim. You need to give life-affirming stuff to young people.”
I do not know why I said that. Maybe I felt the need to prove my legitimacy. I had only been working at the school since the beginning of the semester, and my only other experience with teaching was with my summer intern at the magazine I edit. My intern had won a grant from his college, and he chose to spend his summer with me. I was proud of this, I guess. If a young person with a grant thinks writing is still a business worth going for, then maybe, just maybe, I do not need to be so ashamed of the fact that I own just one pair of winter shoes. Or that the hem of my coat is running a little ragged. Or maybe—maybe even, I was trying to show this doctor that I had a maternal side. I liked having an intern around. And I also enjoyed picking books and essays to share with the kids at the French school. Maybe details like this would prove that I, as a woman-person, deserved to have my ovaries looked after. Even though I did not know how to pay for them.
In her real life, Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, to a Creole mother and Welsh father, and educated in London. She spoke in a West Indies accent her entire life and never seemed to belong anywhere. Starting in her late teens, she had a series of boyfriends and husbands (some of whom treated her better than others), who took her around Vienna and Paris, where she got good at speaking French. She wrote Good Morning, Midnight in 1939—her fourth novel. Then she disappeared for a while, and many of her fans assumed she was dead. This is a true story. At one point, a radio broadcaster ran a newspaper ad asking for Rhys’s whereabouts because he wanted to make Good Morning, Midnight into a radio play. Rhys was living in Kent at the time, alcoholically, and none of her neighbors believed she could be this sought-after writer. She finally resurfaced, years later, with Wide Sargasso Sea, the novel that is most studied in schools today. Over the course of her life, she was employed as a chorus girl, a receptionist in a pension office, and (during the First World War), she volunteered in a soldier’s canteen. Rhys spent the last years of her life in Devon, in a series of rented hotel rooms—single, well-dressed, sunk into debt, and drinking heavily.
In short, Rhys’s life was itinerant and often heartbreaking. But it was also noble. In the 1970s, her publisher at Andre Deutsch admitted that the company should have paid her more. They knew how impoverished Rhys was, and yet, she was an amazing perfectionist and produced remarkable work. Her books were good because she worked really hard on them. Sometimes we say about women writers, “she wrote her way out”—meaning that she wrote her way out of poverty, or other kinds of distress. That never happened for Rhys. But she makes one thing absolutely clear in her writing: she hated to be pitied.
When I was growing up, my mother kept a notebook in the glove compartment of her 1989 Ford Escort. She took it out every time she spent money on something. Tank of gas? She would make us kids wait in the back seat while she wrote in meticulous pencil: $21.63. Lunch date with a girlfriend? In the parking lot after, she opened the book against her steering wheel and copied out the receipt before turning her key in the ignition. $1.00 for coffee? This, too, she wrote down.
At various times in my adult life, I have tried to keep a similar habit. It requires an intense kind of discipline that is hard to sustain in today’s culture of being constantly on the go. I often hear people from my parents’ generation complain that young people have atrocious spending habits. “Don’t spend everything you make,” they warn. “Don’t put anything on a credit card unless you know you’ll pay the bill on time.” As far as financial wisdom goes, this is pretty much the core of it. Except: my life today looks very different from how my mom’s did in the 1990s.
Put aside the fact that I chose a precarious field to work in. It is hard to ignore the encroaching reality of Late Capitalism—the fact that many things we took for granted in the 1990s have now become destabilized (Brexit, closed borders, the debt crisis, our country’s broken healthcare system, our broken housing market, climate change). Often, I look at the news and struggle to feel hopeful for the future. It is true that working in education has forced me to shift my perspective a little bit, since being responsible to young people means you need to at least pretend to have some answers. But I would also argue that anyone who has the luxury of not experiencing our current moment in history as an emergency is speaking from a place of relative privilege, or safety, compared to a lot of the planet.
I thought about the state of the world, and I thought about Jean Rhys as I spoke to my mother on the phone, after my visit to the doctor.
“They said it’s probably nothing,” I said to my mom.
“Oh, does that make you feel better?”
My mother and I never had the kind of relationship where we were comfortable talking about reproductive health. She grew up in an era where it wasn’t done, essentially.
“If I keep bleeding, they will send me for an ultrasound,” I said.
“Will that be expensive?” she worried.
I took a deep breath and explained to my mother the mission and inner workings of clinics like Planned Parenthood.
“Oh,” she said. And that was it.
I think, truly, my mom had never considered these questions before—the fact that women’s bodies have always been politicized. The fact that some people in Rhys’s life never forgave her for being an inattentive mother, and some people in Woolf’s life never forgave her for skipping children altogether. And maybe that’s not fair. I imagined my mom sitting in the driver’s seat of her car as we spoke—clutching the notebook, where, for decades, she had painstakingly guarded every penny that passed through her hands. I tried to imagine the kind of fear, or anxiety, or isolation that might have prompted her to do this, for years.
My mom did not grow up in a house where people talked about art or travel. Nobody encouraged her to follow her passions, or taught her that she could lead an intellectual life if she wanted to. My mom did not get to go to French school. I finally realized that I owed it to my mom to take care of myself. So that she could see me go through life and be happy. That was all she wanted. If I could not be happy, then, at least, I could have a body that was not falling apart—and if I could not have that, then at least I could go to the doctor. So that is why I re-enrolled in health insurance for 2019. I owe it to my mom. (Though now I also owe $405 a month to Healthfirst Silver Leaf Premier.) Hooray. Though, in the end, thankfully this time, my body returned to normal on its own. It was a hormonal imbalance, as the doctor said. Or, as another friend suggested, it was psychological. My body was trying to speak to me—trying to make me wake up to the reality of personal responsibility, and bodily care, and entering my thirties. In any case, I feel grateful.
As for Jean Rhys, maybe we are supposed to disapprove of the way she led her life. She tipped into worse and worse debt as she wrote novels, with no real family around her. I find myself unable to disapprove of Rhys, though. I see her as brave. I see her as brave, and I see her as free.
To be a writer is to be free.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.