Tigers Are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys

As I’m sure you know by now, it’s all about #ReadingRhys this week, an event dedicated to celebrating the work of the renowned writer Jean Rhys! You can read more about it here, together with a schedule of posts we have planned for the next few days.

Today I’m reviewing Tigers Are Better-Looking, a striking collection of Rhys’ short stories originally published in 1968. My 1987 Penguin edition of Tigers also includes nine pieces from Rhys’ first book, The Left Bank, a collection of early vignettes and sketches published in 1927. In this post, I’m going to concentrate on the eight stories from the first section of Tigers, dealing as they do with the disenfranchisement of women, capturing the melancholia and fragility of lives lived on the edge. (A second post, focusing on the nine early pieces from The Left Bank will follow later in the week.)

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Viewed in its entirety, Tigers is a truly remarkable collection of stories: devastatingly honest, emotionally truthful, searing in its depiction of the loneliness of the outsider.

The book is currently out of print, but fear not as I have some very exciting news for Rhys fans. I’m absolutely delighted to say that Penguin will be publishing Jean Rhys’ Collected Short Stories in March 2017! This volume will include all the stories from her three collections, The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976). And if that wasn’t enough, here’s sneak preview of the cover, a world exclusive courtesy of the lovely team at Penguin.

9780141984858_thecollectedshortstories_cov4-2

Isn’t that a great cover? I for one cannot wait to see these stories back in print with Penguin!

Returning to Tigers, many of Rhys’ stories were inspired by elements of her own life. Some of her women are eking out a living as chorus girls or artists’ models; others are confined to tawdry rooms, seeking refuge in drink and sleeping tablets. Several are hanging on to life by the thinnest of threads.

Petronella, the protagonist of Till September Petronella, has hit a bad patch in life. Feeling depressed following the departure of her friend to Paris, she takes a trip to the country to see a young man, an artist by the name of Marston. If little else it will make a change from her dark and dingy room in the city, a chance to experience some country air for a couple of weeks. However, on her arrival at the cottage, Petronella is made to feel very uncomfortable indeed. Marston’s friends, Julian and Frankie, are unkind to her, treating her with contempt and disrespect. In the end, Petronella decides to leave, even though the thought of returning to her Bloomsbury bedsit is utterly dispiriting.

‘[…] Cheer up,’ he said. ‘The world is big. There’s hope.’

‘Of course.’ But suddenly I saw the women’s long, scowling faces over their lupins and their poppies, and my room in Torrington Square and the iron bars of my bedstead, and I thought, ‘Not for me.’ (p. 28)

This story illustrates a number of themes associated with the vulnerable female protagonists in Rhys’ fiction: the utter absence of hope in their lives; their marginalisation from conventional society (note the mention of the women’s long, scowling faces in the passage above, a sure sign of disapproval from ‘respectable’ people, especially other women); and finally, their attractiveness to the opposite sex. As she is travelling back to London, Petronella attracts the attention of two men: the first is a kindly farmer, a chap who imagines Petronella as someone he could see in the city ‘and have a good time with’; the second is a man she meets at the taxi rank at Paddington Station. When the latter takes Petronella to dinner, a familiar scenario plays out.

And everything was exactly as I had expected. The knowing waiters, the touch of the ice-cold wine glass, the red plush chairs, the food you don’t notice, the gold-framed mirror, the bed in the room beyond that always looks as if its ostentatious whiteness hides dinginess. (p. 33)

The story ends on a poignant note, the memory of a time when Petronella felt utterly exposed. It’s a haunting image.

Outside the Machine is another highlight. In this story, set in a clinic near Versailles, Inez is waiting for an operation as her ‘inside’ has gone ‘kaput’. As she lies in bed, Inez feels so out of place compared with some of the other patients in the ward, the ‘clean and aggressively respectable’ women who stare at her. When one woman gives Inez a ‘sharp, sly and inquisitive’ look, here’s what it communicates, albeit silently:

‘An English person? English, what sort of English? To which of the seven divisions, sixty-nine subdivisions, and thousand-and-three subsubdivisions do you belong? (But only one sauce, damn you.) My world is a stable, decent world. If you withhold information, or if you confuse me by jumping from one category to another, I can be extremely disagreeable, and I am not without subtlety and inventive powers when I want to be disagreeable. Don’t underrate me. I have set the machine in motion and crushed many like you. Many like you…’ (p. 81)

In some ways, the clinic itself is a metaphor for the wider world. Everything seems to run so fluently here, almost like clockwork. The other women in the ward are part of this environment; they fit within this world, functioning smoothly and efficiently.

The women in the beds bobbed up and down and in and out. They too were parts of a machine. They had a strength, a certainty, because all their lives they had belonged to the machine and worked smoothly, in and out, just as they were told. (p. 82)  

Inez, on the other hand, feels frightened and marginalised. Her exclusion from the ‘machine’ mirrors her relationship with life itself. She is an outsider; unfit for purpose, unfit for life itself.

She lay very still, so that nobody should know she was afraid. Because she was outside the machine they might come along any time with a pair of huge iron tongs and pick her up and put her on the rubbish heap, and there she would lie and rot. ‘Useless, this one,’ they would say; and throw her away before she could explain, ‘It isn’t like you think it is, not at all […]’ (p. 82)

Once again, this story ends on a poignant note. It’s a piece that will stay with me for a long time.

In several of these stories, the world is painted as a cruel, unforgiving place. Rhys’ protagonists feel they are treated with scorn and contempt (especially from other women). Sometimes these feelings are covert, taking the form of derogatory looks and surreptitious slights. In some ways, it is almost a relief to encounter an instance of open hostility.

His open hatred and contempt were a relief from the secret hatreds that hissed from between the lines of newspapers or the covers of books, or peeped from sly smiling eyes. (p. 112)

Rhys’ heroines tend to be suspicious of other women, often viewing them as dangerous, spiteful creatures capable of inflicting significant harm and damage. We see this in Petronella and Outside the Machine. It’s also there in The Lotus, a story of a lonely woman living in a shabby basement flat near Portobello Road; her surroundings are in stark contrast to those of her upstairs neighbours, Mr and Mrs Miles.

Men, on the other hand, serve a necessary if somewhat transient purpose in these women’s lives. They provide Rhys’ protagonists with money, meals and if they’re very lucky a little warmth and affection. Nevertheless, there is something rather empty and shallow about them, as illustrated by this description of Julian, Marston’s uncaring friend in Till September Petronella.

His beautiful eyes were little, mean pits and you looked down them into nothingness. (p. 22)

There is a sense that these men see Rhys heroines as playthings, a form of mild amusement for relatively brief periods of time, only to be sidelined once their allure has faded and they have served their main purpose.

Rhys draws on a variety of styles and techniques in these stories. There are snatches of stream of consciousness here and there, especially in the titular tale which closes with a rush of tormenting thoughts and phrases. Somewhat unusually for a Rhys story, it features a male protagonist, a Mr Severn, whose dear friend Hans has just left him. By contrast, Let Them Call It Jazz is written in short, simple sentences, a prose style which reflects the narrator’s inner voice. In this story, Selina, an immigrant from the Caribbean, encounters mistrust and prejudice wherever she goes.

Don’t talk to me about London. Plenty people there have heart like stone. Any complaint – the answer is ‘prove it’. But if nobody see and bear witness for me, how to prove anything? (p. 44)

This is a powerful, haunting story, another one that ends on a melancholy note. Like many of Rhys’ women, Selina doesn’t belong anywhere; she lacks the resources, monetary or otherwise, to buy her way to belonging. In short, she is tired of life. When I think of these stories, it is this tiredness I remember. Life for these women is debilitating – both wearying and frightening. I’ll finish with a passage on this feeling of anxiety.

If I could put it into words it might go, she was thinking. Sometimes you can put it into words – almost – and so get rid of it – almost. Sometimes you can tell yourself I’ll admit I was afraid today. I was afraid of the sleek smooth faces, the rat faces, the way they laughed in the cinema. I’m afraid of escalators and doll’s eyes. But there aren’t any words for this fear. The words haven’t been invented. (p. 129-130)

Jean Rhys found those words.

46 thoughts on “Tigers Are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys

  1. Eric

    Great review, Jacqui! So interesting to see how this familiar kind of Rhys character plays out in different scenarios in this shorter fiction. It seems particularly striking the condemnation they feel from other women. This feeling of being an outside or in some way “unfit” for society. And with men the attraction/repulsion contained in that same line you chose. Interesting to hear a story is narrated from a man’s perspective as this is so unusual for Rhys. The long middle section of Wide Sargasso Sea is also narrated from a man’s perspective. The final quote you give is great and shows how often in her fiction she slips into this sort of inner dialogue.

    I’m really looking forward to the Collected Stories coming out and it’s a great cover!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric. I feel these stories (and the pieces in The Left Bank) have given me a deeper appreciation of her themes. The feeling of disapproval from members of respectable society (other women in particular) is very striking. I think it taps into the sense of hypocrisy that several people have commented on in their posts this week.

      The tension between attraction and repulsion is very interesting, isn’t it? Reminds me of something Andy Miler mentioned recently in relation to the element of dichotomy in Rhys’ work. There’s a great quote from one of her books (I’ll have to check which one): “I had two longings and one was fighting the other. I wanted to be loved and I wanted to be always alone.” It’s heartbreaking…

      Yes, wonderful news about the short stories. I think we’ll have to start forming an orderly queue!

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    What great news about the collected stories – I know for sure what my next purchase will be then…
    What a wonderful final quote you give, as well. She really is the voice of all the alienated and dispossessed – without the anger, resigned. I keep hearing that nowadays women have more choices and that she therefore is less relevant today, but the truth is in certain places, with little education or family support, there are still plenty of women to whom all this would be horribly familiar.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – yes, wonderful news about the stories. My Twitter feed has been going mad this morning, so much so that I’m struggling to keep up with it!

      Re your final comment about the relevance of Rhys’ work in today’s day and age, you might want to keep an eye on my blog over the next few days. I have a very special interview coming up which includes a bit of chat about that very point – in essence, what these books have to say to the contemporary reader. All will be revealed very soon…

      Reply
  3. Abby K

    Amazing! I have always wanted a collection edition of Rhys’s work and that cover is so fitting, love it! Also, thanks for bringing to light one of Rhys’s more lesser known works, Tigers (I’m learning so much this week!) I particularly love the title of her short story, Outside The Machine. That for me really captures the feeling that all her heroines have about their self-identity. Look forward to reading your next post 😊

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? A few people have commented that it looks quite Hopper-esque, an observation I definitely agree with. Rather fitting for Rhys in many ways, that sense of alienation and loneliness in the city…

      Outside the Machine is an incredible story, worth the price of the collection alone. It seems to encapsulate so many of Rhys’ feelings towards the environment in which she finds herself. A truly frightening piece of work. Glad you enjoyed my post.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    great review. I am thinking that I would like Rhys. I tend to be drawn to melancholy stories and these sound very good.

    It is good news that Rhys stories are coming back into print. The more good literature out there the better.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I really think you should give her a go one day. Rhys gave a voice to a certain kind of female experience that hadn’t really been articulated before her arrival on the literary scene. Hopefully the release of her stories will encourage more readers to explore her work.

      Reply
  5. naomifrisby

    That cover is absolutely fantastic. I’ll be keeping an eye out for publication.

    Huge congratulations to you and Eric too, my whole Twitter timeline seems to be #ReadingRhys, it’s brilliant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! As some people have commented this morning, it’s rather like an Edward Hopper painting, the sort of image that perfectly fits the mood of Rhys’ work.

      Yes, it’s really taken off, hasn’t it? We’re so pleased with the level of interest and enthusiasm for her books, it’s quite something!

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fabulous review, and what wonderful news about the short stories – good old Penguin! Do you know if they’re going to include *all* of The Left Bank or only those pieces in Tigers? if it’s all of them that will be even more wonderful! Well done on all your promotion of Rhys!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’m pretty sure it’s all her stories, including everything from The Left Bank. I’ll double check with Penguin, but I’m pretty sure that’s correct. On The Left Bank front, I managed to get hold of a rather rare copy via an inter-library loan. It’s a remarkable collection, all the more so because one can see the geneses of several of her themes. More to follow later in the week…

      Reply
  7. anna amundsen

    This is great news! I was looking around to get one of the collections, to read it for Rhys Reading Week, but couldn’t find any.. It’s good to know that they will soon be back in print, all in one package! Wonderful!

    Reply
  8. ms. arachne

    That’s such exciting news about the new Jean Rhys collection! I can’t wait to get a copy. I got Tigers Are Better-Looking from the library but couldn’t even find a copy of The Left Bank at all.

    Great review! You captured the recurring themes of Rhys’ stories so well. You make an excellent point about Rhys portraying an aspect of female experience that hadn’t really been depicted in English and American literature before. That’s part of what makes her such an important writer, I think. It’s certainly what appealed to me about this collection.

    I think that her stories are still relevant to modern readers because of the emotions rather than the circumstances of her characters. Loneliness, despair, failure, feeling as if one doesn’t fit in, and feeling harshly judged by others are universal experiences.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Copies of the Left Bank are notoriously difficult to get hold of, certainly in the UK – in fact they’re probably classed as collectors’ items. Luckily I managed to find a copy through the inter-library loan network, the only one in the whole of London/South East! I’ll being reviewing some of the pieces from this collection later in the week, hopefully on Sunday if everything goes to plan.

      Thank you for your kind words about my review. In some ways, I found it quite challenging to convey the emotional impact of these stories; it’s almost as though they need to be experienced in the flesh, so to speak. She was such a brilliant writer, way ahead of her time in many respects. She gave a voice to the true outsiders in life, women on the fringes of society shunned and marginalised wherever they went. I think we see that in several of the stories here, especially Let Them Call It Jazz and Outside the Machine.

      You make a great point about the relevance of these emotions in today’s world. One of the things that impresses me the most about Rhys’ work is her ability to take these little details or particular instances from her life and craft them into stories with a much broader resonance. Quite remarkable.

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    I love the way you ended your review!
    Having read two of her novels, I’m really keen to read her short stories. I have a copy of Sleep It Off Lady – but, of course, now we”ll all be buying her Collected Stories anyway!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It seemed like a fitting way to finish up. Delighted to hear you are keen to read the stories. They’re truly excellent – Rhys in miniature, so to speak. There’s a real sense of range here, more so than in the novels I think. Till September Petronella is in a very similar vein to Voyage in the Dark, but let Them Call It Jazz and Outside the Machine are somewhat different. The voice is different, especially in Jazz.

      Reply
  10. bookbii

    These sound like amazing stories. Rhys really works strongly in short form (her novels are all more like novellas) and it sounds like she is equally powerful here. She really does capture what it means to be outside, on the edge, eking out a solitary and tenuous existence. It’s exhausting to read (I can’t believe how much I have used that term this week!) but insightful and it feels so honest and truthful it’s hard to be anything other than empathetic towards the poor characters. They’re, in a way, nothing more than roadkill: poor, vulnerable creatures who step out into the road only to find themselves blinded by the harsh lights of people speeding by, then mown down before they could take even a step to protect themselves. Such terrible stories.
    Thanks for pulling this week together, it’s fantastic how much activity there’s been and it’s been wonderful sharing thoughts about Rhys. She’s a writer well deserving of attention. I suspect you’re exhausted too, but hopefully happily so.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – yes, I might be in need of something light and fluffy by the end of this week! Seriously though, there are some remarkable stories here. As you say, there is an intensity to her work which seems to work so well in the short form. I suspect you would find these pieces just as emotionally bruising as some of the passages in her novellas — Let Them Call It Jazz and Outside the Machine are probably worth the entry price alone. The latter in particular really got to me. The image of vulnerable woman being picked up with a huge set of iron tongs only to be dumped on the scrap heap like a soiled piece of trash – it’s devastating stuff.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        They sound amazing, I’ll have to pick them up (will wait for the gorgeous Penguin copy I think). It’s harrowing to read, but sometimes life is harrowing and we need that reminder that we’re all vulnerable and our experiences in life can really centre on how we’re treated by (and how we treat) the people around us.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Good plan to wait for the Penguin. All the stories in one place, and a swish new edition to boot – how cool is that?

          I’m with you on your last point too. In many ways, her work is a sobering reminder for the need for understanding and compassion even in today’s world…

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Doesn’t it just, very smart indeed! You’d like these stories, Ali – I feel sure of it.

      Glad to hear you book group loved Quartet. (I saw your tweet last night.)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Madame Bibi! Yes, hooray for Penguin indeed. Just dropped by to comment on your bonus post on ‘Sleep It Off, Lady,’ a collection I really must read. It’ll be fantastic to have a new edition with all her stories gathered together in one place.

      Yes, her use of imagery to create mood and convey emotions is very striking – it seems to be a running theme through much of her work. Several people have commented on it this week, yourself included!

      Reply
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  14. lauratfrey

    Oh my, the end of this review gave me chills. Well done. That cover is great. I love my old second hand copy of Sleep it Off Lady, but I will want this one too. I hope it’s a little studier than my Penguin Modern Classics edition of GMM, which got all bent in my purse – guess I need to be more gentle!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just – everyone seems to love the cover. I suspect it will be quite sturdy, like the usual Penguin Modern Classics editions. I know what you mean about the Pocket Classics though. I saw a whole bunch of them on display in a bookshop the other day and the covers were looking fairly rough around the edges. The bright colours are very eye-catching, but they could do with being a little more durable!

      Reply
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  18. Max Cairnduff

    Although I generally prefer to avoid collected works, this will be an obvious exception. I’m delighted I’ll get the chance to read these stories you describe so well. And, to chorus everyone else, that is a great cover.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be very curious to hear what you think of them, especially pieces like Let Them Call It Jazz and Outside the Machine (two of the standout pieces for me). Glad you like the cover too. It seems just perfect for Rhys, very Hopper-esque as others have commented.

      Reply
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