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.)
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.
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.