Cruel as the grave

Jean Rhys (1890–1979)

Till September Petronella
by Jean Rhys.
Penguin Modern: 13,
Penguin Books 2018

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave.” — Song of Songs, 8:6

This selection of four short stories of contrasting lengths have been well chosen, their semi-autobiographical nature spanning the author’s lifetime from a Caribbean childhood to an ill-advised revisit, their themes of alienation, loneliness and depression mirroring the author’s own experiences.

One might think such bleak writing might be of a nature best avoided, but the power of her simple yet expressive prose, seemingly artless but nevertheless exquisitely crafted, is hypnotic and at times dreamlike. I was captivated and felt, paradoxically, both protective and utterly useless: here was a human being expressing her hurt and sense of drifting and yet I was unable to help.

Three of the pieces are told in the first person, a fact which to me strongly suggests a degree of autobiografiction, and though the final piece — less than two pages long in this edition — is in the third person, almost as if she is standing apart from herself, sadly observing and grieving for the person that she was. In such a context it feels close to a form of literary disassociation.

The first story is set in the West Indies, where the author, as Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, spent her childhood; the story reflects some of Rhys’ experience as a native-born creole, being perceived as neither black nor white despite being from the land-owning class. When a white immigrant dies his wife — “a decent, respectable, nicely educated coloured woman, mind you” — had been humiliated by him once too often in front of guests. She thus is determined to get her own back in a way that determines the title of the story, ‘The Day They Burned the Books’. But her decision will have a devastating effect on the two bookish youngsters whose enjoyment of the library has been only too brief — and there may be significance in the fact that the boy manages to retrieve a Kipling adventure while the narrator only manages a tragic tale by Maupassant.

The title tale of this collection happens to be the longest. Petronella is, as before, a thinly disguised version of the writer, confirmed by the fact that Ella was one of Rhys’s forenames. She is a model and former actress, living in digs in Bloomsbury, invited for the summer to join three others in a rented cottage in the Gloucestershire countryside. But it turns out to be a poisonous ménage, a hotbed of jealousy and misogyny, in which the alcoholic bohemian lifestyle of Frankie, Julian and Marston has already roused the suspicion and antagonism of locals — altogether unsurprising when we discover this all takes place in July 1914. Spontaneously deciding to leave her acquaintances she accepts a lift from a farmer to the railway station, then in London shares first a taxicab and then a bed with a stranger. She seems to drift through the novel, disparaged for being a woman, regarded as socially inferior, depressed enough to contemplate suicide. Though her friends say they hope to see Petronella again after the summer we know that a month later war will start, when nothing will be certain. As a portrait of a young woman feeling adrift and alienated ‘Till September Petronella’ may be bleak, but it stays continually fascinating as we try to sift through the minutiae of conversations and of random incidents.

The next title — ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel’ — alerts us to the well-known fairytale, and yet the first person narrative focuses on a woman leaving hospital and being transferred to a convalescent home. Again we examine details and routines and events for significances but their meanings seem to elude us, until finally we realise what bearing the title has on the tale.

‘I used to Live Here Once’ describes — in the third person this time, despite the title — the return of a woman later in life to a childhood home. She has expectations of nostalgia fulfilled, despite some changes time may have wrought, but one telling encounter shows here how deep those changes really are: That was the first time she knew, is the chilling final sentence of this sparsest of short stories.

These are consummate tales, troubling but honest in their depiction of how utterly detached one might feel in life from people, places, even emotions. Here, brutally presented, are pictures of troubled women, holding potential attachments at arm’s length for fear of being hurt, of avoiding commitment because of a sense of being unlovable.

Powerful stories such as these can play on our innate anxieties; one hopes that Rhys’ artistry in conveying loss and isolation helped her in some measure cope with with her own insecurities and vulnerabilities.

Jean Rhys was born in the Caribbean island of Dominica, in the Antilles

6 thoughts on “Cruel as the grave

    1. It is exactly that, Ola — I mean the book, not the review! — and though some of the stories go back a century the general issues she raises underneath her own personal ones are still pertinent. Misogyny, lack of social mobility, racial discrimination, corrupt power are all, like poverty and selfishness, still with us.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. From what I’ve read of Rhys, bleak is the word best applied, though that doesn’t make her books ones to avoid. And they do draw strongly on her own experiences, as far as I’m aware. She certainly had a fascinating life to pour into her work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She does take a magnifying glass to aspects of her life, describing what she sees in almost a disembodied, dispassionate way — at least that’s what seems to come out of these tales and Wild Sargasso Sea (even though the novel strictly speaking isn’t about her — or maybe it is). As you say, bleak, but infinitely intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

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