Jacqui over at JacquiWine’s Journal is hosting the event “Jean Rhys Reading Week.” Please visit Jacqui’s site for a listing of the many great reviews of Jean Rhys’s books. I am a little late in posting my Jean Rhys review, but better late than never.
The title itself intrigued me when I was trying to decide which Rhys book to read for this event. The oxymoron “Good Morning, Midnight” comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson:
I’m coming Home—
Day—got tired of Me—
How could I—of Him?
Sunshine was a sweet place—
I liked to stay—
But Morn—didn’t want me—now—
I can look—can’t I—
When the East is Red?
The Hills—have a way—then—
That puts the Heart—abroad—
You—are not so fair—Midnight—
But—please take a little Girl—
He turned away!
The tone of this poem, like the book, is one of loneliness and melancholy. The narrator of the story, named Sasha, has come to Paris and is living in a depressing hotel and we get the feeling that she is just marking time. She struggles to get out of bed in the morning and forces herself to fill the day with mundane tasks. She often repeats the line, “Eat, drink, walk, sleep.” She lives on a fixed income from a small inheritance so she has borrowed some money from a friend back in England in order to take this trip to Paris. The narrative is a disjointed account of her time in this city as she wanders from place to place and meets various men.
But this isn’t the first time that Sasha has spent time in Paris. She recounts another period of her time, when she was much younger, when she lived n Paris. She was always worried about money and as a single woman who had to make her own way in life, she had a series of depressing jobs that she is unable to keep for very long. She worked as a tour guide, a saleswoman in a shop, and even an English tutor. As the narrative moves forward, her memories of her previous visit reach farther and farther back. We eventually learn that it is because of a man she met in her youth that she landed in Paris in the first place. When he essentially abandons her, she if forced to make her own way in this foreign city.
Even though she is older during her current visit, Sasha does not seemnto have learned many lessons from her previous mistakes. She drinks too much, is still worried about money, and has encounters with questionable men. But the reflective nature of her narrative and her constant tendency to burst into tears leads us to believe that she recognizes her shortcomings and knows her life has not worked out the way she wanted. She meets a Russian man who is kind to her and understands that she is lonely. She visits a friend with him, an artist, and she buys one of his paintings for 600 francs. The purchase made me cringe because she was trying to support this artist but was, once again, spending money unnecessarily.
This book is loosely autobiographical which fact I find lends even more sadness to the narrative. Rhys, like Emily Dickinson, fought bravely against her depression and used her writing as an outlet for her emotional turmoil. The one element that is distinctly missing in Rhys’s writing is self-pity; she knows what she has done to get to this point in her life and the only choice she has is to move forward. I am so glad that Jacqui come up with the idea of a Rhys event or I might not have discovered her wonderful British classics.
About the Author:
Rhys was born in Dominica (a formerly British island in the Caribbean) to a Welsh father and Scottish mother. She moved to England at the age of sixteen, where she worked unsuccessfully as a chorus girl. In the 1920s, she relocated to Europe, traveling as a Bohemian artist and taking up residence sporadically in Paris. During this period, Rhys lived in near poverty, while familiarising herself with modern art and literature, and acquiring the alcoholism that would persist through the rest of her life. Her experience of a patriarchal society and feelings of displacement during this period would form some of the most important themes in her work.