The missing nuance of the modernist canon

On the life and work of writer Jean Rhys.

Art by Ranuka Tandan.

Content warning: sexual and psychological abuse, rape

The Modernist canon is an integral aspect of Western literature, and the themes of colonialism, capitalism, post-war poverty and modern society running through its seminal works have captivated me since I was introduced to the lines of T.S. Eliot in high school. However, it was not until I studied Jean Rhys, Claude McKay and Nella Larson that I learned about the writers sidelined and trodden on as the canon was emerging: the female, the black, and the Creole writers. 

The reduction of great work from marginalised writers extends far beyond leaving them out of the canon and off the syllabus; it ultimately comes down to how they are studied. While cultural context and societal paradigms are incredibly important background tools to judging a piece of writing — whether this be a novel, an essay, or a poem — what has revealed itself to be most important to me is acknowledging the autonomy of the author. It is possible to form critiques about one’s society which are informed by but not dependent on one’s circumstances, but scholarly study up until recently has failed to address this nuance, instead caving to the argument that personal experience lessens the strength and legitimacy of a critique. I would insist that the opposite is true: personal experience brings to societal critique a strength and legitimacy that cannot be attained otherwise.

Historically, English-Creole author Jean Rhys has been predominantly read through the lens of the ‘myth of feminine distress’. Even Ford Madox Ford, short-term partner and strong promoter of Rhys’ work, narrates in his introduction to The Left Bank that she wrote with ‘a kind of pre-intellectual feeling, what he described as “an instinct for form”’; a very undercutting remark about her femininity. This kind of thinking which began in Rhys’ own time has since served to undermine how seriously she has been taken as an author. While male modernists of the period such as Hemingway, Joyce and Eliot have been studied for their academic style, form and technique — despite also writing about men who are alienated from themselves  —  Rhys has been studied for her emotional states and experiences.

James Nicholls puts it well: ‘In the critical writing on Jean Rhys, this process of biographical pathologisation is usually constructed around a nexus of the emotionally dysfunctional, sexually promiscuous woman, and the woman as writer’.

Jean Rhys by no means had an easy life, and understanding her life is integral to understanding her work. She was born in a small white Dominican community in 1890 to a Welsh father and a Scottish Creole mother. Rhys had a challenging relationship with race all of her life, neither belonging to or quite accepted by Dominica or England. She made her entrance into the Modernist canon early on; however, her Caribbean identity was essentially ignored, and she was seen as a European writer, which deeply affected how seriously her intrinsic criticism and understanding of the world around her was taken.

Good Morning, Midnight was the first Jean Rhys novel I picked up and it immediately captivated me. Her emotion and her disjointed narrative voice pulled me in. The novel takes place over a ten-day period in October 1937, and follows Sasha Jansen, a middle aged women with a complicated and traumatic past, through the streets, hotel rooms, and cafés of Paris. Much like Rhys’s other fiction, it is semi-autobiographical, and the more deeply you can study and understand her life, the richer her novels become, the more they reveal to the reader. 

Despite this, I believe it is important to emphasise that the semi-autobiographical nature of this novel in no way takes away from its worth, in no way takes away from the depth of critique she gives about modern society; about capitalism and the economy; about colonisation, poverty, fascism, modernity. Rhys was a colonial writer, and was just as much influenced by, and responding to these influences as male modernists of her time.

Jean Rhys writes often about rooms. When one thinks of the importance of rooms in the Modernist period, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind. However, there are several integral differences between Rhys’ room and Woolf’s room that are important to highlight. Woolf’s room is a place of autonomy and creation. It is a room which has been purchased with a woman’s own money, it is a place of luxury, and despite the hard work that goes into acquiring such a room, it is a place of privilege; an ideal far out of reach for the black woman, the colonised woman, the Creole woman. 

By contrast, the rooms of Good Morning, Midnight are non-autonomous. They are paid for by a variety of different men who Sasha is constantly borrowing money from. It is not a place of sanctuary or comfort, because its impermanence seeps through the cracks in the walls and permeates every underlying anxious thought that Sasha holds. The rooms she stays in are never static, and nothing ties her to any particular place.  The relationship she has with these hotel rooms changes throughout the novel. At the beginning, Sasha holds out hope that if she can just get this ‘light’ room than everything will be okay.

‘Suddenly I feel that I must have number 219, with bath… number 219, with rose-coloured curtains, carpet and bath. I shall exist on a different plane at once if I can get this room, if only for a couple of nights. It will be an omen. Who says you can’t escape from your fate? I’ll escape from mine, in room number 219’.

However, this optimism never lasts, and by the time she has settled in room number 219, she has accepted that ‘All rooms are the same. All rooms have four walls, a door, a window or two, a bed, a chair, and perhaps a bidet’.

The hotel rooms in Good Morning, Midnight are saturated with the past, and invaded by men. The metaphorical intrusion of unwanted guests and memories into her hotel room culminates in the rape scene at the end of the novel, and signifies that Sasha cannot escape from ridicule, anxiety and depression, because it is not only the outside world thrusting these things upon her, but her own mental instability. ‘This damned room… it’s saturated with the past… It’s all the rooms I’ve ever slept in, all the streets I’ve ever walked in’.

Because Rhys’ novels are so autobiographical, she has not historically been seen as an author who really addressed contextual issues of class inequality, economics, and the impact in cities of capitalism-driven consumerism on the population. Good Morning, Midnight however, very clearly addresses the importance of money to those who don’t have it and demonstrates how far-reaching the consequences of such an absence can be, especially on women. 

In the modern city, ‘Money becomes the common denominator of all values… [reducing] all quality and individuality to the question: How much?’. There are seemingly endless recurring references to money in Good Morning, Midnight, from the prices on the menus in the cafés and restaurants which Sasha frequents, to Sasha’s internal dialogue about the price of renting a room, and the items of clothing she wants to buy. Living in a patriarchal, capitalist state, Sasha is forced to constantly worry about her appearance. She thinks that if she just buys this new dress, this new hat, these new shoes, then nobody will think twice about her social status when they pass her in the street. Despite the fact that she is living on the poverty line, she can pass as rich if she performs these high class symbols appropriately. These are symbols of no meaning beyond appearance, yet in Sasha’s world, they are incredibly important to the act that she performs.

As a Creole woman, Jean Rhys was very aware of the complex consequences — most importantly in this case, economic and psychological — of colonial politics on colonised peoples. The criticism of these policies is not always explicit in Good Morning, Midnight, however, the implicit remarks add much to the reading of the novel; the fact that money is an ever-present source of angst in this world is demonstrative of this.

In Good Morning, Midnight, women in particular are seen to be deeply affected by the struggling economy. Early in the novel, Sasha establishes her ‘market value’, telling her employer what a month of her work is worth. Continually throughout, references to prostitution enhance the notion of everything being for sale; a gigolo who Sasha encounters refers to himself as a ‘market good’

Rhys doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors that women experience and that she herself has experienced. One of the most important issues that she addresses in Good Morning, Midnight is trauma and traumatic patterns, and her exploration of these themes is convincing and genuine. Knowing the context within which Rhys wrote this book gives us a much better understanding as to why she, as a semi-autobiographical author, writes the character of Sasha Jansen in the way that she does. 

Part way through writing Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys paused, put it aside, and began to write an account of her childhood —now known as the Black Exercise Book — describing sexual and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of a family friend when she was only a teenager. There are scenes of sexual trauma in Good Morning, Midnight that correlate to those described by Rhys in the Black Exercise Book. The responses described by Rhys, both in her own account of her experience, and in Good Morning, Midnight are common responses of survivors of this type of abuse.

In the Black Exercise Book, Rhys writes, 

‘I follow him sick with fear of what is going to happen but I make no effort to save myself. If anyone were to offer to save me I would refuse. If anyone were to say shall I save you I would answer no. It must happen. It has to happen.’

In Good Morning, Midnight, ‘Sasha describes a brief experience of splitting in a scene she remembers from her previous life’, where she is forced to ask a man called Mr. Lawson for money. In order to receive the money, Sasha is forced to let Mr. Lawson kiss her, yet she responds to the advance, ‘split between a yielding body and a repulsed mind’.

‘I am standing there with the note in my hand, when he comes up and kisses me. I am hating him more than I have ever hated anyone in my life, yet I feel my mouth go soft under his, and my arms go limp.’

This splitting is a common response to sexual trauma, and Rhys’s portrayal of it in Good Morning, Midnight is a representation that goes deeper than making a simple statement about the power dynamics between men and women, or about poverty and class struggle in her European context.

Good Morning, Midnight is not a novel about trauma, but it stages the experiences of trauma, and depicts a self-destructive, self-punishing protagonist who is caught up in repetitive and compulsive patterns of behaviour that can be traced back to a traumatic experience in her past. The rape scene at the end of Good Morning, Midnight is one of the most important parts of the novel. It is the culmination of the trauma and depression that has been building up to this point, yet Sasha doesn’t react with anger; rather, she sees it as a sort of rebirth. 

Good Morning, Midnight is only one of Jean Rhys’ many novels, but it is a special one. That it can address complex and difficult issues while staging the hope and optimism of love is a testament to the writer that Jean Rhys was. That she can bring out emotion in us while also making us think deeply about the world goes to show that she deserves serious scholarly attention, and that she deserves to be recognised among the writers that defined modernism. This passage, drawn from Part Three of Good Morning, Midnight, epitomises that feeling for me; it holds both love and tragedy, emotion and intellect.

‘When I saw him looking up like that I knew that I loved him, and that it was for always. It was as if my heart turned over, and I knew that it was for always. It’s a strange feeling – when you know quite certainly in yourself that something is for always. It’s like what death must be.’

I know I’m not the only reader who this passage will stay with, and the power that Jean Rhys has to convey emotion in this way while making strong critiques of her society says to me that she — alongside other female, Creole and black writers — deserve deeper and more nuanced study.