15 Quotes From Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979) is the author of five novels—Quartet (1929), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), Good Morning, Midnight (1939), Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)—three story-collections and the posthumous Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography. She was born in Dominica and moved at 16 to Cambridge for schooling, then lived, among other cities, in Paris and Vienna, experiencing financial problems and near-total obscurity for around two decades until the publication of her fifth novel, which won the WH Smith Literary Award, resulting in financial security and critical acclaim, of which she said “it came too late.” She died thirteen years later in Exeter at age 88.

from After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931)

And suddenly she was immensely calm and indifferent to anything that had ever happened or could possibly happen to her. It was like that. Just when in another moment your brain would burst, it was always like that. She sat placidly with her knees rather wide apart, and her eyes fixed calm.

She felt nothing, except that she was tired and that she wished to be left alone to rest there, quietly, in the darkened room. It seemed to her that she had been there forever and that she always would be there, and that getting up, moving, would be impossible. But they must leave her alone, leave her alone. Then even that thought left her. She floated…floated….And shut her eyes.

*

The last time you were happy about nothing; the first time you were afraid of nothing. Which came first?

*

She was a shadow, kept alive by a flame of hatred for somebody who had long ago forgotten all about her.

*

Then she had got up and looked at herself in the glass. She had let her nightgown slip down off her shoulders, and had a look at herself. She was tall and straight and slim and young – well, fairly young. She had taken up a strand of her hair and put her face against it and thought how she liked the smell and the feel of it. She had laughed at herself in the glass and her teeth were white and sound and even. Yes, she had laughed at herself in the glass. Like an idiot.

Then in the midst of her laughter she had noticed how pale her lips were; and she had thought: ‘My life’s like death. It’s like being buried alive. It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.’

She could not stop crying. It had been as if something terribly strong were struggling within her, and tearing her in its struggles. And then she had thought: ‘If this goes on for another year I’m finished. I’ll be old and finished, and that’s that.

Of course, she had thought that sort of thing before. But always vaguely – and there had not been anything vague about the way she had thought last night.

from Voyage in the Dark (1934)

Of course, as soon as a thing has happened it isn’t fantastic any longer, it’s inevitable. The inevitable is what you’re doing or have done. The fantastic is simply what you didn’t do. That goes for everybody.

from Good Morning, Midnight (1939)

The thing is to have a programme, not to leave anything to chance – no gaps. No trailing around aimlessly with cheap gramaphone records starting up in your head, no ‘Here this happened, here that happened’. Above all, no crying in public, no crying at all if I can help it.

*

At this moment a taxi draws up. Without a word he gets into it, bangs the door and drives off, leaving me standing there on the pavement.

And did I mind? Not at all, not at all. If you think I minded, then you’ve never lived like that, plunged in a dream, when all the faces are masks and only the trees are alive and you can almost see the strings that are pulling the puppets.

*

In the middle of the night you wake up. You start to cry. What’s happening to me? Oh, my life, oh, my youth….

There’s some wine left in the bottle. You drink it. The clock ticks. Sleep….

*

Not to think. Only to watch the branches of that tree and the pattern they make standing out against a cold sky. Above all, not to think….

*

But when I think ‘tomorrow’ there is a gap in my head, a blank – as if I were falling through emptiness. Tomorrow never comes.

And there we are – struggling on the small bed. My idea is not so much to struggle as to make it a silent struggle. Nobody must hear us. At the end, he is lying on me, holding down my two spread arms. I can’t move. My dress is torn open at the neck. But I have my knees firmly clamped together. This is a game – a game played in the snow for a worthless prize….

*

You are walking along a road peacefully. You trip. You fall into blackness. That’s the past – or perhaps the future. And you know that there is no past, no future, there is only blackness, changing faintly, slowly, but always the same.

‘You want to know what I’m afraid of? All right, I’ll tell you…I’m afraid of men – yes, I’m very much afraid of men. And I’m even more afraid of women. And I’m very much afraid of the whole bloody human race…Afraid of them?’ I say. ‘Of course I’m afraid of them. Who wouldn’t be afraid of a pack of damned hyenas?’

Thinking: ‘Oh, shut up. Stop it. What’s the use?’ But I can’t stop. I go on raving.

‘And when I say afraid – that’s just a word I use. What I really mean is that I hate them. I hate their voices. I hate their eyes, I hate the way they laugh…I hate the whole bloody business. It’s cruel, it’s idiotic, it’s unspeakably horrible. I never had the guts to kill myself or I’d have got out of it long ago. So much the worse for mme. Let’s leave it at that.’

*

All that is left in the world is an enormous machine, made of white steel. It has innumerable flexible arms, made of steel. Long, thin arms. At the end of each arm is an eye, the eyelashes stiff with mascara. When I look more closely I see that only some of the arms have these eyes – others have lights. The arms that carry the eyes and the arms that carry the lights are all extraordinarily flexible and very beautiful. But the grey sky, which is the background, terrifies me…. And the arms wave to the accompaniment of music and of song. Like this: ‘Hotcha – hotcha – hotcha….’ And I know the music; I can sing the song.

from her Paris Review interview (1979)

All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.

*

I’d planned to die at thirty, and then I’d push it on ten years, forty, and then fifty. You always push it on. And then you go on and on and on. It’s difficult. Too much trouble. I’ve thought about death a great deal. One day in the snow I felt so tired. I thought, “Damn it, I’ll sit down. I can’t go on. I’m tired of living here in the snow and ice.” So I sat down on the ground. But it was so cold I got up.

from Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (1979)

I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care. TC mark

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