Jean Rhys The Complete Novels is really more a collection of novellas for they all are quite short. The first four novels, in my mind, are the most powerful. How often does an author draw inspiration from her own life well enough to pull out four different stories? She admits that the first two novels are very close to her life but the next two are less so. She denies that they are at all inspired but it is hard to ignore how smoothly the four novels flow one into the other, the female protagonist practically interchangeable from one story to the next.
In Voyage In the Dark is about a young chorus girl who finds herself drawn into an affair with an older man, a relationship that is obviously doomed. The story takes place in Paris. In Quartet, the older but still young woman becomes the mistress of a married man when her husband goes to jail with the blessing of the man’s wife. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the first novel that is supposedly not drawn immediately from her own life and yet the story feels like a continuation of the previous two. A now older woman is cut off from the financial support of a former lover and she leaves Paris and returns to her family in England in hopes of getting her life back together. Then in Good Morning, Midnight a woman approaching her forties, aware that her sexual attractiveness is fading, is losing herself in alcohol and pointless flirtations as she tries to avoid her reality, unable to return to her home in England or go on in as she has been in Paris.
Can you see how easily these four weave together as though they are a continuing narrative?
The final “novel” in the collection is Wide Sargasso Sea which I like the least. The gradual, emotional decline that Rhys explores so effectively in the other four novels is glossed over although it could be all the more realized in the character of Antoinette. And there is the potential to fully delve into the journey from stability to instability. Or to even suggest that Antoinette was not so much fated to be mad so much as driven to it. I don’t know if Rhys lost faith in her ability to use stream-of-consciousness to its full effect or if, because she was not writing about herself or Paris, she didn’t know how to be honest with the character.
I will say that I’m glad that Gina gave me this book because I’d already read Wide Sargasso Sea and was not impressed or excited by it. My mind was not changed upon reading it a second time. But after reading the other four novels, I could definitely appreciate the common themes to which Rhys returns again and again. I’m glad I read the novels in the order I accidentally did because I might have been even more disappointed by the final novel if I had read the first four before I ever read anything else by Rhys.