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Jean Rhys
Penguin Modern Classics

It is hard to see how Feminist critics can claim any part of her.

(Katie Owen, Introduction to Quartet)

Katie Owen’s introduction to Quartet gives many interesting insights into how Jean Rhys’s private life informed her work, but it is this sentence that really stood out for me. I find it most intriguing.

I wonder why it is that Jean Rhys cannot be claimed as a Feminist icon?

Is it because she relied financially on men throughout her life and because a man, Ford Madox Ford, discovered and nurtured her talent?  Is it because her private life was not, by conventional standards, a success?  Because she worked as a chorus girl, sold her body, and let her relationships with men dominate her life; submitting to a fatalistic drifter’s lifestyle and following her husband around Europe?

Perhaps I’m taking it the wrong way, but the quote seems to imply that although Rhys was a great writer, she has somehow let the side down.

However, I would say that in truthfully depicting the precarious position of a woman who finds herself alone in the world, she should be embraced by Feminists.  Being a woman in a patriarchal society means that one is more likely to face financial hardship – this was true when Jean Rhys wrote Quartet in the 1920s, and it is true now.  In the UK, it is women who have been hardest hit by austerity measures, benefit cuts and changes to the legal aid system. Women do what they have to do to survive, whether this meets with Feminist approval or not. (Source: Guardian)

In Quartet Marya finds herself penniless and without any means of support when her husband is imprisoned.  An exile in Paris, she is taken in by the Heidlers, but becomes victim to their strange, emotionally abusive manipulations and starts to unravel mentally.

It gave me the same sense of recognition I felt when I read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, and realised that other people suffered from depression too. However, I am inclined to think that Jean Rhys may be a better writer than Plath (and this is coming from someone who adores Plath and has read The Bell Jar at least twenty times).  Controversial! I’m desperate to read Rhys’s other work and will let you know how I feel about it.

Meanwhile, I wholeheartedly recommend Quartet – it feels very contemporary in its sense of disorientation and dislocation and is a beautifully written examination of life as an exile and outsider.