Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography by Jean Rhys (1979)

IMG_2701I first read Jean Rhys at university when her novel Good Morning, Midnight was on the reading list for a course about the 20th century novel. Since then she has been on my radar and I have kept most of her books on my long term TBR. I read Wide Sargasso Sea a few years ago, but apart from that I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read more of her work.

I am on a bit of a non-fiction kick at the moment, and the purchase of Smile Please was part of that. It was an obvious choice, as it was by an author I already knew I liked, who I knew had had an interesting life, plus it’s quite short and you can buy a beautiful Penguin Modern Classics edition with a picture of Jean Rhys on the front with a dog – which I did.

I would very much recommend reading the foreword to this book, written by the editor and author Diana Athill. Athill was Rhys’ editor for Wide Sargasso Sea, and also worked with her on Smile Please. Given that the book is unfinished, it certainly needs to be put in context, and Athill does this perfectly, drawing a vivid picture not only of Rhys and what it was like to work with her, but of the writing of this book specifically.

Only one section of the book could be considered finished, and that is the first, also titled “Smile Please”, about Rhys’ life in Dominica. As some readers may know, Rhys was born in Dominica and lived there until she was 16, at which time she came to England with an aunt. Rhys describes her early life episodically and with little dialogue because, as Athill describes in her foreword, she only wanted to write what she could remember accurately. This adds to the vividness of the narrative and takes us straight into the young Jean Rhys’ world. She tells us about certain events, such as having her picture taken (the origin of the title, as the photographer instructs her to smile), and when she jealously smashes a doll owned by her sister, that she wishes was hers. She also covers more general things such as her various aunts, her relationships with her parents, and what they always did on Sundays. In general Rhys paints quite a happy childhood, punctured only by feelings of social awkwardness and inadequacy, and the pain of not knowing how to act in certain situations. Like all childhoods there are moments of joy, and of pain.

The two further sections in the book are considered unfinished, although the first of these still reads very well. Athill has named it “It began to grow cold”, as Rhys never gave it a title, and it describes the first few years of her life in England, carrying straight on from the end of the previous section, where she begins her journey across the Atlantic.

Rhys had a dream of England as some sort of perfect place, and while it is not awful when she finally gets there, it is not as she imagines. This section is written much like the first, episodically, though there are fewer details and Rhys admits that she does not remember quite so much, and so clearly, as her childhood. She works as a chorus girl and tours the country with the troupe, lives in a so many different flats that you lose count, and eventually begins to drop in mentions of men and love affairs. She does not go into much detail about anyone except Jean Lenglet, who became her first husband. We begin to see the influence of her own life on her work, and indeed it is during this period that she first starts to write. Despite having a job and ‘love affairs’, and later a more serious relationship with Lenglet, Rhys still seems rootless, wandering, never having quite enough of anything and always at the mercy of landladies. She becomes disillusioned with England, and with London.

By the end of the section she and Lenglet are married, and have begun to travel in Europe with his job. Living in different cities seems to give Rhys a bit more spirit, and the section ends with the first real interest in her writing, and a mention of Ford Madox Ford, who became her mentor. We can see that her life will never be perfect, but she will be able to write, at least.

The last section is “From a Diary: at the Ropemakers’ Arms”, which is literally diary entries, and isn’t really finished work. Rhys begins the section with a note saying that these pages were written in the 1940s when she was separated from her third husband, Max Hamer, and living above a pub (The Ropemakers’ Arms) in Maidstone. It is rough and a bit random, a stream of consciousness that covers her own self-doubt, the family that own and run the pub, her rooms, her feelings about England and London, and her own existence. It is the most ‘unfinished’ part of the book, but oddly it works as a conclusion because it shows us a snapshot of her life after the events of the two earlier sections.

In Smile Please we see three distinct stages of Rhys’ life and the disparity between them, but also the similarities. In Dominica and in England, she is always somehow lost, not quite fitting in, not quite satisfied. Like the protagonist in Good Morning, Midnight, she uses several different names throughout her life, including her real name and her pen name, and this seems to exemplify her feelings of alienation and rootlessness, of being Other and never quite belonging.

In a way I liked that the unfinished nature of the book means that she does not consciously try to sum up her life and say ‘there you go’. Being unfinished, and written episodically, makes the autobiography feel more like real memories, like the way a real person would talk about their life. A life cannot be summed up so easily in words, but this book can be: an unpolished gem, essential reading for any fan of Jean Rhys.

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Originally published by André Deutsch in 1979. I read the 2016 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

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