To Read Is to Fly

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― Alberto Manguel


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Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography - Jean Rhys, Diana Athill image

There is something sadly fitting about Smile Please ’s being an unfinished autobiography. According to her publisher Diana Athill in the volume's foreword, Rhys was reluctant to revisit in an autobiography painful aspects of her past that she had already treated in her novels. At the same time, Rhys was frustrated by her readers' tendency to assume all scenes and characters in her novels were drawn directly from her own life.

This explanation of Rhys’s decision to reverse herself and begin work on her autobiography seems logical, but too pat. I suspect, although I could be wrong, that Rhys, at the end of her life, felt the need to reach back into the past and try to touch her former self, a lonely girl, and later woman, who always felt isolated and apart. Smile Please is a touching and heartbreaking representation of the deep loneliness and alienation at the core of Rhys’s identity. At the same time, there is a clear sense of Rhys’s strength, talent, and beauty emerging from these pages.

As I read Smile Please, I felt as though I was seeing scattered fragments of Rhys - glimpses of her life from childhood through young adulthood, creating a mosaic in which it often was difficult to capture more than a fleeting sense of Rhys’s innermost thoughts or sense of self. The work is composed of a series of short vignettes, with a first half, focusing on her childhood, that Rhys drafted completely herself, and a second half, composed of detailed notes about events during her adulthood, that Athill later shaped into their current format.

The scattered feeling at the heart of Smile Please comes not only from the book’s format, but also from Rhys’s style of approaching her life obliquely. From her very first paragraphs, as she describes a photograph of herself as a young child, she depicts the past as ephemeral, and herself in the past as irretrievably isolated from herself in her present:

"The chosen photograph in a silver frame stood on a small table under the sitting-room jalousies of our house in Roseau. It pleased me that it was by itself, not lost among the other photographs in the room, of which there were many. Then I forgot it.
"It was about three years afterwards that one early morning, dressed for school, I came downstairs before anyone else and for some reason looked at the photograph attentively, realising with dismay that I wasn’t like it any longer. I remembered the dress she was wearing, so much prettier than anything I had now, but the curls, the dimples surely belonged to somebody else. The eyes were a stranger’s eyes. The forefinger of her right hand was raised as if in warning. She had moved after all. Why I didn’t know; she wasn’t me any longer. It was the first time I was aware of time, change and the longing for the past. I was nine years of age." (13-14)

Throughout, Rhys continues to explore this strong sense of isolation and loss. She describes her inability to bridge the gap of race and status separating her from her family’s servants in the West Indies, a sense of separation that extended to her awareness of an unbridgeable chasm between herself and the West Indians living around her, particularly as she remembered an interaction between herself and an older black girl at her convent school, whom she was admiring and longing to befriend:

"Finally, without speaking, she turned and looked at me. I knew irritation, bad temper, the ‘Oh, go away’ look. This was hatred -- impersonal, implacable hatred. I recognized it at once and if you think that a child cannot recognise hatred and remember it for life you are most damnably mistaken.
"I never tried to be friendly with any of the coloured girls again. I was polite and that was all.
"They hate us. We are hated.
"Not possible.
"Yes it is possible and it is so." (39)

In her recollection of this event, Rhys does not reflect much on the politics of race relations in the West Indies. She captures her childhood understanding, as if caught in amber, and holds it up for us to examine.

Rhys’s sense of separation also extended to her relationship with family members. Of her mother after the birth of her younger sister, she writes, “Yes, she drifted away from me and when I tried to interest her, she was indifferent.” (33). Longing to find a way to compete successfully for her mother’s attention, Rhys writes, “Once I heard her say that black babies were prettier than white ones. Was this the reason why I prayed so ardently to be black and would run to the looking glass in the morning to see if the miracle had happened And though it never had, I tried again. Dear God, let me be black.” (33) Her father, although a kind man, was too preoccupied with politics and the adult world to pay much attention to Rhys. “I can only remember my father in little things. I can remember his walking with me arm in arm up and down the verandah, how pleased I was. He gave me a coral brooch and a silver bracelet.” (58) However, as she leaves the Dominican Republic for England at the conclusion of the first section of Smile Please, Rhys straightforwardly records the end of that stage of her life, “Down in the cabin which I shared with my aunt I saw that the little coral brooch which I was wearing had been crushed. I had been very fond of it; now I took it off and put it away without any particular feeling. Already all my childhood, the West Indies, my father and mother had been left behind; I was forgetting them. They were the past.” (76)

The second section of Smile Please, “It Began to Grow Cold,” focuses on Rhys’s life in England -- her struggles to feel at home in a cold, foreign England, her aunt’s frustrations over Rhys’s odd ways (for example, her taking hot baths in English boarding houses), Rhys’s attempts to feel a part of life at school in spite of her odd clothes. Her intermittent career as a chorus girl brought home to her the feeling of living precariously, with unpredictable lodging, constant worries over money, and the constant need to be on guard and aware of some men’s sexual predation on chorus girls. Throughout this section, Rhys shies from providing intimate details of her relationships with men. Describing her first affair, she writes only, “By now, my first real affair with a man had started. The pantomime didn’t run for long and I didn’t try for anything afterwards. I knew that however crudely Mr. Peterman had spoken when he asked what the hell I was doing on the stage, he had spoken the truth, but my lover imagined that I could get on in the theatre and insisted that I should have singing and dancing lessons. Dutifully I attended them. The rest of the time I spent looking out of the window for the messenger boy, because he always sent his letters by messenger.” (91) Throughout the rest of the book, Rhys continues to refer obliquely and glancingly to important relationships and events in her life. Her connection with lovers and former lovers often is played out via impersonal intermediaries. In some of the most heartbreaking writing in her autobiography, Rhys remembers her struggles to eke out a living for herself and maintain her dignity.

Smile Please is a heartbreaking autobiography, but there is beauty in the facets of Rhys’s story. Her writing is spare, direct, and often lovely. Her unflinching depiction of herself makes me ache for her, but also admire her. Her ability to rise above her pain, to turn it into art, provides us now with a means to connect with her after her death. I hope she feels us in some way. I hope she no longer feels alone.


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