Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Like many others, I “met” the novelist Jean Rhys when I read Wide Sargasso Sea, her most well-known work and a prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The novel turned out to be an unsettling but fascinating read. Both psychologically dark and stylistically complex, it tells the story of Rochester’s first wife – from her childhood to her complicated romance with Rochester all the way to her descent into madness. The novel also attempts (with a greater degree of courage, I might add) to offer an exploration of Rochester’s side of the story and his enchantment with the young Dominican woman, his fear of the untamed Caribbean countryside and his ultimate rejection of this first woman. When I finished Wide Sargasso Sea, I was eager to find more of Rhys’s work.


From what I understand, Wide Sargasso Sea, along with the rest of Rhys’s novels, all represent her own life and experience in some way or another. I had wondered about this while reading Good Morning, Midnight because something about the emotional structure of the novel led me to believe it was her story in more ways than one. I don’t usually ever assume a first person narrative equals a form of autobiography but in this case it did. And it didn’t detract from the novel at all; in fact, that rawness lent an edge to the story that a more conventional narrative might not have been able to achieve.


Good Morning, Midnight is like a swan song – desperate and beautiful and bleak and disturbing. The narrator Sasha is just fumbling along toward the end of herself, groping for some shred of experience or memory that might offer a little comfort. She isn’t trying to buy time, she’s biding her time. Until “midnight”. She’s starkly realistic about her situation – poor, ageing, charmless. Mostly, she’s defeated. By men, the loss of her child, her youthful optimism, by her addictions to attention and alcohol.


There is a telling scene where Sasha walks around town trying to buy a hat. First, she encounters another woman on the same errand:


I look at the window of the first shop. There is a customer inside. Her hair, half-dyed, half-grey, is very disheveled. As I watch she puts on a hat, makes a face at herself in the glass, and take it off very quickly. She tries another – then another. Her expression is terrible – hungry, despairing, hopeful, quite crazy. At any moment you expect her to start laughing the laugh of the mad.


But just after, Sasha enters another shop and begins the same feverish ritual. At one point she recognizes that other woman’s demented expression on her own face in the mirror. It terrifies her and she almost charges out but instead, she manipulates the moment into a relationship and dependence on the shop girl which was both frightening and touching. She’s actually gone beyond reacting to the horror of her situation, she’s willing to embrace it.


The present tense action of Sasha’s account focuses on a man she meets – a gigolo. He wants to seduce her. She wants very much to be seduced. They wine and dine each other around Paris, both arguing and consoling each other for unmentioned past hurts. Within every conversation is an element of misunderstanding and discord. Sasha is petrified. The man seems false. They are both pathetic and unlikeable.


In the last few pages of the book the somewhat disorganized story line converges into an intense scene between Sasha and the gigolo. It’s a detailed and unforgiving portrait of Sasha’s battered psyche and the scene results in a resolution which is difficult to interpret. 


Rhys has four other novels, all of them purportedly autobiographical in nature. I think it would be interesting to read them all. I found Wide Sargasso Sea and Good Morning, Midnight to be stylistically quite different and I love an author who can pull that off.


In my searching around this morning about Rhys, I also found a reference to this book: Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, Germaine Greer. It’s written by the American novelist David Plante, who spent years cultivating friendships with all three women.


The New York Times reviewed Plante’s book in 1983 and here is a small excerpt of that article citing a portion of the memoir dedicated to Jean Rhys:


Rhys is sitting drunk in her chair with Mr. Plante beside her: ”She seemed suddenly to rouse herself internally, and she shouted ‘Oh David, I’m unhappy. You be happy. I’m so unhappy, all my life I’ve been so unhappy. It’s unfair. I’m dying. I want to die. It’s unfair. I’m dying, my body’s dying, and inside I think: it’s unfair, I’ve never lived, I’ve never lived.’ ”


Within a few minutes of this dismaying outburst Rhys says: ”Listen to me. I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake. It is very important. Nothing else is important.”


Despite yesterday’s promise not to buy any new books, I ordered this memoir straight away.


16 Responses to “Jean Rhys – Good Morning, Midnight”

  1. Trish

    How did I miss Wide Sargasso Sea? Both of these books sound beautiful–but a prequel to Jane Eyre is really intriguing to me. Thanks for the review!

  2. Litlove

    I would certainly read that memoir. I’ve always held back from Jean Rhys without really knowing why, but maybe the life may actually be the way into the work for me.

  3. verbivore

    Trish – Wide Sargasso Sea was fascinating. It changes how we read Jane Eyre (although it is much more contempory so its also easy to think of as a completely separate entity). I’d be very interested to hear what you think!

    Litlove – Its funny, I prefer most writing without too much biographical interference (at least at first) but I think you’re right that with Rhys it might be the best way to study her. I can’t wait to get the memoir – all three women sound fabulously cantankerous.

    Care – We’re all just swimming around, aren’t we?

  4. charlotteotter

    I love the idea of literature as a lake fed by great rivers and small streams. It’s a fabulous image. I also “met” Jean Rhys through WSS, but I would love to read the memoir, especially as it is about other women writers too.

  5. kirstenjane

    I really like Rhys, especially her short stories & WWS. Recently I read Voyage in the Dark – I haven’t read GMM (yet!) but you’ve captured her propensity for emotional rawness brilliantly.
    The memoir sounds great – the lake is a wonderful image.
    I’ve just started reading a collection of her letters (1931-1966) which covers the 25 year silence between the publication of GMM and WWS “the letters chronicle two important aspects of her life: the circumstances which lead to her silence, and her ensuing struggle to break it”

  6. verbivore

    Charlotte – I was also really struck with the beauty of that image. It makes any contribution to literature sound so important, doesn’t it? I’m very excited about the memoir and hope it will arrive soon!

    Kirstenjane – Did you like Voyage in the Dark? That title sounds so sinister…I saw that many of her letters were available, that must make for some fascinating reading. I’ll have to see if I can get a copy from the library.

  7. fiona

    What a great post! (I’m sure I would have broken my promise too, with such an inviting biography in the balance!) I loved The Wide Sargasso Sea. I thought her use of setting was exceptional. And I couldn’t agree more about Rhys’s treatment of Rochester. I think I would like to read more Rhys now. But one does have to make oneself ready for her particular ‘rawness’.

  8. verbivore

    SnackyW – Nice way to put it. I was suprised at how contemporary a lot of the book felt – not necessarily the writing but the terms she used and how open she was about sex.

    Fiona – I’m usually better at the no-book-buying promises but this time I couldn’t resist :-).

  9. Eva

    Very interesting! I don’t think I’ll be reading more of her, but it was great to learn about her from her post. 😀

  10. C.B. James

    Rhys actually sounds like a very interesting person, happy or not.

    That bit about the lake is fantastic!

  11. verbivore

    Eva – I’m glad you could get a bit of a peek into her life, even if you didn’t love Wide Sargasso Sea.

    C.B. James – Isn’t it wonderful? I think she was an interesting person, although probably unbearable to be around 🙂

  12. GK

    I too read Good Morning, Midnight some years ago. It impressed me a lot. At that time there was no internet and so on. Now I can see too many reviews about Jean Rhys . There is one gigilo charector coming in Good morning midnight. I don’t remember exactly those things

  13. GK

    I too read Good Morning, Midnight some years ago. It impressed me a lot. At that time there was no internet and so on. Now I can see too many reviews about Jean Rhys . There is one gigilo charector(the guy who dances with lady club dancer) coming in Good morning midnight. I don’t remember exactly other things. But the novel has impact in me for many days.

  14. GK

    Can anyone write what happens to Sasha at the end in Good Morning Midnight?

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