Smile Please: an unfinished autobiography by Jean Rhys

“So as soon as I could I lost myself in the immense world of books, and tried to blot out the real world which was so puzzling to me. Even then I had a vague, persistent feeling that I’d always be lost in it, defeated.”

Smile Please is Jean Rhys’s attempt at autobiography. In the introduction by Diana Athill she explains how difficult Rhys found the process, how different it was to her usual writing which simply ‘happened to her’, which makes some sense when you read her fiction and find yourself tumbling down a slippery thread of thoughts, so little actually happening. Rhys was in her 80s when she started writing Smile Please and, sadly, she didn’t live to finish it. Athill, however, says that she, as editor, made very little change to the text and presents them as honestly as possible. A testament to Rhys’s writing skill that barely a word needed to be altered.

The book is split into 3 sections: the first section is the work that Rhys considered to be finished, the second elements that she considered unfinished (though they are perfectly readable) and a third section which are extracts from a diary, little more than notes really. Whether Rhys is writing fiction or non-fiction her writing is so controlled and so accomplished it is astonishingly easy to read. It is written as a series of short vignettes, each one about a different event – a photograph (from where the title is taken), the carnival, Sundays, religion, her father, her time as a chorus girl. To those who have read Rhys’s work, much of the events and the people will be familiar as many appear in her fictional work, though what is interesting is the differences from the fictional element. Having just read Voyage in the Dark I felt a shock of recognition as she describes the man (without naming) who became Walter in Voyage:

“When I first met this man I rather disliked him, and why I came to worship him I don’t quite know. I loved his voice, the way he walked. He was like all the men in all the books I had ever read about London. He lived in Berkeley Square, and I got used to the warmth, the fires all over the house, the space, the comfort. When I left to go back to my rather cold room, I was never envious. It was right, I felt.”

Unlike her fiction there’s a lightness to the stories in Smile Please. You get a sense that her fiction became a way of exorcising her demons, of spilling all the badness and sadness onto the page. Here she is factual, optimistic, generous in part. It is an interesting perspective. The vignettes pass between Dominica, England and Paris, three places where Rhys spent much of her time and which had a significant impact on her. The vignettes are little snapshots into her daily life. Surprisingly for Rhys they are not all depression and misery. As in her fiction, there’s a sense that Dominica has seeped passionately into her soul:

“It was there, not in wild beautiful Bona Vista, that I began to feel I lived the land and to know that I would never forget it. There I would go for long walks alone. It’s strange growing up in a very beautiful place and seeing that it is beautiful. It was alive, I was sure of it. Behind the bright colours, the softness, the hills like clouds and the clouds like fantastic hills. There was something austere, sad, lost, all these things. I wanted to identify myself with it, to lose myself in it. (But it turned its head away, indifferent, and that broke my heart.)”

Which reminded me of Voyage, and the way the protagonist so hopelessly dreamed of her childhood home. Aside from the recognition that Smile Please brings to Rhys’s work, her keen observational skills and intelligence really shine through in these little vignettes. Here she reflects on Sundays in church and the foibles of her fellow attendees:

“The pew near us across the aisle was occupied by a Mr. Burton, his wife and two children. They never knelt because Mr. Burton disapproved of kneeling. He said it was papist, and that he wouldn’t kneel to anybody or anything. So when the rest of the congregation knelt, they all sat at the extreme edge of their seats, in a crouching position, heads bent, eyes shut. It looked very uncomfortable and when everyone was able to sit up, Mr. Burton looked hot and red. However, he soon recovered enough to keep a wary eye on Mr. Dance, the clergy man, whom he suspected of wanting to introduce other papist practices, genuflexion, incense, then confession, and the door wide open to the Great Whore of Babylon. As to the worship of the Virgin Mary. ‘Worship a woman,’ Mr Burton would say, ‘I’d as soon worship a bloody cow!’”

Which led me to an interesting thought about God and how the creation of God in a patriarchal society quite effectively disempowers women because if we see women as the life-givers, then this is a serious form of power which deserves respect and recognition, but if the woman is reduced to a vessel…

Anyway, just an example of how Rhys, in fiction or in fact, has the power to make you think, to bring to light the dark, shaded places of the world and show them for what they are. Smile Please is a lovely read, it elucidates Rhys’s work in a surprising way and fleshes out the real woman – the one who’s shadow appears in all her fiction. And it was reassuring, in a way. From her fiction I have been left feeling terribly sorry for Rhys, what a sad and lonesome and desperate life she led. Through Smile Please I have come to see that whilst the fiction is based on fact it is only one view of the facts and there is a much broader picture out there. Rhys’s life was not relentlessly sad and neither was she. And it’s made me more respectful of her as a writer; she writes with such veracity you have to believe it is true. And it is, but it’s a version of the truth, not the whole truth. That’s what reading Smile Please gives the reader – another, more hopeful version of the truth.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in #ReadingRhys, memoir, non-fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Smile Please: an unfinished autobiography by Jean Rhys

  1. JacquiWine says:

    Lovely review, Belinda. I like the way you’ve highlighted the parallels with Voyage in the Dark – it’s hard not to think of Anna and Walter at certain points. It’s interesting to note how difficult she found the process of writing her autobiography compared to her stories and novels, the latter coming more naturally to her. The sense that novels can have a certain ‘shape’ whereas life often has none.

  2. Nargis Walker says:

    Just found my old copy of Smile please, and after reading your review I can’t wait to read it again. I’d forgotten so much of it. The description of the small minded anti-papist Mr Burton is written with such a fine turn of humour and just a little malice that is positively Dickensian! What a wonderful apoplectic creation he is. Thanks for reminding me that Rhys can be funny as well as melancholic. Really nice piece this.

  3. 1streading says:

    I’m glad to hear the fiction presented only one aspect of her life!
    I have a copy of this but, having read two Rhys novels, I’m going to take a break now.

    • bookbii says:

      I completely understand, Grant. I always feel like I need a rest after reading something by Rhys, though thankfully during the #ReadingRhys week I read a novel plus this which made it a whole lot easier.

  4. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

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