“When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy, Do you think anyone has? I think you can be peaceful for a long time, When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes.”
I think a lot about this quote from Jean Rhys and the parallels I have with my relationship to painting. In the happiest periods of time, I have no desire to paint – I might sketch, draw, make photos – it feels more important to live in the moment, enjoy and soak in experiences. They feed you and make you feel full, contented. During sad times, like Rhys, I have total absorption in my work and the desire to transform the hurt through painting.
I have learnt that experience and the flux of emotions that come with it feed the work, it is both a visceral and cerebral response – the visceral comes from the emotional reaction and occurs immediately and almost spontaneously while the cerebral response arises from an intellectual reaction involving conscious thought and this takes me a long while to process and develop.
Like a novel, for me painting has to have shape and structure, and this is something Rhys had said about her work too – she’s a very pictorial writer,
“I like shape very much. A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any …
all of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
I have just finished reading Rhy’s critically acclaimed Wide Sargasso Sea – having read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre several times since a schoolgirl; I am surprised it’s taken me so long to read this hauntingly sad novel of the fictive early life of the first Mrs Rochester. Rhys draws on her own experiences from a child living in the Caribbean to that of Antoinette Rochester.
Rhys explores the female psyche in a time and place that had seen 300 years of savagery, slavery, prosperity, and racial prejudice from white to black, black to white, white to mixed race (Creole) and back again … full of whispers, secrets, deceit, sadness and lies all attributed to Antoinette’s decent into what everyone perceived was madness.
“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.”
There is a negative acceptance to Rhys’ sad heroine that led to her ultimate fate of being deemed a mad woman by the myth and history that suffocated her and ultimately let her down, echoed by the men in her life, her step father that effectively sold her dowry to Rochester, the ‘brother’ that betrayed her and the husband that eventually incarcerated her. Her life was too dependent on the ‘expected’ happiness and financial management of the men that surrounded her life. I wanted her to gather the strength to walk away from it all; but knowing the end of her fate before the story had begun was reading the short life of a doomed character. But boy did Rhys do it justice – amidst the treachery, I yearned for the brief moments of illicit passion and desire set against a potent mix of beautiful and varying light, vivid colours and heady scents that took my breath away.
“Only the magic and the dream are true — all the rest’s a lie.”
Melissa Budasz review, originally posted 8 February 2014