The Blue Hour
A Portrait of Jean Rhys
London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009
Paperback. viii+322 p. ISBN 9781408801222. £8.99
Reviewed by Sylvie Maurel
Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail
As the subtitle indicates ("A Portrait of Jean Rhys"), Lilian Pizzichini's book is not quite a biography; it is a personal and sympathetic reconstruction of Jean Rhys's life and personality, drawing on a great variety of sources: Carole Angier's biography, Jean Rhys's unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, her stories and novels, her letters published in 1984, memoirs of Jean Rhys by Alexis Lykiard and David Plante, contemporary periodicals and newspapers, as well as unpublished material kept in the British Library. Pizzichini manages to weave the different sources into a flowing, pacey narrative the style of which is more evocative of a work of fiction than of a scholarly book grounded in historical fact. Lilian Pizzichini is a creative writer who has researched her subject matter of course but who has also used her imagination in order to flesh out her character when source material proved inadequate or incomplete. What we have here, in other words, is Pizzichini's vision of Jean Rhys, consistent, convincing and probably accurate enough.
Pizzichini's book borrows its title from the name of Jacques Guerlain's perfume "L'heure bleue", created in 1912, Jean Rhys's favourite perfume, which is described as a "melancholic fragrance" mourning for a lost past and also smacking of "the romance of the years leading to the First World War" [xi-xii]. The Blue Hour is divided into twenty-five short chapters which follow the chronology of Jean Rhys's eventful and meandering life, although the first chapter focusses on Jean Rhys's 1936 return to Dominica with Leslie Tilden Smith, her second husband, some thirty years after leaving the island. Chapter one evokes Jean Rhys's mixed feelings at rediscovering the loveliness of her old native place and finding everything changed, from the Imperial Road reduced to an overgrown track, to the family's estate Genever (or Geneva), now a ruin. From there, the narrative shifts to Jean Rhys's birth and childhood in Dominica [chapters 2 and 3] and will, from then on, follow in her footsteps, chronologically, year after year, place after place. Each chapter covers just a short period of Jean Rhys's life, demarcated either by one of her numberless moves or by a significant encounter.
Chapters 4 to 6 deal with her arrival in England, her time at Perse School, Cambridge and her training at the Academy of Dramatic Art known as "Tree's School". Chapters 7 to 11 relate Jean Rhys's life on the chorus line and her encounter with her first lover, Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith in 1910. Chapters 12 and 13 are devoted to her first marriage to Jean Lenglet, her life in Paris and Vienna before having to flee to Czechoslovakia on account of her husband's loss of embezzled money. After giving birth to her daughter Maryvonne in Belgium, Jean Rhys returned to Paris where she met Ford Madox Ford. The story of their relationship is told in chapters 14 to 17, which roughly span the 1920s, a crucial decade in Jean Rhys's development as a writer. It was then, under the tutelage of Ford, that Jean Rhys started to write. Her first novel, Quartet, was published in 1928. In the 1930s, Jean Rhys was back in England and remarried. The decade, discussed in chapters 18 and 19, was an intense one in terms of writing: Jean Rhys produced three novels (After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning Midnight) and a substantial number of short stories.
Chapters 20 and 21 cover the Second World War, a difficult time for Jean Rhys on all fronts. Worrying about her daughter who spent the whole war in occupied Holland, she was also wrestling with her last novel, for which she had an idea but which she could not get into novelistic shape. It was going to haunt her for nearly thirty years before she could complete it. Chapters 22 to 24 tell the story of her third marriage. The 1950s and the 1960s were not a happy time for Jean Rhys. They were marked by poverty, domestic strife, alcoholism, clashes with neighbours, and even prison.
In the middle of hardship, however, hope returned in the form of an ad in the New Statesman. Selma Vaz Dias, an actress who had adapted Good Morning Midnight into a dramatic monologue and needed the author's permission, was looking for her. She was in the process of being rediscovered. Francis Wyndham, an editor at André Deutsch, sold some of her stories to The London Magazine and published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. The last chapter, "La vie en rose", relates the last decade of Jean Rhys's life, the popularity brought about by the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, her work on Smile Please and Sleep It Off Lady, her last collection of short stories, with the assistance of a young writer called David Plante.
Most of the biographical facts mentioned in Pizzichini's Blue Hour are now well known thanks to Smile Please, Jean Rhys's autobiography, to her correspondence and, above all, to Carole Angier's biography, to which Pizzichini's prose comes uncannily close at times—did Angier's work creep into The Blue Hour as Jane Eyre had crept into Wide Sargasso Sea? In the author's note at the end of her book, Pizzichini acknowledges her indebtedness to Angier's Jean Rhys but claims she took a different approach: contrary to Angier "who finally diagnosed Rhys as a 'borderline personality' ", Pizzichini's aim "was to present the facts of Rhys's life in such a way that the reader is left with an impression of what it was like to have lived such a life" . She has clearly achieved this. It is as if the story was told from within, as if Jean Rhys's voice made itself heard through that of her biographer. Those who are familiar with Jean Rhys's style and fictional universe will be struck by this capacity for ventriloquism. A very convincing picture of the woman's and of the writer's anxieties emerges from this narrative "portrait".
The definite strength of Pizzichini's work is that it contains a wealth of contextual information. This is true of the chapters devoted to Jean Rhys's life in Dominica and even more so of the chapters dealing with Edwardian London. The biographical account is supplemented by very useful glimpses into the world of the Bloomsbury boarding-house, or the theatre of the 1910s, with the rise and fall of the musical comedy. In 1911 for example, Jean Rhys featured in The Count of Luxembourg at Daly's Theatre in Leicester Square. This is how Pizzichini accounts for the short run of the show:
The Count of Luxembourg, with its Viennese waltzes and high-octane romance, fizzled out quickly, spelling the end of the Gaiety Girl. The accelerated, syncopated rhythms of Ragtime crossed the Atlantic in 1912, along with new, indecorous dances like the turkey trot, the bunny hug and chicken scramble. The songs shopgirls wanted to hear went something like this: 'Florrie was a flapper, she was dainty, she was dapper, And her dancing was the limit, or the lid.' And they were not accompanied by languid sighs and wide-eyed smiles but by a wink and a shrug of the shoulders. The change of the feminine ideal reflected the changing society of pre-war England. 
Such touches of cultural history give the reader a sense of the context in which Jean Rhys lived and wrote. Interwar, Bohemian Paris is also successfully rendered with, of course, the evocation of the literary circles of expatriates and Ford's Transatlantic Review, but also the contemporary taste for bal musette and the fascination with demi-monde or lowlife characters:
Jean was well versed in Parisian lowlife, which, as Mrs Adam knew, was a hot topic at the time. Street thugs called 'apaches' were filling the papers with lurid stories. Their name derived from the 'Casque d'Or' affair of 1902. Two gangs led by rival pimps fought over a whore called 'Casque d'Or' on account of her flaming red hair. A reporter named one of the gangs the apaches. For the next thirty years every lowlife criminal in Paris was an 'apache'. [167-168]
On the whole, the cultural backdrop against which most of Jean Rhys's novels and stories were written is economically but effectively conveyed. If the book is enjoyable and vividly recaptures Jean Rhys's unconventional life and character, Jean Rhys scholars might find it frustrating for two reasons—for which Pizzichini may not be entirely responsible. The first is inherent in the generic framework within which Pizzichini is working: the approach to Jean Rhys's writing remains strictly biographical throughout. Pizzichini comes and goes between life and fiction, saying how such-and-such an episode in the writer's life went straight into one of her novels or stories, or using her fiction as a source for her biographical reconstruction. Pizzichini does say that Jean Rhys needed to distance herself from her experiences before she could turn them into fiction but her bias tends to cancel the distance and does not account for the creative process. The reader should not expect to learn much about Jean Rhys's narrative technique or literary craftsmanship. Pizzichini's comments on her fiction are mostly anecdotal, thematic or psychological.
The second cause for frustration is that, in the course of the book, Pizzichini does not make clear where she takes her information from. She identifies her sources in the author's note at the end, provides a short bibliography and occasionally mentions the title of the book she is referring to in the bulk of her text but she does not give the full reference of the material she is using when she is using it in foot- or endnotes. The absence of notes heightens the feeling of fluidity one derives from Pizzichini's narrative but it makes it difficult for a scholar to use her book for academic purposes.
The Blue Hour may be considered as a shorter, more easily legible version of Carole Angier's monumental work (762 p.). It was perhaps originally designed for the general public, more than for readers who specialise in British literature. However, the book will be of interest to anyone who is curious about Jean Rhys, the woman and the writer. Pizzichini's portrait is perceptive, well documented and written in the manner of Jean Rhys.
Cercles © 2011