Rhys Matters: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Mary Wilson & Kerry L. Johnson

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Mary Wilson & Kerry L. Johnson (eds.), Rhys Matters: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xvi + 248 pp. (Cloth US$90.00)

Rhys matters. This is the entirely apt argument advanced by Mary Wilson and Kerry L. Johnson. Yet even as they present an eloquent case for Jean Rhys’s relevance to modernism, Caribbean and postcolonial studies, and feminist theory, the editors identify the awkward position in which Rhys critics so often find themselves. That is, her texts lend themselves to a myriad of perspectives, as the wide range of approaches in this volume demonstrates, making her a simultaneously canonical and marginalized figure. What keeps her in various peripheries even after Elaine Savory’s 2009 declaration that “Rhys is now canonical” (cited, p. 1)? The best answer lies in Mary Lou Emery’s excellent foreword, in which she observes that “what really matters is her strangeness” (p. xi). Indeed, whether one approaches Rhys’s representations of femininity, cities, time, modernity, violence, or history, her world is always strange, uncanny, and yet cogent; her oeuvre is deeply complicated and yet presents a singular world view and aesthetic. These are some of many reasons for which Rhys’s work is deserving of extensive critical attention.

The volume seeks not so much to settle the question of how to characterize Rhys’s writing as a whole than to show how it has the effect of proliferating critical categories. The titles of the four sections speak to the rich, complicated terrain in her novels and short stories—“Alternatives and Alterities: Market, Time, Language,” “Being and Believing: Judeo-Christian Influences and Identities,” “The Location of Identity: Writing Space and Place,” and “Pleasure, Power, Happiness.” Rather than reflecting the areas of postcolonial studies, modernist studies, and so forth mentioned in the editors’ introduction, these eclectic section headings show that Rhys’s writing stretches across established fields of criticism. The complexity of these categories reflects the varied approaches taken by the essayists, most of whom are in the early stages of their careers and thus offer a snapshot of a new generation of Rhys scholarship. For example, Nicole Flynn’s “Clockwork Women: Temporality and Form in Jean Rhys’s Interwar Novels” offers an insightful reading of the tension between mechanical time and affective time, and Ania Spyrna’s essay explores Rhys’s Welsh background as it emerges through her use of the concept of hiraeth in Voyage in the Dark. Spyrna’s approach is timely, given that Rhys’s Celtic otherness is often overlooked for the broader and more familiar markings of “colonial” or “Creole” alterities.

The short section on Rhys and religion also diverges from the trend of linking her representation of religion to Caribbean traditions such as obeah or creolized religious practices. While Rhys’s representation of both Catholicism and Judaism has been covered elsewhere—most extensively in Maren Linett’s Modernism, Feminism, and Jewishness (2007)—the essays in this section provide detailed readings of Rhys’s interwar novels. Indeed, a strength of the collection as a whole is that it steers away from her most canonical work, Wide Sargasso Sea, to give more attention to her understudied novels and short stories. Even so, the topics of space and place have received enough critical attention since the 1990s and early 2000s that the essays in the third section break little new ground.

The last section is at once the volume’s most ambitious and its most problematic. The editors anticipate Rhys’s relevance to “happiness studies” in their introduction, yet acknowledge that “to approach Rhys through the lens of happiness is a radical departure from most narratives” (p. 15). Critical attention has focused, rather, on the abundant evidence of depression, pain, grief, trauma, and shame in Rhys’s emotional palette, and it remains difficult to filter her works through the lenses of happiness or even pleasure, as some of the essays demonstrate. However, Paul Ardoin offers an innovative reading of “the un-happy short story cycle” of Rhys’s Sleep it Off, Lady, presenting the collection as a coherent whole of interconnected stories and arguing persuasively that Rhys’s characters often abandon happiness for freedom. Ardoin makes good use of Sarah Ahmed’s theorization of happiness as an equation of social norms with personal goodness (2010), and he sheds light on Rhys’s rejection of this formulation. This essay succeeds where others in this section do not because Ardoin attends to the uncanny nature of “happiness” in Rhys; that is, un/happiness overlaps in a state of potential but unrealized freedom.

The range of essays in Rhys Matters underscores the extent to which Rhys’s oeuvre challenges categorization and is therefore cast into the shadows of such established fields as modernism, postcolonial studies, and feminist theory. Rhys goes against the grain, producing a rich splintering of theoretical, period, and philosophical paradigms. Even in her marginal canonicity, her work chaffs against such paradigms and demands fresh critical attention, as these new perspectives demonstrate.

Reference

Ahmed, Sara, 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

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