Memories of Jean Rhys: our interview with Diana Athill

We recently wrote to one of this month’s profiled authors to ask if she would be willing to answer some questions about the late Jean Rhys. We were delighted when Diana Athill responded with a charming picture postcard and an invitation to come and visit her. December’s guest blog is the result of our conversation.

Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence
Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence

Diana Athill, now in her mid-nineties, has often spoken about how much she likes living at this residential home in north London. The greatest wrench she experienced when she moved out of her old flat in Primrose Hill was the need to give up a lifetime’s worth of books.

There is a single tall bookcase to the left of the chair where she is now sitting. Although it holds a great many more volumes than my similarly-aged grandparents had in their entire house, Athill’s collection previously ran into the thousands. In fact, the mammoth task of being forced to reduce it caused her such stress that she ended up spending a night in hospital.

From the chairs she’s instructed us to pull up – warning me apologetically that mine won’t be very comfortable – we count several titles by Jean Rhys, the author whose career Athill helped to resurrect through her work as an editor at André Deutsch.

Readers of our first December post will know what a long wait Athill had in store for her when Rhys told her she could have the final draft of Wide Sargasso Sea in ‘six or nine months’, and of her support and encouragement over the nine years it took for Rhys to finally deliver her manuscript.

Did Athill ever feel frustrated with her, we wonder. ‘I quite often felt frustrated’, she says, ‘but on the hand it became sort of a habit… She was fun to be with, you see, when she was being happy. And she was great as a writer.’

In relation to her writing, Athill remarks that Rhys was ‘steely’. ‘She knew exactly what she wanted and she was always dead right. In relation to ordinary life, I think she got stuck at about the age of eight.’

But because she could be charming, people wanted to come to her aid: ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman, she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me.’

When we ask Athill about her happiest memories of Rhys, she responds with laughter. She recalls the times when she stayed at Rhys’s cottage in Devon, saying that they were ‘hardly happy… but fun’.

Rhys once described the village she lived in as ‘a dull spot which even drink can’t enliven much’. Athill reserves comment on the geographical location, but she was clearly horrified by the small house itself: ‘When I first saw it I thought, how could anybody live here?’

But although she and others spent hours trying to find the author an alternative home, Athill tells us that Rhys would always say, in the end, ‘I think not. Better the devil I know.’

After the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea and republication of her earlier novels brought her greater financial stability, Rhys’s friends arranged for improvements to be made to the house, which resulted in it becoming warmer. The shed beside the building was converted into a spare room.

‘The funniest time really’, Athill laughs, was ‘when I went there and I was staying in this awful little shed’. It was a windy night and the surrounding bushes were banging against its outer walls. She woke up thinking: ‘Oh goodness, it’s making even more of a noise, and so I opened my eyes and what did I see? My handbag flying through the air out of the window!’

It would turn out that a thief with a hook on a long wooden rod had whisked her bag away. Athill leapt out of bed, but the boy vanished immediately.

First page of the introduction to Smile Please by Diana Athill, Jean Rhys's unfinished autobiography.
First page of Diana Athill’s introduction to  Smile Please, Jean Rhys’s unfinished autobiography.

When she told Rhys about the incident the next morning, the author’s reaction was: ‘“Oh good!” Because she’d been telling people that she’d heard suspicious people creeping about outside at night and they’d all told her she was imagining it.’

Rhys was famously paranoid – something she herself admitted. ‘Victim’ is another term readily associated with her, although this was something that used to make her angry. ‘There was a lot of violence in Jean’, Athill says. ‘She used to get very, very cross when people said she was a victim because she knew perfectly well, in her heart of hearts, that she was pretty fierce.’

Rhys’s literary ferocity combined with her helplessness in everyday matters created the circumstances for her collaboration with Athill – one of the most important in recent literary history.

Diana Athill’s collection of short stories Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is published by Persephone Books. Her selected memoirs Life Class is published by Granta Books.

So Many Unexpected Connections

As we mentioned in our first post of the month, it was one of our blog readers, Sarah Emsley, who told us about the friendship of L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey.

We’d got to know Sarah through her website and her support of Something Rhymed. Forming this kind of unexpected connection, often across the seas, has been one of the real pleasures we’ve encountered as a direct result of setting up our project.

Since beginning Something Rhymed at the start of this year, we’ve profiled the friendships of eleven pairs of female authors. But, of course, these women’s relationships with other writers didn’t stop with a single friend. Through our research we’ve learned about other important connections between different authors we’ve featured on this site.

Winifred Holtby, lovingly memorialised by Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship, had earlier written a biography of her own: a book about Virginia Woolf. George Eliot, often believed to have been scornful of Jane Austen’s work, in fact studied the novels of her forebear in preparation for beginning to write her own fiction.

One of this month’s authors, L.M. Montgomery, felt a sense of affinity with Eliot. Mathilde Blind’s early biography of Eliot had such an impact on the then young and aspiring Montgomery that several of its words and phrases found their way into her own journals.

Elizabeth Gaskell was friends, not just with Charlotte Brontë, but also with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe, as we wrote in October, was such an admirer of Charlotte Brontë that she once asked a medium to help her try to make contact with the late author’s ghost.

A planchette - the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)
A planchette – the kind of device once used by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to try and make contact with the ghost of Charlotte Bronte. (Creative Commons licence)

One half of next month’s pair of writers was also greatly influenced by Brontë, but she adopted a less other-worldly approach. Jean Rhys’s most famous book Wide Sargasso Sea resurrects the story of Antoinette Cosway, her reimagined version of the character of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman’ who’d previously languished in the attic of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.

We look forward to sharing more of Rhys’s own story with you in our first post of December, next week, and also continuing to discover many more important links between the great female authors – connections that often transcended their historical eras.

A Room of One’s Own to Share

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

My gift for you, Emily, is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – a book to which I have returned so many times during my quest to find a literal and psychological writing space.

When I first read this extended essay on women and creativity in my college bedroom, we hadn’t yet met. The very fact that I was studying in Cambridge was evidence, perhaps, that the world had begun to listen to Woolf’s argument that women should receive the same access to education as men. Her words particularly resonated, since I read them from the other side of doors that had kept her locked out.

I don’t think I’d admitted to anyone that I wanted to become a writer myself but when the opportunity arose to run the college literary society, I jumped at the chance.

The first female writer I ever met was Bernice Rubens, and I got to take her to dinner in college. The drinking society members were downing glasses of wine and playing a game called ‘no hands pudding’, which involved them thrusting their faces into their food. ‘You don’t fit in here,’ Rubens told me. ‘You’ll look back and feel proud that you don’t.’

Cambridge introduced me to some brilliant and kind academics, to some very dear friends, and to many varied and wonderful books. But it was a world still relatively unused to northern state school educated women, so Ruben’s observation had been astute. I am profoundly grateful for the room I found during my time at Cambridge, but it wasn’t quite yet a room of one’s own.

I re-read the essay a few years after graduation, when I was by then trying to forge my way as a writer. In order to work on my first novel, I slept on a friend’s floor, shared a bunk bed with a flatmate, and lived as a warden in a raucous halls of residence. Woolf’s argument that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ had taken on, for me, a pressing significance.

Although I was still struggling to find a literal room of one’s own, I had by then found a figurative one in my friendship with you. In you, I discovered someone else who was also trying to carve out enough time and money and space to write, someone else who shared the conviction that it was worth the fight.

Most recently, I re-read A Room of One’s Own in the study in my backyard – my very own creative refuge. You have your own study now too. We have sat side-by-side at both of our desks, writing together about friendships between literary women. In this way, you have given me a gift that perhaps exceeds even Woolf’s hopes for the female writers who would follow her. With your help, I have been lucky enough to find not only a room of one’s own, but also a room to share.