I hadn’t read anything by Jean Rhys before reading this book, not even her most famous work Wide Sargasso Sea, so it may seem strange starting with this one; but I like short stories and it can sometimes be interesting taking a different route through an author’s work than others. So, Sleep It Off Lady is a collection of short stories, published in 1976, and I believe was Rhys’s last work to be published in her lifetime…but please correct me if I’m wrong about this. Months before her death she had started on her autobiography, Smile Please, which I assume was her project following this collection of stories and is one which would seem very natural as this collection of stories almost reads like a collection of autobiographical stories presented chronologically from her childhood in Dominica, her move to London and Paris, attempts at making a living as an actress and on to her life as an ageing outsider in the provinces. My knowledge of Rhys’s life consists mainly of the Wikipedia entry and whatever I’ve gleaned from other posts I’ve read in the Rhys Reading Week but I think it’s justifiable to say that the stories in this collection, although fictional, draw heavily upon her own life. Marina @ findingtimetowrite has also mentioned the similarities of subject and style with the two books.
The first few stories are set in the Caribbean at the turn of the 20th century. The first story, Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers, was a good one to start the collection; it begins with two young girls discussing the other inhabitants of the town and the narrative soon turns to the ‘nasty beastly horrible Ramage’, a handsome man, who had appeared a few years before and got married to a coloured girl, who couldn’t even be described as a ‘nice coloured girl’. Rumours about the goings-on at the Ramages’ house attracts the locals’ interest and ends rather badly. This story prepares us for the others in the collection as they concentrate on the outsider status of individuals in society, whether it’s Ramage in this story or the other Rhys-like characters in England.
The last of the ‘Caribbean stories’ is Fishy Waters, which begins as an epistolary story which introduces the case of Jimmy Longa, another outsider, who was on trial for trying to saw a young girl in half. Longa had claimed that it was just a drunken joke but the girl had been traumatised by the event. The story also concentrates on how these events affect Matthew Penrice, who discovered Longa in the act and who had to give evidence at court. In the end it’s not Longa’s story, the little girl’s story or Penrice’s story that claims centre-ground, instead it’s the whole society and the sense of alienation that they all feel.
But the alienation really kicks in with the subsequent stories as we encounter young girls at school and at work in England, recently arrived from the Caribbean. Not only do they have to encounter the cold weather but also a strange and bewildering social etiquette. Although Rhys’s style is quite sparse, she occasionally treats us to some great descriptive prose; here we have a description of a maid at a school from the story, Overtures and Beginners Please:
The maid came in to light up and soon it would be time to go upstairs and change for dinner. I thought this woman one of the most fascinating I had ever seen. She had a long thin face, dead white, or powdered dead white. Her hair was black and lively under her cap, her eyes so small that the first time I saw her I thought she was blind. But wide open, they were the most astonishing blue, cornflower blue, no, more like sparks of blue fire. Then she would drop her eyelids and her face would go dead and lifeless again. I never tired of watching this transformation.
And here is an excellent quote from one of the shorter stories that I feel sums up the feeling of most of the characters in these stories:
I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had a few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.
Some of the othere stories are set in France, such as The Chevalier of the Place Blanche where the Chevalier is in need of money to pay off a debt but when he is offered the money from a young girl on the condition that he accompanies her to Madrid he cannot accept. Neither he nor the girl are particularly surprised and each goes their separate way.
Particlar favourites of mine are in the last third of the collection, such as Rapunzel, Rapunzel and the title story. Rapunzel, Rapunzel is a story about a stay in hospital followed by a period at a convalescent home. The narrator has to endure boredom, other patients and melancholy but another patient’s encounter with a visiting barber is possibly even worse.
Sleep It Off Lady begins with the elderly Miss Verney talking about death, which has been on her mind recently. She has a mission to get rid of a shed on her property, only it’s difficult to get anyone interested in the project.
Left alone, Miss Verney felt so old, lonely and helpless that she began to cry. No builder would tackle that shed, not for any price she could afford. But crying relieved her and she soon felt quite cheerful again. It was ridiculous to brood, she told herself.
Being elderly and living alone is problematic as there are rats on her property, though no-one believes her, and there is always the problem of putting the rubbish out. This is a rather sombre tale but it’s probably my favourite in the collection and is a fitting conclusion to those that preceeded it as it’s about ageing, loneliness, alienation, helplessness and decay…with a bit of indifference thrown in for good measure.