‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

jeanrhysreadingweek-bannerI 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.

rhys-sleep-it-off-lady_fcx-700pxThe 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.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Rhys, Jean

15 responses to “‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

  1. I started with Wide Sargasso Sea due to the Jane Eyre connection, but I can see what you mean about short stories being another way into a writer’s work. Any plans to read the novels?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      What put me off WSS was that I haven’t read Jane Eyre – I used to avoid Brontës & Austen along with most British authors. After reading other reviews on Rhys Week I’m eager to read some of the novels.

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      • I’d recommend reading Jane Eyre (if you can) first as WSS slots into the story.

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      • Jonathan

        Thanks Guy. I keep meaning to read more Austen & Brontës but I think as far as Rhys’s other work is concerned I may read something other than WSS first as they appeal to me more—some of the posts this week have piqued my interest.

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  2. Rhys seems particularly suited to the short form (all her novels are pretty slim) so her stories are as good a place to start as any. Even though I’ve yet to read this collection, I can see the connections with her other work, especially with respect to the sense of alienation and outsider status. It’s interesting how she continued to write about aspects of Caribbean life throughout her career, not just in her early work. It must have had such a significant influence on her character.

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    • Jonathan

      I suspect that she quite liked the outsider status. Bukowski & Céline were two favourite authors that revelled in their outsider status; there’s a certain appeal to me of this sort of writing.

      I wonder if Rhys ever returned to the Caribbean.

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  3. Thank you for the kind mention! I love her use of the Caribbean backdrop, which is affectionate but never over-lush or sickly sweetly nostalgic. I think her perception of racial tensions and the arrogance of colonial privilege are so ahead of their time. This must be because she was so acutely aware of the outsider status all her life.

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  4. Jonathan

    It would be interesting to read Smile Please now that I’ve read SIOL. I found the later stories in this collection to be my favourites, i.e. the ones with more elderly characters.

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  5. Great commentary on this collection.

    I have not read Rhy’s but based on what I am reading about her work on various blogs makes me want to.

    I tend to be drawn to stories of alienation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      If you like stories of alienation then you should like Rhys. I’m going to read something else by her soon, most probably Smile Please will be my next one.

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  6. Rhys is not a cheerful read, that’s for sure, but she definitely is brilliant at capturing the life of alienated outsiders!

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  7. Very nice. It does sound like short story collection as (auto?)biography, which is interesting. I plan to pick up this new Penguin collected works and then hopefully read each collection separately within that (if Penguin collect them so as to make that practical).

    As for “ageing, loneliness, alienation, helplessness and decay…with a bit of indifference thrown in for good measure.” Yup, sounds like Rhys to me.

    I’ve not read WSS either, mostly as I haven’t read Jane Eyre and wasn’t really planning to do so. I don’t think it helps that Jane Eyre now feels like homework to me prior to reading WSS. Not sure what I’ll do there.

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  8. Jonathan

    I hadn’t really considered Rhys before this week as WSS was her famous book and it was a prequel to a book I hadn’t read—that sort of thing always puts me off. Similarly a long series of novels (or films or TV series) has the same effect, especially if a single book attracts my attention but then I realise that it’s #12 in a series. Long series must put as many people off as they attract.

    I think I’ll just see what I can pick up of Rhys’s work from the library before stumping up any money—I got SIOL from my County Store and I’ve requested Smile Please—well, someone may as well read these books.

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  9. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

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