- Jean Rhys’s Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole
With this book, Veronica Gregg offers the most serious and broadly informed study of Jean Rhys to date and provides an excellent model for a cultural studies approach to a single author. As the title implies, Gregg places Rhys within the context of world histories, politics, and social and literary movements that her work so richly deserves.
Of the four chapters, introduction, and conclusion that comprise the book, chapter 1 is most central in establishing Gregg’s main argument: that the writing of self and of history are deeply imbricated processes, and that to understand Jean Rhys one must understand the historical construction—in its broadest sense—of white West Indian Creole subjectivity. “[T]hrough quotations, allusions, and other forms of intertextuality, Rhys rewrites many of the topoi and texts of European discourse on the West Indies. Why? In order to write her self, she has to write through the constructions of selfhood assigned to her within prior and dominant discourses, to read her way through them.” It is Gregg’s able and complex reconstruction of Creole heritage, through her familiarity with the imperial and native histories of the West Indies—from the well-known writings of Carlyle, Froude, Trollope, and Marx, to the islands’ independent postemancipation newspapers—that makes this book a crucial addition to Rhys studies. Earlier Rhys scholars have explored Dominica’s history and the history of Rhys’s family in it but have often allowed that microcosmic view to dominate and distort the larger picture of the West Indies as a region and its nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements for political and cultural independence.
But in revealing the significance of Rhys’s West Indian context, Gregg never allows that context to congeal into a reductive definition. Instead, her analysis operates more by suggestion, inference, and the juxtaposition of oppositional texts than by the production of pointed arguments or exhaustive explanations. This mode of argumentation fits well with Gregg’s premise that Rhys was constantly rewriting West Indian history from a Creole perspective as a mode of self-discovery and autonomy. Gregg’s detailed working through of this supposition in her thorough examination of Rhys’s drafting process is a central contribution [End Page 895] both to Rhys studies and as a model for postcolonial and subjectivity studies. Another feature of this book that will be greatly appreciated by Rhys scholars is its comprehensiveness. Gregg appears to have read all of Rhys’s published and unpublished novels, stories, plays and screenplays, drafts and notebooks, letters and postcards, and she interweaves close readings of these materials brilliantly throughout the book.
Gregg makes another significant contribution to Rhys studies and studies of subjectivity in her careful examination of race in Rhys’s work. Gregg confronts Rhys’s racism unblinkingly as both a product of her heritage and a part of the process of her self-positioning, but she argues convincingly that Rhys’s prejudices and blindspots were not without moments of insight: “there is in all of Rhys’s writing a knotted dialectic tension between the ontological negation/appropriation of ‘black people’ and a formidably critical intelligence that understands and analyzes the constructed nature of the colonialist discourse that passes itself off as natural and transparent.”
Veronica Gregg’s new book is a significant and welcome contribution to the critical canon developing around Jean Rhys’s work. Its materialist method and depth of research remove Rhys from the kind of narrowly personalized accounts that have trivialized her art and potential impact. While Gregg rightly names Rhys a colonial, rather than postcolonial, writer, she also solidly establishes the value of deep and comprehensive studies of such an ambiguous colonial subjectivity.