- Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text
Feminist critics and Jean Rhys enthusiasts will note with interest the appearance of Nancy R. Harrison's Jane Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text, especially because, despite the recent resurgence of critical interest in Rhys, the need continues for full-length feminist readings of her work. Harrison convenes a remarkable array of critical voices in this textual analysis, from Gilbert and Gubar and Ellen Moers, through Freud, to Gallop, Irigaray, and Kristeva. She demonstrates, as well, a thorough familiarity with the body of Rhys's fiction, and with Rhys scholarship [End Page 343] to date, her only puzzling omission Teresa O'Connor's excellent Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels (1986), which treats in detail the two novels Harrison's analysis also centers on.
Beginning with the assumption that women's novels in this century are more directly autobiographical than are men's novels, Harrison's study takes a pragmatic view of the act of reading: the woman's novel, she maintains, acts out her life in gestures that can be recognized by an audience of women. Recognizing this gesture has political consequences for the woman reader, because for feminist analysts (as opposed to male theorists) neither implied reader nor writer can be a fiction, and by learning to read as "common readers" (a term Harrison opposes to "professional readers," critics, reviewers, and academicians), women can respond to other women's narratives in a political way, in the process minimizing, avoiding, or even eliminating altogether the "disabling effects of the father-text of literary criticism."
Harrison's book seems to consist of several long essays, including close readings of Voyage in the Dark and Wide Sargasso Sea, somewhat awkwardly spliced together, so that the insights arrived at in one section do not always seem to be available to inform another section. The study would have benefited from much more thorough editing; the writing is flawed by annoying repetitions of ideas and unfortunately belabored metaphors, as well as by a surprising number of awkwardly composed sentences and paragraphs, especially in the more heavily theoretical sections, where difficult and subtle ideas tend to be dulled or obscured almost to the point of incomprehensibility. She also seems to take at face value the façade of elaborately composed and stagy statements about her writing with which Rhys placated an audience of "professional readers" fascinated with the woman behind the fictions; these statements often represented, to borrow a phrase Nancy K. Miller uses in regard to Colette, what Rhys was "prepared to reveal" about herself. The correspondence between life and art in her novels is a great deal more complicated than Harrison's analysis acknowledges it to be, and the shock of recognition Harrison's "common reader" is supposed to feel on encountering the woman's side of the story in Rhys's fiction is effected as much by Rhys's revision of prior texts and of received ideas about writing fiction as it is by the framework of autobiographical details on which Rhys arranges these ideas.
Harrison is at her best when closely reading scenes, as she demonstrates in her discussion of Rhys's adroit exposition of systems of exchange in Voyage and in her thoughtful analysis of Rhys's use of italicized passages. Rhys critics will especially appreciate Harrison's discussion of what she calls "levels of verbalization," by which Rhys inscribes her marginalized protagonist's unspoken thoughts and experiences in the interstices of the dominant culture's idiom—an idiom that refuses to admit the validity of what the fragile Rhys protagonist manages, haltingly, to say. And Harrison's remarkable analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea, which intersperses readings of Rhys's novel with Brontë's Jane Eyre and Villette and with Freud's Dora and The Interpretation of Dreams, is rich with insights. [End Page 344]