Jean Rhys · Margery Sharp

The Innocents

I may have seen the name around, but I certainly don’t remember seeing it. I am talking about Margery Sharp.

margery-2017Browsing Jane’s blog, her post on celebrating Sharp’s birthday caught my attention. The comment section was particularly persuasive, so I decided to give Sharp a go, and join in. After all, one of the aims of this year’s reading is to get better acquainted with British women writers of the 20th century. After some research and consideration, I chose The Innocents.

the-innocents-margery-sharp-001It tells a story about an ”elderly single woman of no position and small means” who finds herself in charge of an intellectually disabled girl. Cecilia, the girl’s mother, comes back to collect her, full of grand but unrealistic plans for little Antoinette’s future.

One could draw a comparison with another character named Antoinette – that of Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, (though her story and her character are of greater complexity, of course). Both are unusual, so to say… different. Sharp’s Antoinette is ”an innocent”, a child with a disability, with special needs. Rhys’ Antoinette is neither black nor white enough, and therefore a stranger in her own country as well as in the adopted one. Both are taken or threatened to be taken away from the place they feel most at home, by the people who are failing to understand their needs and personalities. And both are facing a dreadful future.

The novel is engaging but not sentimental and I appreciated it all the more for it. The narrator, the elderly lady which is never named, is acutely perceptive and witty. Funny, as well. Here’s the first sentence:

My father was a connoisseur of wine; but times and incomes change and we with them, and now I am a connoisseur of weather.

I, obviously, do not know what kind of a person Margery Sharp was, and this is the first of her books that I have read, but I think I would not be wrong in saying that the mentioned qualities were hers as well, that she bestowed them to her character as she did her age.

I loved the descriptions of the village, its physical appearance as well as its spirit, its people. The first part of the novel, which deals with getting to know the child and getting to learn how to meet its needs, is wonderful. (And can be used as a textbook.) Sharp writes well and has a great command over her story.

I could make one remark, though – she leaves no food for thought to the reader. Everything is explained. Take this passage, for example:

Antoinette appeared neither glad nor sorry to see me back; certainly perfectly incurious as to where I had been. It was as though she had made a final retreat into passivity. Mrs. Brewer reported her good as gold all day, just curled up on her cot so quiet as a carrot. I had often thought that Mrs. Brewer’s similes seemed to spring from quite deep, if unconscious perception. With too much to bear, her last desperate and final escape frustrated, Antoinette was retreating from being a little animal into becoming a vegetable.

Wouldn’t it come out stronger if she had stopped at the carrot? If she had let the reader do the math?… The fact that the story is told in the first person narrative makes the elaboration, to some extent, excusable.

She does leave one thing to ponder on, though. The plural in the novel’s title.

All things considered, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and will heartily come back for more. She seems perfect for reading in between more demanding works. Also, it would be a good idea to save her stories for the uncommonly stressful days that tend to present themselves every now and then…

Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea

Three years ago, I wrote about favorite books I haven’t read. Sometimes it happens that, based on the presentation of a certain book (through a movie, TV series, through another book or an essay) or, more directly, on reading its first page or chapter I get a strong feeling that the book is important, that it’s going to be one of the treasured. As soon as I acknowledge this feeling, I leave the book aside. Out of fear maybe; maybe just because I want to save it for a better time, less stressful, when I would be able to invest more energy and presence of mind into reading it.

I always take into consideration the fact that the hunch could prove wrong – it being right so far does not mean it is unmistakable. So, there’s a regular dose of fear that the book in question will not be good, or that it will not mean anything to me, which, in a way, is what’s more important in these cases.

I approached Wide Sargasso Sea with reserve. Nevertheless, I was crushed. Such a small volume, so densely packed. Gloriously complex, mighty, disturbing. Devastating. Even though I knew the story, its end, in particular, I found myself hoping – for a little bit of sympathy and understanding, for just a little bit less stubbornness… It was a painful experience, I must admit. Something heavy lay on my chest, especially during the reading of the second part. In Antoinette’s words:

Such terrible things happen [..] Why? Why?

The opening lines, in which every word has its purpose, has a meaning, set expectations very high. The book is full of symbolism, there’s a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of parallels (a lot of foreshadowing through parallels too). It isn’t a book one reads once. It calls for multiple readings.

Instead of writing about what I perceived and understood, I want to note the scenes and sentences that left me in confusion, things that left me wonder.

  • Mount Calvary convent. The girls are stitching and listening to stories from the lives of the saints. All of the sudden, this:

Quickly, while I can, I must remember the hot classroom. The hot classroom, the pitchpine desks, the heat of the bench striking up through my body, along my arms and hands. But outside I could see cool, blue shadow on a white wall. My needle is sticky, and creaks as it goes in and out of the canvas. ‘My needle is swearing,’ I whispered to Louise, who sits next to me.

Why does she need to remember it quickly, while she can? At what moment in her life is she remembering this? The use of present and past tense in the last sentence is stunning.

  • The same conundrum here, when she’s talking about England with Christophine:

I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, I must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.

  • What is the meaning of the story about rats and moonlight?
  • Antoinette’s husband is unnamed. Her father as well. Why?

 

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P.S. Tremendously glad that I joined Rhys Reading Week, I send many thanks to Jacqui and Eric Karl for organizing it. Congratulations are in order too!

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys Reading Week

jeanrhysreadingweek-bannerHere it is at last! A week of reading and discussing the writing and life of Jean Rhys. I am curiously happy that I decided to join and very eager to read the thoughts of other participants.

I am still on holiday, but since this (apparently) does not mean that I don’t have to work I will have less time to dedicate to the event than I thought/planned.

That was one of the reasons why I started reading Wide Sargasso Sea ahead of the Rhys Reading Week. The other one was the fear that something (else) will come up which would not leave me time enough to write, which would consequently lead to not contributing my part.

I have read Voyage in the Dark, but I can’t recall when. Seems so long ago. What I can recall are darkness and dependency. I didn’t like that, I remember. I felt no urge to read anything else by Rhys. Then, at the university, when we discussed postcolonial literature and feminism her name was mentioned. Through The Madwoman in the Attic, I became aware of Wide Sargasso Sea, of the significance of the story it tells. It was the text that spoke to my interests – the rewriting of canon, giving the perspective of the Other.

Strange thing life is – all these years passed, other books were read… Why not Wide Sargasso Sea? It is difficult to tell. The experience with Voyage in the Dark (which just came at the wrong time, I am inclined to think) had nothing to do with it, I knew Wide Sargasso Sea was different. Was it because I already knew it, because I was so, indirectly familiar with it? Could be, in part… Also, there’s that tendency to leave great things for later. While this is reasonable in many circumstances, I cannot find any good argument in favor of this practice when it comes to books. Yet, I sometimes do practice it.

I finished Wide Sargasso Sea last night.

Today, I wish to get back on the first page again. And there’s no reason not to grant this wish.