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Two unfinished sentences


The Jean Rhys Committee
Diana Athill Writer
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Well, Jean Rhys, of course, was the person I had to do most for, because Jean was absolutely incapable of life… living. I mean, life was just hopelessly beyond her. And when she was young, she floated from man to man in a hopeless way, being looked after by whoever picked her up. And by the time she was old, she floated from kind woman to kind woman, who picked her up. And well, we had a sort of committee. We had what we called the Jean Rhys Committee, which was Francis King… not Francis King, Francis Wyndham, Sonia Orwell and me. And we used to have these lunches together saying, 'Now what are we going to do?

Because, by the time we took her on, we thought she was dead. You see, everyone thought she was dead. It was Francis who introduced me to her writing who said there was this wonderful writer called Jean Rhys, who wrote before the war. Do you know anything about her? No, I didn't. And he lent me her books, and I said, 'Yes, she is good'. And he said, 'Do you know, I think we ought to reissue them'. And I said, 'Well, I don't think yet', because this was just before the war that she wrote her last book. It's not quite a long enough time to make a dramatic thing about reissuing somebody. I mean, she's still, sort of, out of date rather than in the past, but yes, she ought to be finally reissued. And then Francis discovered that she was, in fact, still alive, because the BBC had been approached by a mad old actress who…

[Q] Selma? Selma?

Selma, Selma Vaz Dias, who had done a dramatic version of Good Morning, Midnight, which she wanted to act herself, and they had advertised for anyone who knew anything about the late Jean Rhys. They'd advertised it in the New Statesman. And the late Jean Rhys saw a copy, or had a copy of it, and wrote to them, 'Oi, I'm here, living in Cornwall'.

And what had happened was that her husband, who was her third husband, I think, poor old Max. He was a retired naval officer, not very sensible. They were very poor. He met a… a wicked rogue of some sort who had mad schemes about how to make money, and had got carried away. Max had gotten involved. And Max was, I think, a solicitor by then, working in a solicitor's office. And he actually embezzled some money, thinking he was going to invest it in something and make great quantities of money at once and pay it all back. He ended up in prison. And they had been living absolutely on their uppers, having a most dreadful time. Poor old Jean had been hitting the bottle like mad, and she'd been coming up in court quite often because of people complaining about her. And then Max was in prison. Awful, awful, awful time they had. And when he came out, their mutual family said, 'Look, get lost, you two', and gave them just enough money to go down to Cornwall and get themselves, sort of, rooms somewhere. And they'd lived… once, they'd lived in a caravan. But they got lost down in Cornwall, and because the war had happened, and everyone did… you know, people could get lost during the war, Joan… Jean had been, sort of, vaguely known in the literary world before. She never was well known, but people had known her. And people would say now, 'What's happened to Jean Rhys?' And all kinds of stories. Some people said she'd drowned herself in the Seine, which was the sort of thing she well might have done. And she was supposed to be dead, but she wasn't.

So Francis wrote to her and said, 'I'm so glad you're not dead. What's up with you?' And she said, 'I'm writing a new book. I'm not finished yet, but it ought to be finished in about six months'. And he wrote, got us… got me to write, because he was working… not quite working for us, but being our literary advisor, at that time. And I wrote and said, would… would she accept a small amount as an advance, which wouldn't be the total advance for the book, but it would be to make sure that she would come to us with it when it was finished. £25! Even in that day, that was all that André would rise to for that kind of thing, when even then… when, after all, £25 in the 50s, was a good deal more than it is now, but it was still pretty mingy. But of course, what we didn't know was that the poor woman was really absolutely on her uppers. I mean, she was desperately short of money. And poor old Max was by that time, in a very collapsed state, and was pretty ill. And she was sort of saved by her… she had an old brother who disapproved of her terribly and didn't do much for her, but who bought her a miserable cottage in a place called Cheriton in Devonshire, so at least she had a roof over her head by then. But I mean, what a roof! I mean, when I first saw it, I was so shocked. It was on the edge of the village, over the hedge. You couldn't see anything, because the hedge was rather high, but behind it, there was this little row of five little joined-together bungalows. Tin roofs. I mean, it was… they were piteous little houses. The thought of living in one of them simply chilled one's blood. And there she was, in this wretched little place. And Max, by that time, was half the time in hospital and half the time at home, and although one didn't know it, when he was at home, he was being starved by Jean, who was quite incompetent to look after an ill man. And drunk half the time, anyway. Oh, I mean she did have a most awful time.

Diana Athill (1917-2019) was a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she came to be hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Good Morning, Midnight, Cheriton, Devonshire, Jean Rhys, Olive Senior, Francis Wyndham, Selma Vaz Dias, Max Hamer

Duration: 7 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008