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Space, Intermediality, and the Visual Arts

Space in Jean Rhys’s Novels: From a Complex Palimpsest to a Space of Contradiction(s)

L’Espace dans les romans de Jean Rhys : du palimpseste complexe à un espace de contradiction(s)
Nicole Terrien


Le paysage urbain que les héroïnes de Jean Rhys parcourent sans but défini sert de surface à un espace imaginaire que les narratrices scrutent avec attention. L’évolution vers la technique du flux de la conscience dans Good Morning Midnight met en lumière le choix d’une plongée au cœur des ténèbres à partir du point central de la chambre d’hôtel, espace clos d’une intimité pourtant soumise à l’invasion du monde extérieur. Le roman devient l’espace où se révèle le palimpseste complexe qui définit l’identité du personnage et celle de la narratrice. L’inclusion de mots français, ou de titres, signale au lecteur une profondeur à sonder. En étudiant l’exemple du titre Les Saltimbanques, nous pouvons voir comment musique, peinture et cinéma façonnent un imaginaire à la fois singulier et typique d’une époque. L’espace de représentation ainsi mis en lumière offre une série de contradictions car le monde du spectacle ne permet pas d’échapper aux tensions du réel. L’artiste y contemple sa propre image. Il s’agit de mettre à distance un échec pour échapper au cercle de l’éternelle répétition et faire face à un espace géopolitique menaçant.

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Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. (Rhys 1931, 12)

1The narrator of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie makes it clear that space contains more than the present of diegesis, it contains time and ‘it is where we try to resuscitate the invisible into the visible’ (Blanchot 189–190, translation mine). We will explore some of the mechanisms through which Rhys creates a complex space of representation allowing the reader to hear, see and feel. The urban landscapes in which the heroines seem to wander aimlessly appear as the surface of an imaginary space which the narrators scrutinize purposefully. Like her contemporary, Hemingway, Rhys chooses to leave out of her narrative the precise descriptions and learned references which might explain how the meagre plot-lines are sustained by a tight web of knowledge. The choice of this ‘iceberg technique’ creates a similar sketchiness in the setting; the names of a few cafés and major streets serve as sufficient geographical landmarks and account for the scarcity of adjectives, the simplicity and even apparent poverty of vocabulary in the narrative. In a mise-en-abyme episode, Sasha, the heroine/narrator of Good Morning Midnight, remembering her experience as a ghost-writer, sarcastically comments:

‘[C]onsidering the cost of these stories, he thinks it strange that you should write them in words of one syllable. He says it gets monotonous, and don’t you know any long words... Long words. Chiaroscuro? Translucent? . . . I bet he’d like cataclysmal action and centrifugal flux, but the point is how can I get them in a Persian garden?’ (Rhys 1939, 139–140)

2Starting with references to the fine arts, Sasha implies a sense of nuance, an ability to deal with in-betweenness as well as contrasts, and to conceptualize visual perception. Chiaroscuro refers to a technique of contrasting lights meant to create volume while translucence suggests a superposition of lights, a veiling of forms. The two words reveal Rhys’s awareness of composition in the creation of the visual illusion of reality and in the creation of texture in the narrative. Relating these techniques to the topic of ‘centrifugal flux’ in psychology, and to the melodramatic exaggeration of ‘cataclysmal action’, suggests that the organization of the novel is to provide a new form of visual representation meant to set-off the depth of ontological meaning, while avoiding pompous phrasing and judgement. Rhys belongs to the post WWI generation who think that the novelist’s mission is to resuscitate the power of language to account for the full reality of the world and restore a sense of identity.

3While Hemingway’s narrator in Fiesta suggests that ‘talking around it’ is the only method of preserving an emotion and of facing trauma, Rhys’s narrator in Good Morning Midnight, walks to the rhythm of L’Arlésienne, a theme which suggests the elusiveness of the object of her quest. As her representation of Paris is directly connected to the traumatic experience of the heroine, it serves as the perfect stage for the endless re-enactment of the trauma. In that context, the last European novel offers not only an opportunity to retrace the steps of the previous heroines but also an attempt at breaking the circle. The allusions to the political atmosphere of the time show it has become urgent to come to terms with the past so as to face an even more sombre future.

4The tip of the iceberg is often signalled to the reader by the use of French or the use of a title. We will focus on one example, the resonance created by the reference to Les Saltimbanques. In his essay, Portrait de l’artiste en saltimbanque, Jean Starobinski identifies the metaphor of the circus artist as one of the characteristics of modernism, tracing it back to a growing theme in late nineteenth-century literature, then incorporated in early twentieth-century visual arts, to be taken up once again by literature. Rhys discretely plays on the whole gamut of references, demonstrating her belonging to the most avant-garde circles.

5In this new ‘poetics of space’, to paraphrase Bachelard, we will consider how the fragility of the intimate centre of perception makes it necessary to plunge into the depths of personal and collective memory in order to reconcile the contradictions of this imaginary space.

‘[T]his empty room in which everything remains’ (Blanchot 141, translation mine)

6Like nineteenth-century heroines suffering from melancholia, Rhys’s heroines seem to enjoy contemplating their gradual disintegration:

Then she would feel horribly fatigued and would lie on the bed for a long time without moving. The rumble of the life outside was like the sound of the sea which was rising gradually around her. She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. (Rhys 1931, 12)

7Providing a sound-track to the familiar evocation of the languishing woman, inner focalisation gives a new life to the depiction. The fear of engulfment seems almost balanced by the pleasure of remembering. This attachment to space mirrors the evolution towards first person narrative, shifting from a multiple focus omniscient narrative in the first novel to inner focalisation on the heroine, and then to the use of the stream of consciousness. The light falls more and more on the heroine herself, as the centre of perception, leaving the background in relative shadow, as a way to stress the difficulty of being in the world. So, the places are not remembered as such but for the feelings attached to them:

She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or of trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen. (Rhys 1931, 12)

8The heroine’s imaginary space is a collection of visual impressions relying on contrasting colours and vague shapes which suggest sensations of heat or well-being, as early twentieth-century paintings would. These impressions are anchored in a dual geographical space, which also corresponds to the experience of the heroines of the previous novels, as well as to the experience of the author herself. The reader, familiar with the other novels, tends to combine the references, thus weaving a more complex tapestry. The extradiegetic narrative voice also suggests that these memories are veiled in a dreamlike atmosphere influenced by the codes of mass-produced coloured lithographs, a modern visual equivalent of the romances read by Emma Bovary.

9The perception of reality through the lenses of fiction, be it autobiographical fiction, becomes more and more intricate in the later novels. In Good Morning Midnight, the first person narrator offers a sophisticated interpretation of the heroine’s imagination. Night scenes, especially, allow a play on colours, showing the penetration between the private and the public sphere, picturing the diffraction of light on the wet pavement. As in impressionist paintings, the river, reflecting lights and shadows as well as blurring contours, opens onto another dimension which has little to do with realism. The fleeting moment of perception is thus captured in space. Each visual representation can be read as a metonymy of the whole ‘space of literature’, as ‘the centre where what no longer is remains’ (Blanchot 189–190, translation mine).

10The starting point is the enclosed space of the hotel room, the space of privacy which lacks the characteristics of intimacy. Right from the beginning, Sasha, the heroine/narrator, is confronted with the necessity to face the past since the room addresses her directly: ‘“Quite like old times”, the room says. “Yes? No”’ (9). Against the realistic background of Paris, the reader is going to share the experience of a challenge. As well as a quest to conquer the influence of the past, the narrative reads as an attempt to find one’s place in the present. Starting with the hotel room allows for the introduction of a first paradox since, in the context of the 1930s, the hotel room evokes instability. The ironic names of cheap hotels point to the heroine’s failure to settle:

Back to the hotel. To the Hotel of Arrival, the Hotel of Departure, The Hotel of the Future, The Hotel of Martinique and the Universe... Back to the hotel without a name in the street without a name. You press the button and the door opens. This is the Hotel-Without-a-Name in the Street-Without-a-Name, and the clients have no names, no faces . . . The room says: ‘Quite like old times. Yes? No?... Yes’ (120–121)

11Instead of confirming the novelty promised in the names of the hotels, the list threatens to entrap the heroine and the reader in an endless circle of disappointment. However, with the introduction of the capital letters and hyphens in the phrase ‘Hotel-Without-a-Name’, the narrator turns anonymity and what sounds like a repetition into a paradoxical form of identity. The category thus created can symbolize what cannot be reduced to one name because it is universal and refers to some mysterious cosmic dimension.

  • 1 Novalis quoted by Blanchot: ‘Nous rêvons de voyager à travers l'univers. L'univers n'est-il pas en (...)

12The other names relate to movement, i. e. life. They recall the experience of the author leaving the West-Indies for Europe, and her failure to settle there. They suggest a chance to encounter the measureless space of the universe which never materializes, because it is the space of imagination; according to Novalis ‘We dream of travelling through the universe. Isn’t the universe within ourselves? We do not know the depths of our own minds. Inward goes the mysterious path. Eternity is within ourselves with its worlds, past and to come’ (Blanchot 130, translation mine).1

  • 2La rêverie est un état entièrement constitué dès l'instant initial.’

13Furthermore, the final question takes the readers back to the beginning of the novel, inviting them to consider the novel as the new space to be scrutinized, in which ‘daydreaming is a state already fully constituted at the starting point’2 (Bachelard 168; translation mine). The addition of a positive answer to the question asked by the room can either invite us to consider the initial question as purely rhetorical or can state that some progress has been achieved since the opening. The ambiguity constitutes the space of indetermination where the reader may project their own vision. The only moment that matters is the moment of perception, the only space that matters belongs to imagination.

14Whereas the resurfacing of the plots and backgrounds of the previous novels suggests a form of stasis, the typographic pause before the answer points at an opportunity to take stock before moving on. The room is both the same and different. It remains anonymous because it equally belongs to all the travellers who have stayed there, but it is the point from which the heroine perceives the world, the ‘universe’. It is an enclosed space supposed to offer protection from the outside world but also the enclosed space of the mind which already contains the whole world, past and present, the starting point for the journey inward, the ‘voyage in the dark’ of Rhys’s previous novel. The superimposition of these two functions makes the room the ideal space of discovery even though it can only feed illusion about oneself: ‘I shall exist on a different plane at once if I can get this room, if only for a couple of nights’ (Rhys 1939, 32).

15Symptomatically, it is constantly invaded by the outer world, especially by the music of the streets mingling with the most intimate dreams. Early in the novel, Sasha feels oppressed by a nightmare which takes her to the labyrinthine corridors of the underground where she meets a father figure, directly inspired by the appearance of her neighbour in the hotel, the salesman wearing a white night-gown, the man she embraces at the end of the plot. The dream offers a personal space of expression for repressed feelings but works on universal patterns. She suddenly wakes up to the sound of Les Saltimbanques, sung in the street. No indication allows the reader to decide whether the music puts an end to her dream or whether something in the nightmare causes her to wake up. What appears is the proximity between the two worlds, their strange juxtaposition.

The Multi-layered Space of Imagination

16At the very moment or point of juncture between sleep and wakefulness, the French title, Les Saltimbanques, signals the existence of an indeterminate space of imagination which the reader may choose to explore. Such trigger-words regularly tear open the text giving access to a varied world of art which then contaminates the meaning of the narrative, taking precedence over the events of the plot. They are often foreign words or phrases, sometimes names, approximate quotes left unidentified, titles of songs, books or films. They designate more than one element and they disseminate echoing connotations through the text. They often belong to a series of clues which the reader has to connect one to another. The title, Les Saltimbanques, is one of the most complete examples: it starts a series of associations of ideas which combine sounds, words and images in a complex palimpsest. The reference to street-artists emphasizes what Sasha has revealed about her taking up a part, when putting on a ‘Cossak cap and astrakhan coat’ and changing her name (11) and her feeling watched all the time as if she was on stage. Later she tries to renew the magic of the ‘transformation act’ when she has her hair died and buys a new hat because ‘[i]t shouts ‘Anglaise’, my hat’ (14).

17The lyrics Sasha can hear (‘C’est l’amour qui flotte à la ronde’ (13)) celebrate love and its capacity to overcome enslavement, in ironical contrast with the atmosphere of the nightmare, of the plot, and of the historical context of the coming war. It can be understood both as a sign of hope and as a mockery. But there is more to the musical comedy than that specific song. The alternative title for Les Saltimbanques by Louis Ganne, indicates it is an ‘Opéra comique en trois actes et quatre tableaux’, a construction echoed in the four-part structure of the novel which also ends with an invitation to give up one’s proud dream. The atmosphere of comedy is meant to underline the tragedy pervading the novel, a blurring of genres which often characterizes Rhys’s prose.

  • 3Tout vrai clown surgit d'un autre espace, d'un autre univers : son entrée doit figurer un franchis (...)

18The allusion to the world of stage performance should encourage the reader to revisit the dream taking place in the corridors of the underground, with signs pointing the way to the Exhibition. The figure ‘dressed in a long white night-shirt’ (12) could then be perceived not just as an image of Christ but as Pierrot, the tragic clown, hanging between life and death, a possible double for Christ (Starobinski 90). It resembles Sasha’s neighbour, ‘parading about as usual in his white dressing-gown. Hanging around. He is like the ghost of the landing. . . . He is as thin as a skeleton’ (13). Thus, the hotel landing, cluttered by ‘the wreckage of the spectacular floors below’ (13), becomes yet another stage where ‘you can’t see at all unless the electric light is on’ (13). The words we have emphasized reveal Rhys’s careful construction of meaning. The scene takes place on stage and back-stage at the same time. The darkness of the landing contributes to the role of the tragic clown: ‘Any real clown must leap out of another space, out of another universe: his entrance must signify trespassing over the limits of reality, and even in the midst of utter joviality, he must appear as a ghost’3 (Starobinski, 110). The show is never over, and when Sasha embraces the neighbour at the end of the plot, she embraces death within the codes of theatrical representation. She faces her fear and enters the realm of death willingly, acknowledging her kinship with the commis voyageur, a modern mountebank condemned to be constantly on the move in order to talk potential customers into buying his goods. Ironically, he never speaks when facing Sasha: the dumb show, like a Pierrot show, is only broken by her final acceptance of her own death, reminding us of what Rilke writes about Death being ‘the authentic yes-sayer’ (Blanchot 201, translation mine). ‘Good Morning Midnight’ then sounds as a cry of victory over the useless resistance of the self. Accepting her fate, the heroine/narrator can contemplate the world from a distance, no longer fearful of her personal future she can fully grasp the moment. While Rilke offers a religious interpretation of this ability to renounce life, Rhys presents a more matter-of-fact acceptance of her heroine’s coming death or retirement from the stage. As Blanchot stresses, at the very heart of the night, lies the promise of another day; midnight belongs to the two days. The silence which follows signifies that the initial fears have been vanquished and that repetition is no longer necessary, which is why the next novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, takes place in a completely different space, shaped by other artistic conventions, keeping only the metaphor of the cardboard setting to define the final act.

19The use of French, draws the attention to Les Saltimbanques as a title as much as to the musical, and helps bring to the surface a series visual representations. However, just as there are very few identified quotes in the novel, there is no ekphrasis as such. Rhys retains fragments from her various sources of inspiration and scatters them through the text. Instead of imposing set images, she invites the reader to project their own, offering a kaleidoscopic panorama. There is no predetermined order in which these influences may be identified; they usually become visible through details in the text such as an unexpected touch of colour in an otherwise greyish atmosphere.

20For instance, Rhys may well have had in mind Gustave Doré’s 1874 painting Les Saltimbanques, since the episode of the death of Sasha’s son can easily be connected with the image of the child with his head bandaged, in the arms of his desolate mother watched over by the helpless father. In the painting, the technique of the chiaroscuro prevails in the presentation of a family struck by tragedy and light beams on the child as the narrative does; the organization in juxtaposed episodes allowing emphasis on apparently disconnected moments. The figure of the mother, part Bohemian, part Saint, also seems transcribed in the image of Sasha, leading a Bohemian existence, pictured in an atmosphere of ‘long, lovely, blue days that lasted for ever, that still are... . . . My face is pretty, my stomach is huge . . . Passe, Femme sacrée’ (110). The colour of the dress is translated into the ‘blue days’. The figure of maternity celebrated in its sacredness is soon threatened by the death of the child. In the narrative, that isolated moment of bliss is associated with the souvenir of Gounod’s Ave Maria, completing the religious atmosphere while announcing the theme of death. The sacred music is contrasted with songs from Roses of Picardy and airs from Manon coming from a cheap cabaret (111). The intertwining of images and sounds along with the mixing of the canon with the more popular forms of art shape the narrator’s imaginary world. The new references work on multiple levels as well, linking the opera with literature and evoking the naivety of Rhys’s heroines who fall victims to ruthless men.

21The other air which can be heard, Here is my Heart, offers a fleeting reference to the 1934 musical comedy directed by Frank Tuttle, announcing the creation of what Sasha will later call her ‘film-mind’ (147), her ability to invent melodramas. In that film-mind everything becomes mixed-up and scraps from various musicals give birth to terrifying images, close to the dreams of the opium-eater or Max Ernst’s most fantastic paintings: ‘All that is left in the world is an enormous machine, made of white steel. It has innumerable flexible arms, made of white steel. Long, thin arms. At the end of each arm is an eye, the eyelashes stiff with mascara’ (156). The cinematographic technique insures a poetic dimension to the process of remembrance. Indeed, Sasha quotes Desnos—without identifying the quote—when she admits her admiration for one of the models at the Maison Chose: ‘Belle comme une fleur de verre’ (21). The use of French draws the reader’s attention to Man Ray’s 1928 film, based on a poem by Desnos; L’Etoile de mer relies on a series of off-focus scenes, mirror scenes and scenes perceived through textured glass. The fragmented aesthetics of the film has certainly influenced Rhys with the choice of mirror scenes her narrators and heroines so often comment upon, with the swift shifts from one period of time to another, from one place to another. An in-depth dimension is added to the juxtaposition of facets, leading from cubism to surrealism. The technique relies on translucence and a show is being watched which does not make immediate sense because of the diffraction of light and because the looking-glass remains the space of madness. The whole episode in the Maison de Couture is organised as a representation on stage, under the supervision of Mr Salvatini, who shares his name with a famous soprano opera singer of the time. Sasha gets lost in the corridors of the house which evoke Piranesi’s Carceri as much as they take up the image of the underground labyrinth (23). The customer, ‘the old woman with the bald head’ (25), can be seen as the back-stage artist in Daumier’s Les Saltimbanques au repos, and she announces the figure of the mad woman in the hat shop whom Sasha considers as an image of herself in the future (58). The world of fashion and the world of the stage overlap again when Sasha has to take her customer to ‘the exhibition of Loie Fuller materials’ and ‘the place where they sell that German camera’ (27). The magic effect of materials designed for the stage by Loie Fuller, the contrasts between lights and shadows, moments of hope and of despair, evoke the shows of cabarets.

22The initial trigger-word, Les Saltimbanques, also suggests Picasso’s The Family of Saltimbanques, circa 1905, in which the characters stare in opposite directions, and are represented in contrasting colours. It is impossible to say in which direction the miserable unrelated figures of the group, painted against a desolate landscape, are going, whether they have arrived or not; an accurate reference for the plot of Good Morning Midnight. The painting has inspired Rilke for his 1923 Duino Elegies in which Leishman sees ‘the ultimate loneliness and isolation of Man in this incomprehensible world, practicing their profession from childhood to death as playthings of an unknown will’ (Rilke, 102–103). It is no coincidence that Sasha should incorporate a reference to Rilke when she realizes her capacity to speak German is impaired by her fear of the English boss: ‘Ja, ja, nein, nein, was kostet es, Wien ist eine sehr schöne Stadt, Buda-Pest auch ist sehr schön, ist schön, mein Herr, ich habe meinen Blumen vergessen, aus meinen grossen Schmerzen mach ich die kleinen Lieder...’ (21) (emphasis added). The undeveloped allusion, without quotation marks, allows the reader to identify the poetry of Rilke and weave it into the meaning of Rhys’s text.

23Besides, the juxtaposition of the names of the two cities Vienna and Budapest also recalls the role of the Austrian-Hungarian realm in WWI, also suggested in the reference to the song Gloomy Sundays, composed in the context of civil war in Hungary. Combined with the memory of Picasso’s Couple de saltimbanques, circa 1911, gloom and the incapacity to communicate become visual. Thus, beyond the mere evocation of everyday life, allusions to the political and historical context may be perceived.

24Picasso has also inspired Apollinaire for his poem, Les Saltimbanques, also exuding a feeling of desolation as the members of a circus walk along the road, past villages with no churches. A contrast between an element of hope represented by the children, jumping ahead of them, and an element of transience, emphasized by the constant need to move forward, further characterizes the short poem published in 1913 and seems echoed in the novel’s rather flat tonality. Once more, both Picasso and Apollinaire may well lie beneath the surface of Rhys’s text, all the more so if one bears in mind Rhys’s predilection for short writings, poems rather than epics, to express the violence of emotion, a predilection which adds to the sense of fragmentation, showing that an imaginary space shaped by art cannot offer total protection from the real world.

A Space of Contradictions

25As Starobinski shows, the motif of the saltimbanque is inherited from the nineteenth century. Nowhere is it more forcefully present than in a painting by Fernand Pelez, Les Saltimbanques, which won a silver medal at the 1889 Great Exhibition. First presented under the title ‘Grimaces et Misères’, this colourful composition of five tableaux of unequal sizes which, incidently, looks very similar to the poster for Ganne’s operetta, stresses the political dimension of art. Exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay in 2013, the painting was placed so as to welcome the visitors in a world strangely out of time although precisely anchored in the realities of its time of composition. The huge proportions of this painting, 222×610 cm, suggest a more than life size representation of the dreary universe of the circus artists also evoked by Baudelaire.

26As a reader familiar with Rhys’s universe, one cannot but be struck by the similitude between the effect produced by this unusual painting and the impression left by the works of Jean Rhys, Good Morning Midnight in particular. Indeed, the structure of Good Morning Midnight, in a series of separated moments, recalls the structure of the painting. And the analysis of the painting by Gérard Boittelle could apply to Rhys’s novel. According to Boittelle, Pelez relies on the separations to underline each space and to prop up some of the characters. The continuity between the tableaux is somewhat threatened in the third panel, where the dwarf and the cymbal player are cut off. Like Rhys’s European novels, this painting can be read as the ageing process of individuals threatened by various accidents, a parade of life-sized artists made to face the public. The few out-of-proportion details correspond to the painter’s emphasis on props in the life of a circus, just as some elements in the setting of the plot enhance the artificiality of the heroine’s existence. The third panel is presented by Boittelle as a mysterious accident in the structure of the painting, possibly figuring the imagination of the clown; there is no character on this panel, only the leg of the dwarf can enter that space. The use of colour, which is unusual in Pelez’s works, seems to be but an additional prop to mask the poverty of these artists. The framing evokes photography, with the subjects lined up on a fairly narrow stage posing for the photographer, the absence of depth creating a feeling of unreality. The singular positioning of the third tableau reinforces the sensation by clearly breaking the perspective. The sordid real-life effect produced by the painting, in spite of the blatant artificiality of presentation, is very close to the effect created by Rhys’s novels.

27The imaginary space of the painting becomes more important than the background space of the plot. It is indeed the composition which matters, introducing disruptions in the overall linearity of the work of art, combining the effect of a panorama with the close-up effect of each panel. Here, Pelez moves away from his naturalistic period to incorporate cubism. But according to Boittelle, his is not an intellectual version of cubism, aiming at presenting all the facets of an object at once. It keeps traces of his former attempts at conveying the distress of individuals and the exploitation of the working class, hence the double figure of the clown. Distorted individuals are reduced to freaks in a show and must endure the sadness of an existence devoted to the pleasure of an audience, as in many of the scenes of Good Morning Midnight. Indeed, the narrator plays the role of a benevolent audience when she watches the bald woman trying hats, and the bald head of the woman evokes the head of a clown deprived of its wig, wearing a white cap instead as in Daumier’s Les Saltimbanques au repos. She is also the knowing spectator when she underlines the professional efficiency of the gigolo: ‘That’s the gesture for showing off the teeth’ (62). Sasha’s experience allows her to decipher which part each character is playing: she is the performer watching the others perform. The human comedy in the imaginary world of Rhys seems reduced to a circus show, Sasha even feels ‘sad as a circus-lioness’, ‘sad as an old woman’ (39).

28This pessimistic vision of existence is also inherited from Baudelaire’s poem in prose Le Vieux Saltimbanque, in which the poet mocks himself just as Sasha derides her existence. The isolation of the old artist who has outlived his generation, contrasting with the joy and tumult of the atmosphere of the fair, announces the rejection felt by Sasha. The persona’s hysterical tears at the end of the poem are echoed by Sasha’s hysterical fit which leads her into the arms of the clownish commis voyageur. It is a moment of recognition such as the distorted portrait of the banjo player offers. Although the imaginary space of the painting is the space of the gutter, far from the fairy land of the circus, the contemplation of herself in the distorted mirror of art brings the serenity the heroine and the narrator have been seeking.

29The caricature dimension may be traced to Daumier’s lithograph, Les Saltimbanques, mocking the celebrities of the French literary scene, with the caption: ‘thirty-six feet under the level of the sea’. The rising sea of the heroine’s depression, as well as the tone of derision in which the narrator stages herself, seem to echo Daumier’s satire. Indeed, late in the novel, Sasha mocks herself for being a ‘cérébrale’, a category then in fashion among French artists, trying to keep away from sentiment in order to better conceptualize. There is also Parade of Saltimbanques by Daumier, an oil on canvas, circa 1860, a vast panorama based on the use of chiaroscuro to convey a feeling of melancholy. According to Fabrice Parisot, the various stages of development preserved today show that Daumier progressively accentuated touches of darkness, favouring the overall greyish and bluish tints. This evolution stresses the similitude of Rhys’s work with the painting. The structure of the novel constitutes a sort of parade of the various stages of the heroine’s disillusions, starting and ending with the image of the commis voyageur in his white gown, reminiscent of an aged clown. The oppositions between the world of business (the commis voyageur, the Great Exhibition, the Maison Chose), the world of entertainment (the figure of the circus artist, the Exhibition, the music-hall, the cinema), the world of politics (the Exhibition with its Star of Peace, Franco Spain, the funeral of Anatole France) merge into the ‘space of literature’ where they create a permanent tension, akin with the actual contradictions of the real world.

  • 4Un être sans enveloppe, ouvert à la douleur/Tourmenté par la lumière, ébranlé par chaque son.’

A being without protection, open to pain
Tormented by light, shaken by each single sound (Blanchot 201, translation mine)

30Rhys’s heroine is like Rilke’s poet and while many modernist novelists incorporate the sounds of the city into the narrative, Rhys chooses to use these sounds to escape from reality. The numerous references to Les Saltimbanques help recapture the evolving artistic atmosphere of the time. Rhys offers a fairly realistic vision of society while allowing an imaginary space to co-exist. She is influenced by late nineteenth century art but also by the modern production of the inter-war period. Distortions and close-ups show that her imagination works on a series of model images she keeps combining and reinventing. As Burke already states, imagination is the ability to give birth to new images stemming from the combination of images stocked in the mind. So, to say that Rhys’s imaginary space is composed of a series of images is a tautology of sorts. It is necessary for the reader to penetrate the world of the visual arts since Rhys rarely has recourse to ekphrasis, even though her heroine is interested in paintings, probably because ‘[t]he ambivalence about ekphrasis . . . is grounded in our ambivalence about other people, regarded as subjects and objects in the field of verbal and visual representation. Ekphrastic hope and fear express our anxieties about merging with others’ (Mitchell 163). The only painting described is the one Sasha has just bought from the Russian painter:

I unroll the picture and the man standing in the gutter, playing the banjo, stares at me. He is gentle, humble, resigned, mocking, a little mad. He stares at me. He is double-headed, double-faced. He is singing ‘It has been’, singing ‘It will be’. Double-headed and with four arms... I stare back at him and think about being hungry, being cold, being hurt, being ridiculed, as if it were in another life than this. (Rhys 1939, 91)

31The figure on the painting stares back as the old saltimbanque in Baudelaire’s poem. The unusual multiplication of adjectives signals the anomaly. The framed space of the painting symbolizes the artist’s victory over the space of reality. The power of art is to trigger a film-mind, unique to each viewer yet universal, an animated space conveying a sense of life: ‘Now the whole thing moves in an ordered undulating procession past my eyes. Rooms, streets, streets, rooms...’ (Rhys 1939, 91)

  • 5On ne communique aux autres qu'une orientation vers le secret sans jamais pouvoir dire objectiveme (...)

32What is at stake in Rhys’s fiction is the assertion of the self in an individual imaginary space the reader can get a glimpse of, even if it remains out of reach because ‘one can only convey to others a direction towards the secret without ever being able to objectively say what the secret is’ (Bachelard 31, translation mine)5. There lie the limits and the power of representation.

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1 Novalis quoted by Blanchot: ‘Nous rêvons de voyager à travers l'univers. L'univers n'est-il pas en nous ? Nous ne connaissons pas les profondeurs de notre esprit. Vers l’intérieur va le chemin mystérieux. L'éternité est en nous avec ses mondes, passé et avenir.’

2La rêverie est un état entièrement constitué dès l'instant initial.’

3Tout vrai clown surgit d'un autre espace, d'un autre univers : son entrée doit figurer un franchissement des limites du réel, et même dans la plus grande jovialité, il doit nous apparaître comme un revenant.’

4Un être sans enveloppe, ouvert à la douleur/Tourmenté par la lumière, ébranlé par chaque son.’

5On ne communique aux autres qu'une orientation vers le secret sans jamais pouvoir dire objectivement le secret.’

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Référence électronique

Nicole Terrien, « Space in Jean Rhys’s Novels: From a Complex Palimpsest to a Space of Contradiction(s) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 47 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2014, consulté le 28 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Nicole Terrien

Nicole Terrien is an alumna of the École normale supérieure de Fontenay. She holds a PhD from the Sorbonne Nouvelle on Jean Rhys and is currently Professor of English Literature at Rennes 2 University. She is the author of several papers on contemporary literature and particularly of two recent publications on Jean Rhys: ‘The Neo-Victorian Novel: Hybrid or Intertextual Mosaic?’ in Hybridity, Forms and Figures in Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Vanessa Guignery, Catherine Peso-Miquel and François Specq, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2011. And ‘In Search of an Elusive Core of Being: The Figure of the Eccentric in Jean Rhys’s Novels’ in In and Out, Eccentricity in Britain, eds. Sophie Aymes-Stokes and Laurent Mellet, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2012.

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