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Remediating the Literary

Jean Rhys’s Smile Please: Re/De constructing identity through autobiography and photography

Souriez s’il vous plaît : photographie et autobiographie au service de la re/dé-construction identitaire.
Floriane Reviron-Piégay


Souriez s’il vous plaît est une autobiographie atypique à bien des égards : inachevée, en partie dictée, elle est constituée de textes divers et variés, reliés entre eux par un album photographique censé faire transition entre le texte le plus achevé et les derniers fragments. Le but de cet article est de réfléchir à l’aspect autobiographique du texte et de le lier à la fois aux photographies choisies par les éditeurs pour illustrer le texte et aux photographies présentes par le biais de l’ekphrasis dans le texte de Rhys. Le va-et-vient entre texte et image permet de percevoir la personnalité de Rhys, bien mieux qu’une lecture plus statique des deux artefacts pris séparément. Les omissions de l’un comme de l’autre ainsi que les écarts entre le discours de l’un comme de l’autre permettent aussi d’entrevoir la perception rhysienne de la représentation photographique et autobiographique.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 See the foreword to Smile Please by Diana Athill (Rhys 1979, 8).

1Smile Please is a puzzling and fascinating text in many regards but first and foremost because of its rather unusual gestation. It was written at a time when Jean Rhys was finally an acclaimed writer, after years of oblivion and dire straits, her novel Wide Sargasso Sea having brought recognition and a modicum of financial safety. But by the time she faced the prospect of writing her life down (between 1976 and 1979) she was an elderly woman who suffered from a heart condition and whose deformed fingers could not hold a pen anymore. David Plante, a young American writer, suggested she should dictate her reminiscences to him. Their relationship, although friendly at first, became stormy and fraught with mistrust and anxiety on each side. Rhys died before she had finished dictating her whole life hence the subtitle ‘an unfinished autobiography’. It is also a puzzling text because under the heading Smile Please, a variety of artefacts can be found: the first text also entitled Smile Please is the only one Rhys had time to revise and correct, it is devoted to Dominica and her childhood until she left the island when she was 17 in 1907. The second, entitled ‘It Began to Grow Cold’ by the editor Diana Athill, is composed of material which was not considered by Jean Rhys to be finished work,1 some of it being little more than notes. This part spans the 1910s when Rhys discovered England as a young student first, then as a chorus girl, and the early 1920s when she was a newly-wed in Paris and Vienna, up to the summer 1921. Those two main parts are separated (or linked?) by a photograph album which was probably inserted as a bow to the requirements of the genre and perhaps to tally with the readers’ expectations, thus for marketing purposes. This means there are actually three very distinct parts. One needs add to them the appendix entitled ‘From a diary: at the Ropemakers’ Arms’, filed by Rhys with the rest of the material for her autobiography, ‘because she was thinking of including it if she could find a way of fitting it in’ (Rhys 1979, 157). This excerpt was written in the 1940s, while Jean Rhys was momentarily separated from her third and last husband. Smile Please is therefore a heterogeneous construct which leads us to re-examine the generic definition of autobiography and photography. We shall first ponder over the text as an artificial construct, two narrative instances at least vying for supremacy, inviting us to revise, re-construct our vision of the self in feminine autobiography. Then we shall see that the structural function of the photograph album means that it may be read as an autonomous narrative of its own and we will question its representational power. Finally, we shall see that Rhys’s self only emerges out of a constructive reading of both text and image, both within the album and within the texts surrounding it.

A Problematic Construct: a Plurality of Narrating and Narrated Selves

  • 2 On the circumstances that led to the creation of Smile Please see for instance Angier 628 et seq.
  • 3 See Angier’s account of the whole process: ‘They spent days trying to fit the pieces together in th (...)

2Autobiography means the writing of one’s own life (etymologically speaking). Precisely, the ‘graphein’ part is problematic here, given that Rhys did not actually write her memories down. The difficult circumstances under which she dictated her memories to her literary assistants (David Plante for the most part but also Michael Schwab, both young writers), are well-known and documented.2 Rhys was very much afraid of being dispossessed of her memories by David Plante in particular as his writing method was so different from her own. He repeatedly asked her to put her memories in chronological order, which proved too much for her. Carole Angier insists that they ‘began to build up Smile Please piece by small piece, very differently from Jean’s usual cutting and chiselling-down operation’ (Angier 628). Athill took pains to belittle the role played by David Plante, and to show that Rhys was a perfectionist who revised and corrected the text so thoroughly that its authenticity is unquestionable. The impulse behind Rhys’s last text was indeed to tell the truth and rectify errors, largely due to the fact that her own life had been used up in her fiction, which led readers and critics to confuse her life and that of her heroines. Her fundamental problem was that she found fiction writing much more instinctive and natural than autobiography. The question of shaping things was at the heart of her preoccupations: ‘I like shape very much—and again a novel has to have a shape and life doesn’t have any’ (Rhys 1979,10). The shaping process was therefore very much left in the hands of Plante who launched into a gigantic jigsaw puzzle and constructed the autobiography from Rhys’s reminiscences.3 It may be argued that the peculiar conditions of the construction of the text turn the latter into an exemplary illustration of the way the feminine unconscious tries to resist the masculine logos, because Rhys’s voice truly threatened to disrupt the narrative order (she often interrupted her dictation by drinking bouts and extraneous asides), emblematic of the way ‘woman’s power, […] while repressed and suppressed continues to challenge the comfortable assertions of male control’ (Smith 40–41). As Louis A. Renza notes, ‘the autobiographer cannot help sensing his omission of facts from a life the totality or complexity of which constantly eludes him—the more so when discourse pressures him into ordering these fact’ (270).

  • 4 Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees and in the first part of the text she appears as Gwendolen a (...)
  • 5 For French theorists of writing and sexual difference (Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cix (...)
  • 6 This manichean vision corresponds to the naive way a young child sees the world and therefore grant (...)
  • 7 ‘Loin de ruiner la crédibilité du souvenir, ce discours du doute crée une petite vibration fort agr (...)
  • 8 Almost 80 years separated Rhys from her first memory as a six-year-old girl when she started writin (...)

3The particular circumstances of the gestation of Smile Please point at the unreliability of the construct, at its artificiality, even more than in any other autobiography, the ‘unreliability’ of autobiography being as Francis R. Hart has consistently argued, ‘an inescapable condition, not a rhetorical option’ (492). In autobiography, the narrated I and the narrating I are never entirely one and the same person, but in this instance, this ‘divorce between the writing self and his/[her] textual rendition’ (Renza 278) is compounded by the double identity of the narrating I, a fact which David Plante discussed at length in the memoir he wrote as a comment on his ghost-writing Rhys’s memories. Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (1983) reveals that sometimes, he did not take dictation immediately, but transcribed Rhys’s words in retrospect. The intrusion of the other in the text directly threatens the autobiographical pact which Philippe Lejeune posits as the essence of autobiography. To paraphrase the words of Domna C. Stanton, we could say that ‘this fracturing of the narrating I into two distinct speaking postures and the plurality of the narrated I4 ‘mark the autobiographical process’ of Smile Please as ‘rhetorical artefact, and the authorial signature as mythography’ (Stanton 11). The ‘I’ we get to see in this autobiography is a fictive persona, a construct in more ways than one. Rather than an autodiegetic text this is a ‘heterobiographical’ one (Lejeune 1980, 239), which introduces the idea of multiple presences and voices at play in the text. The result is a hybrid shape, without any formal coherence and style: the structure and themes of the text may be seen as the result of the strife between the feminine and the masculine narrating instances: Smile Please exhibits the traditional headings of the Childhood Memoir, as defined by Richard N. Coe in his study of autobiography and the experience of childhood (140, 167, 170). It tells about the archetypes of experience (the experience of fear, anger, boredom, the discovery of language and books) and those of situation (convent, school, home), it features archetypal characters (the Mother, the Father, the nurse) thus offering, thematically speaking, a fairly conventional account of any child’s experience of growing up, whether boy or girl. These chapter headings and archetypes offer a frame for the unmistakably female narrator to make her voice heard and express her singularity and difference within this safe but constraining structure. The extreme fragmentation of the structure is an index of its femininity5 therefore re-inscribing Rhys as the true author of her text. We can hear the little girl’s angry voice all the better as the older narrator’s voice offers an echo to her Manichean vision of the world.6 The text is fraught with the older narrator’s metatextual comments: she repeatedly expresses doubt, says she doesn’t quite remember or how memory exaggerates. The numerous gaps and ellipses in the text are also the best guarantee of Rhys’s sincerity: these expressions of a blurry memory, far from ruining the credibility of the reminiscences, authenticate them.7 One of the reasons why Rhys found writing autobiography difficult was precisely because the Dominica material was so old.8

  • 9 See for instance: ‘Here comes a complete blank. The next thing I remember clearly is […]’ (Rhys 197 (...)

4Part two, ‘It Began to Grow Cold’, which was not revised so extensively, is much more continuous, fluid and assertive. The expressions of doubt, or admissions that the autobiographer does not remember are much less numerous than in the first part. 9 This only goes to show that, for Rhys, the process of autobiography writing required de-construction as much as re-contruction. Re-membering is equated with ‘blotting things out’ (62), refusing to think about them. This erasure of vexing questions or traumas means that she was left sometimes with gaping holes in her text: ‘There’s Dominica and that’s completely separate from London, and then there’s Vienna and Paris. My obsession is to fit all together’ (Angier 631).

  • 10 Or perhaps just to satisfy the voyeuristic impulse of any reader of autobiography. Sylvie Jopeck re (...)
  • 11 Rhys herself had ‘a horror of being photographed’ (Savory 179). There are numerous letters from the (...)

5It is perhaps in an attempt to ‘fit all together’ and to posthumously grant Rhys the completeness she never achieved, 10 that her editors chose to add a photo album in between the two parts. There is indeed a continuity between the aesthetics of the fragment, of the patch-work of Rhys’s narrative and that evoked by the succession of photographs, chosen without any apparent preordained strategy other than the respect of the chronological order. No doubt the editors wanted to fill in the gaps of the text, by adding information or providing photographic proof of Rhys’s existence, as had been traditionally done in (auto)biographic memoirs since the turn of the century and the democratization of the camera.11

The photograph album: re-constructing the self

  • 12 Rhys herself felt that Plante impinged upon her privacy and had somehow managed to dispossess her o (...)
  • 13 Rhys reminds us that she was called Gwendolen ‘which means “white” in Welsh’, a name she disliked a (...)
  • 14 The Anglican church evoked in Smile Please is synonymous with boredom and the segregation against b (...)

6The album affords a rather questionable transition between childhood and adulthood, Dominica and England, the photographs tell yet another story, impose their own logic, their own construction and syntax. We cannot but remember Susan Sontag’s warning that ‘there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture’ (14), and the use of these pictures is reminiscent of Plante’s avowal in his memoir that he sometimes felt as if he were stealing her manuscripts and letters from her, dispossessing her of her identity as a writer.12 Sontag posited that photographs were ‘a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible, of making it stand still’ (163). Knowing that Rhys precisely refused to stand still during the inaugural photograph session depicted in Smile Please, this interpretation makes huge sense. The first photograph included in the album presents the very solid materiality of the church where Rhys’s paternal grandfather William Rees William was a rector for 26 years. It is a reminder of the problematic origin of Rhys who always felt as the odd one out in Dominica, precisely because of this Welsh ancestry.13 The photograph of the church re-enacts the myth of origins and asserts the primacy of patrilineal descent with its androcentric discourse. The choice of the Anglican church as a reminder of lineage therefore seems odd, at loggerheads with Rhys’s own reminiscences of her church attendance.14 Besides it is surrounded by a small cemetery which inscribes death at the very beginning of the album, where the reader expects a photograph of Rhys as a baby. The metonymic representation of Rhys’s grand-father underlines the absence of any photograph of the father: this is surprising given that Rhys had fond memories of him. There are no family pictures for that matter, although Rhys had two elder brothers, two elder sisters and a little sister. This omission is more in keeping with her text which implies that she did not develop any special bond with them, particularly her sisters (one of whom was adopted by an aunt early on).

7Only the maternal figure stands prominently in this album, her presence being duplicated by the photograph of her own twin-sister, ‘Aunt Brenda’: the symmetry of these photographs and their contrasting shades (one rather light, the other rather dark) emphasize the uncanny resemblance of the sisters who truly appear as a Janus-like figure, underlying the special link that existed between them and from which Rhys felt excluded. So, rather than expressing maternal love, the photographs of mother and aunt flaunt Rhys’s alienation from her mother. The inescapable presence of Auntie B is also hinted at by the inclusion in the photo album of one of her watercolours of the cottage where Rhys’s parents first lived in Dominica. It draws our attention to a time and place when Jean did not even exist, which somehow again excludes her from the picture both figuratively and literally. So instead of photographs of the young Gwendoline, we get pictures of places, the materiality of architectural constructions perhaps meant to replace the much more difficult to grasp construction of her identity.

  • 15 The photograph of Rhys’s second husband Leslie Tilden-Smith whom she met in 1926 as her literary ag (...)

8The last photograph of the album comes as a counterpoint to Auntie B’s watercolour which romanticizes the young parental couple’s original love nest: it represents the derelict family estate in the thirties. The photographs of constructions and buildings inscribe this fundamental loss of the idyllic gardens of Rhys’s youth, and the legends insist on this aspect. Under the photograph of the family house in Roseau we can read: ‘the large garden in which the house once stood has vanished’, and under the last photograph: ‘all that was left of the Geneva garden’. Somehow the last photograph destroys the mythical garden more surely than any of the fires Rhys evokes in her texts. The album’s narrative is also full of gaps and silences: the young Gwendolyn is absent and the first photograph on which Rhys appears as a young woman illustrates a period of her life present in the second part of the autobiography only (‘It Began to Grow Cold’). We may say that it has a proleptic function, disclosing Rhys’s years as a chorus girl to the reader even before her text does so. This photograph and the next act as spoilers: they are aimed at the readers who want to know everything about Rhys’s life even before they have reached the end of her text. The photo album is meant as a summary of character but we know that in the childhood narrative ‘the function of the photograph is not to confirm a truth but to contribute to an illusion’ (Coe 83). By including photographs which refer to a time which exceeds the narration,15 the editors insist on the autonomy of the album which tells its own story and does not have a merely illustrative function. It creates/constructs meaning in its own right. The reader’s voyeuristic impulse which leads anyone who buys an autobiography to peruse the central photo album first, is satisfied with an illusion of completeness. Text and image are here complementary, placed on an equal footing: the photographs show what the text does not say. The album reconstructs a family life which features Rhys as a daughter, a mother and a spouse, the three conservative pillars of womanhood. The reader gets his money’s worth of documentary evidence. Rhys appears very much as a ‘normal’ woman in this album. There are no signs of the dishevelled, desperate alcoholic striving to make both ends meet, the photographs gloss over and build a myth palatable to the English taste for decorum and propriety.

  • 16 Candid photography comes into existence in the 1880s, it makes the most of feeling, of impulse, of (...)
  • 17 ‘[…] punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s pu (...)
  • 18 ‘It is almost certain that her companion is Germaine Richelot’ (emphasis added).

9Where, then, is Jean Rhys in this album? She appears only on the sixth photograph (out of twelve), a group photograph and a ‘candid’16 photography, contrasting greatly with the two previous formal photographs of her mother and of her aunt. This photograph may be said to illustrate the second fragment in ‘It Began to Grow Cold’ entitled ‘Chorus Girls’: Rhys’s figure is not immediately recognizable among the other chorus girls: we have to turn to the legend for certainty. Our eyes are first attracted to the hand-written comment at the top of the photo, which in fact fails to enlighten us because ‘Liska’s Troupe’, the name of the troupe Rhys belonged to at that time, is not mentioned in her autobiographical fragment relating her years as a chorus girl. The legend designates Rhys as ‘the girl on the extreme right’ but the reader is left wondering because the face of the girl in question remains undecipherable, blurred and makes identification almost impossible. We are left to trust the editors as to Rhys’s identity, all the more so, as the punctum of the photograph, the mark that punctuates the photograph according to Barthes and which ‘pricks’ us and disturbs us17 is the raised finger of the central character, the second on the right (not Rhys). This raised finger immediately evokes the young Gwendoline’s ‘forefinger raised as in warning’ (Rhys 20) during the inaugural photograph session. Without the legend we would probably have mistaken Rhys’s identity or misplaced her. This only goes to show that the photographs in themselves fail to clearly identify Rhys. Her identity escapes, the photographs are out of focus, she is almost always ex-centred, ‘on the extreme right’, or on the left with the top of her head cut. Grazes, traces of rent or folds attract our attention to the materiality of the photograph rather than to the characters on it. Rather than ascertaining her identity or that of the people next to her, the photos lead us to question this identity and the legends are equally misleading and duplicitous.18 Besides, the young woman on the photographs was not yet called Jean Rhys. By using her pen-name the legends simplify her identity, reduce it to a monosemous, univocal personality which Rhys was not. We may therefore argue that the legends under the photographs contribute to othering her: Rhys is referred to thanks to the third person pronoun, which objectifies her, she is not the subject of her own autobiography anymore (‘photograph sent to Jean Rhys’, ‘Dr Rees Williams house in Roseau’). The album presents us with an uncanny reconstruction rather than with a familiar one: perhaps we fail to recognize her because at the time she wrote Smile Please she was a much publicized author, a chic, sophisticated, elderly woman, often heavily made up and almost always wearing a hat, and that is the image the contemporary reader would have kept in mind.

  • 19 In ‘Vienne’ she has her main character exclaim: ‘I was cracky with joy of life that summer of 1921’ (...)
  • 20 The Interallied Commission arrived in Vienna in 1920 to oversee the disarmament process in Austria- (...)
  • 21 ‘I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a spectre’ (Barth (...)

10The only full-length-portrait of her is the beautiful photograph at the centre of the album entitled ‘Jean Rhys in Vienna’. Vienna was a brief period of intense happiness and insouciance in her life,19 lasting only from April 1920 to the summer of 1921, while her first husband was secretary-interpreter to Lieutenant Colonel Miyake, one of the Japanese members of the Interallied Commission.20 Vienna was synonymous for her with a round of gay entertainments, beautiful dresses and money. The respite from a bleak life made of odd jobs and bed-sitting rooms was unfortunately short-lived. Her husband was accused of embezzlement and they had to flee back to Paris. Anyway, this formal studio photograph captured her at the peak of her youth (she was then 30), affluence and happiness. The three-quarter profile makes the best of her confident posture, her right forearm and hand display the exterior signs of a newly acquired wealth (a heavy bracelet catches the light and two rings appear on her ring-finger). The white frills around her neck and wrists stand out against her black clothes and enhance her face: the black fur coat and hat are barely visible but these sartorial details correspond to the sophistication and luxury Rhys liked. The face is only half lit, imbuing the whole portrait with an aestheticism reminiscent of the chiaroscuro. There is nothing natural or spontaneous in this photograph, it is Jean Rhys at her best, because she wears a mask on it, the mask of the worldly, successful woman she was not. Posing is of course an artificial construct in itself. This photograph is therefore not representative of Rhys’s life, but rather of her dreams and aspirations. It is proof that a photograph transmutes reality into a dream and metamorphoses the self into a myth. Just as the photograph of her when she was six years old at Bona Vista fixed forever her ideal of childhood, this photograph fixes forever her ideal of femininity. And just as the nine-year-old girl failed to recognize the younger little girl on the picture, we fail to recognize her on this photograph. It just attests to one of the numerous guises she took. Instead of making her alive to us, these photographs are ghostly traces of her presence, or in Sontag’s words ‘both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence’ (16). Both Barthes and Sontag have insisted on the fact that photographers embalm their subject, turn them into spectres. 21 Seeing her apparelled in the garb of success and wealth makes us participate in her mortality, vulnerability and mutability (Sontag 15). Rhys was very reluctant to speak about the Vienna episode and the text of ‘It Began to Grow Cold’ totally obliterates it. The photograph is therefore one more instance of the way the photographs make visible what was meant to remain hidden.

11The last photograph is perhaps the one which finally allows us to identify Jean Rhys: she can be seen sitting in a hammock and peering over its edge, looking down at an unidentified object and the lay out of the album is interesting here, because it manages to convey the feeling that she is looking down at the ruins of the Geneva garden (the two photographs read together indeed tell one more story of loss, nostalgia and disappointment). The punctum of the photograph is the dark patch on her dress, precisely where her heart is, pointing perhaps at the fact that her heart bled when she saw her beloved estate had gone to ruins the only time she revisited the island. It corresponds word for word to Hirsch’s definition of the candid shot:

Whatever the content of the candid shot it is always about bodies in transit, about gestures that we know can have been held for only a few moments. […] Candid photography allows us to see, […] it is full of fragments and distortions, […] it is not about the whole of our experience, but about pieces of it. (Hirsch 102–110)

  • 22 ‘The final title Smile Please suggests the capture of a photographic image in words and Jean was ne (...)

12The photograph of Rhys in her hammock really creates suspense both literally and figuratively speaking. This photograph conflates analepsis and prolepsis: it both looks backwards at the young Jean Rhys who liked to swing in the hammock at Morgan’s Place and adumbrates Rhys’s saying about her writing that it is a ‘balancing art’ (Savory 179). It encapsulates different facets of Rhys in one single shot: the little girl playfully swinging and the doubt-ridden writer balancing words. Yet even this photograph is blurred and out of focus, accidental, offering just a glimpse of Jean Rhys at the moment of its taking.22

13It may be argued that the album fails to satisfy both the voyeuristic thirst of the hurried reader because (s)he only catches glimpses of her life and gets blurry photographs, or the more conversant reader, the one who knows that there is more to it than just meets the eye. Photographs are machines to reconstruct reality: they operate as a screen which, added to that of memory and of writing, distorts characters and personality beyond recognition. The album clearly shares something of Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger’s ‘becoming threshold’, it is a space of contradiction between being and absence, memory and oblivion, I and not-I, a process of transgression and fading away. (Lichtenberg Ettinger 176)

Text and Image: Ekphrasis as a Constructive Othering Process

14The autobiographical fragments interact with the photo album on rare occasions. The conscientious reader is invited to come and go between text and image to deconstruct the artificial boundary imposed by the editors and to read text and image creatively. It is in the cross-fertilization between text and image, in the coincidence or dissonance between the message conveyed by the photographs of the album and the one conveyed by the text, that Rhys’s identity is perhaps most subtly revealed as a complex and hybrid construct.

  • 23 ‘But there was nothing, nothing. Nothing to look at. Nothing to say’ (38) (about her reaction when (...)

15The mother and the Geneva estate are tellingly the only motives about which the text may be considered as ekphrasis of the photographs. We have stressed the prominence of the photographs of the mother and her twin in the album. For once, it perfectly illustrates the contrasted portrait Rhys makes in Smile Please, the photograph acts as a physical/ referential proof that ‘there was some link between them. One felt what the other was feeling without words. They would look at each other and both laugh quietly. […] I watching, was uneasy. Could they possibly be laughing at me?’ (Rhys 1979, 45–46). Besides, Rhys explicitly states in her text that it is because of Auntie B, that the family stopped going to Geneva estate, which originally belonged to her mother’s family and where all her female ancestors lived. Among them her great-Aunt Jane, her maternal grandmother’s sister, whom she ‘loved better than anyone else in the world. Far better than her mother, even better than her father’ (Rhys 1979, 37). Because she did not get on well with her brother’s new wife, Auntie B moved to Roseau, not far from the Williamses, and they stopped going to Geneva, a place Jean loved very much and whose edenic garden she described at length in her autobiography and in Wide Sargasso Sea as the Coulibri Garden. Not only did Auntie B’s move to Roseau cut Rhys from a beloved surrogate maternal figure, her great Aunt-Jane, but it also cut her off from one of the few places where she was happy: Geneva. And Geneva is the second coincidence between Smile Please and the photo album: in both text and photographs, we get an image of a paradise lost, allowing Rhys to express her obsession with emptiness and alienation. 23 For one, both texts and image attest to a world that is no more.

16More significant still are the photographs missing from the album, but evoked in the text. The absence in the album of the photograph with which Rhys starts her reminiscences is particularly conspicuous as ‘smile please’ are the very first words of the text. The ekphrasis of the photograph only comes second after the description of the photograph session itself, which illustrates how the six-year-old girl fails to obey both her mother’s and the photographer’s demand that she keep still. This is an index of Rhys’s instinctive rebellion against the expectations of society that she conform to any given role. She explains how the photograph was then framed and put on a small table under the sitting-room jalousies of their house. She was happy to be singled out, not among the other family photographs and then forgot about it. Three years afterwards, she comes across the photograph and fails to recognize herself. She has changed so much that she uses the third-person pronoun to speak about the girl on the photograph. This lack of recognition (and the pun is intended here because she both fails to recognize her own self and to exist in her mother’s eyes on that particular day) is at the origin of her low self-esteem and her estrangement from her mother. From then on, the photograph becomes a landmark, a turning point in her life and she refers to it several times in the course of Smile Please: it allows her to measure time passing and changes. ‘I never looked at my photograph again, but I often thought of it’ (21), or ‘Life had changed a great deal for me since the day of the photograph’ (26). It is the cornerstone upon which she builds her identity and her retrospective attempt at putting it into words. This inaugural ekphrasis makes the original photograph superfluous: the power of words is such that it can revive the memory of this particular moment much more vividly than any actual photograph itself.

17Another photograph is absent from the album: one of her mother, mentioned at the beginning of ‘My Mother’ and across which she comes by chance. It shows her mother before she was married, young, slim and pretty, on horseback. She hates the photograph because she resents knowing that her mother was once different from the ‘plump, dark and only sometimes comfortable’ woman she knows (42). The photograph she describes fails to convey a sense of recognition: in her mind, her mother is both plump and disinterested in her. She tries to remember her mother as she was on the photograph: ‘that must have been when I was the baby, sleeping in the crib’ (42). As we know that most people are able to truly have memories from the age of six, this means the loving mother, thin and pretty, is in fact a fantasy, an imaginary construct. This brings to mind some of Barthes’s comments about the photographs of his deceased mother: ‘I never recognized her except in fragments which is to say that I missed her being and that therefore I missed her altogether. It was not she, yet it was no one else’ (65-66).

18The last photograph mentioned in the text may be more anecdotal: it is that of the Zouave uniform. It may be said to have a purely documentary function: ‘I recognized the Zouave uniform for I had seen photographs and pictures of it, but no photograph could give anything like the dazzling effect of the real thing’ (Rhys 1979, 89). Rhys’s text therefore illustrates the ambivalence of her stance regarding photography: it is both merely representational, attesting to the past existence of things and human beings, and it is well known that photographs record things that are no more, that they are memento mori (Sontag 15); and yet it is also the shelf upon which her reminiscences stand, and as such an object of fascination.

19The fact that Smile Pleased has been republished a number of times without the photo album is perhaps the best proof that the latter is not necessary to an understanding of Rhys and that her words are infinitely more evocative than a few photographs chosen randomly. We have seen that the photographs mentioned in the text and those included in the album have a sometimes concordant, mostly discordant relationship. The album itself is most often at cross purposes with the text, bringing about more questions than answers. Together with the interference of ghost-writers, this addition of the album could have dispossessed Rhys of her voice, of her identity no less. We may argue that it is precisely because text and image do not coincide nor correspond that the mystery of Rhys’s personality appears, as spectral, ghostly and evanescent. Photographs may be ‘inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, fantasy’ (Sontag 23), but so is Rhys’s text, which, with its gaps, holes and blanks, leaves room for our imagination to reinvent her, reconstruct her freely. If the photographs of the album insist on dispossession, loss, and failure (the failure of her relationship with her mother, her own failure as a mother, her failure as a chorus girl), the text as a whole attests to her rare gift as a writer who certainly knew how to transmit her own iridescent personality, as a last defiant jest in the face of old age, disability, loneliness and death.

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Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, London: Vintage, 2000.

Coe, Richard, N, When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood, New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Hart, Francis, R., ‘Notes for an Anatomy of Modern Autobiography’, New Literary History 1.3 (1970): 485–92.

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James, Louis, ‘The Lady Is Not a Photograph: Jean Rhys, D.Litt., And “The Caribbean Experience”’, Journal of Caribbean Literature 3.3 (Summer 2003):175–84.

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1 See the foreword to Smile Please by Diana Athill (Rhys 1979, 8).

2 On the circumstances that led to the creation of Smile Please see for instance Angier 628 et seq.

3 See Angier’s account of the whole process: ‘They spent days trying to fit the pieces together in their minds, to find the all-important “shape” of the autobiography. Finally, David […] suggested to her that he do a paste-up. […] David took the autobiography home and spread it out on the floor. He cut it into large paragraphs, sometimes single paragraphs, sometimes single sentences, and pasted them in what he hoped was the right order on to large sheets. The next day he read it through to her. She listened in silence. When he asked what she thought she said in a weak voice, “Fine”. And David went home to type it’ (634).

4 Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees and in the first part of the text she appears as Gwendolen although in the last part of the text she refers to her own self as Miss Gray. In fact, in the years covered by the last part, she was successively known by the name of Gwen Williams, Ella Gray or Ella Lenglet and even Ella Hammer in the 1940s. p. 107. See also p. 121: ‘I saw a letter […] addressed to the name I used then (I have called myself so many different names)’.

5 For French theorists of writing and sexual difference (Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous), ‘feminine writing’ is identified with the pre-Oedipal realm of the semiotic and is characterized as a narrative of ruptures, gaps, wordplay and jouissance, fundamentally different from the forward drive of logocentric/ masculine discourse (Smith 13).

6 This manichean vision corresponds to the naive way a young child sees the world and therefore grants an extra authenticity to the text. The young Gwendolen thinks the world is unfair and divides people into two groups: those who smile, those who do not, those who love her, those who do not, just as she expresses her wonder at ‘God/ the Devil’, or sees the Dominican society as ‘Black/ White’.

7 ‘Loin de ruiner la crédibilité du souvenir, ce discours du doute crée une petite vibration fort agréable. C’est le tremblé de la mémoire, qui, d’une certaine façon l’authentifie’ (Lejeune 1988, 43‑44).

8 Almost 80 years separated Rhys from her first memory as a six-year-old girl when she started writing Smile Please.

9 See for instance: ‘Here comes a complete blank. The next thing I remember clearly is […]’ (Rhys 1979, 125), or ‘When I think back to the 1914 war my memory seems disconnected and vague’ (Rhys 1979, 132).

10 Or perhaps just to satisfy the voyeuristic impulse of any reader of autobiography. Sylvie Jopeck reminds us that photographs became part and parcel of any autobiography as early as the turn of the century (11).

11 Rhys herself had ‘a horror of being photographed’ (Savory 179). There are numerous letters from the period of high publicity for Rhys, after the success of Wide Sargasso Sea, in which she frets about or dreads impending photograph sessions or discusses how particular photographs turned out. The choice of the photographs figuring at the centre of her biography must have elicited quite a lot of discussions between her and her editors. Without any trace of them, we are left to surmise that she agreed to these photographs, a choice which is sometimes jarring with her own narrative.

12 Rhys herself felt that Plante impinged upon her privacy and had somehow managed to dispossess her of her book. ‘It’s David’s book now, not mine’ (Plante 175) she exclaimed once.

13 Rhys reminds us that she was called Gwendolen ‘which means “white” in Welsh’, a name she disliked as much as she disliked her white skin, fair hair and pale eyes.

14 The Anglican church evoked in Smile Please is synonymous with boredom and the segregation against black people who sit at the back with a space between the front rows and the back ones. Blacks are Catholics, which explains why, during what she calls her religious fit at the Convent, she fully embraces Catholicism, the religion of the Irish or of the oppressed Caribbean people.

15 The photograph of Rhys’s second husband Leslie Tilden-Smith whom she met in 1926 as her literary agent and married in 1934 is a good case in point: both events are not mentioned in ‘It Began to Grow Cold’ which finishes just before Rhys met Ford Madox Ford in 1924. The same applies to the photograph of her first husband Jean Lenglet and their daughter Maryvonne. Although Maryvonne was born in 1922 she is not mentioned at all in Rhys’s still to be corrected fragments.

16 Candid photography comes into existence in the 1880s, it makes the most of feeling, of impulse, of accident. Whereas formal photography is about character, candid photography is about personality (Hirsch 81‑82).

17 ‘[…] punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’ (Barthes 26).

18 ‘It is almost certain that her companion is Germaine Richelot’ (emphasis added).

19 In ‘Vienne’ she has her main character exclaim: ‘I was cracky with joy of life that summer of 1921’ (Rhys 1987, 97). ‘Vienne’ was the first short-story published by Ford Madox Ford in the Transatlantic Review in 1924, so it was really synonymous with success.

20 The Interallied Commission arrived in Vienna in 1920 to oversee the disarmament process in Austria-Hungary

21 ‘I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a spectre’ (Barthes 14). Sontag mentions the ‘ghostly traces’ left by photographs (9).

22 ‘The final title Smile Please suggests the capture of a photographic image in words and Jean was never one to trade the startling flash of experience for the colloidal fixity of an exposed print. Various actual photographs of Jean Rhys have survived—some glamorous, others soulful, flirtatious, happy or sad. But however vibrant they may be, none are authoritative. They remain Jean’s masks of the moment of their taking’ (James 179).

23 ‘But there was nothing, nothing. Nothing to look at. Nothing to say’ (38) (about her reaction when she discovers that the Geneva estate has gone to ruin).

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Floriane Reviron-Piégay, « Jean Rhys’s Smile Please: Re/De constructing identity through autobiography and photography »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Floriane Reviron-Piégay

Floriane Reviron-Piégay is Senior Lecturer in 19th and 20th century English literature at the University of St Etienne, France. She has written a Ph. D. about the ‘New Biography’, a study of Virginia Woolf’s and of Lytton Strachey’s revolution of Victorian biography. Since then she has written a number of articles about the Bloomsbury Group and about Virginia Woolf’s diaries, memoirs and essays. She is working on the transition from the Victorian Age to Modernism and on the relationships between fiction, auto/biography, diaries and correspondences. She has recently written about travel accounts and exploration narratives and is interested in generic hybridity and intermediality. She is the editor of Englishness Revisited (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).

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