From: The Collected Short Stories
Jean Rhys was the poet laureate of loneliness. Her fiction is characterized by a focus on women who live beyond the conventions of acceptable society – outsiders, marginalized figures who expend their existences, as John Cheever wrote, “with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality.”
As Chris Power writes in the Guardian: “The extent to which Rhys drew on her own life means her stories and novels contain many repeating elements: a childhood on the Caribbean island of Dominica, English public school and stage school, chorus-line work, hard times in Paris, Bloomsbury bedsits, exploitation, alcoholism, depression, and the loneliness of the perennial outsider.” It is the last element that is felt most acutely throughout the totality of Rhys’s work, be it her most famous novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea, a postmodern prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or her best – yet most underrated – work, the 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight, about a dissolute woman in Paris during the interwar years of the 1930s.
Loneliness is pervasive in Rhys’s short stories, which are not as well known as her novels, but are arguably even stronger in terms of technical achievement. Here she is able to access with surpassing acuity the inner lives of characters like the disaffected chorus girl in “Till September Patronella” or the mentally fragile poet in “The Lotus.” Rhys’s characters struggle against depression and ennui, often by seeking refuge in sex or alcohol, and yearn for solace from a world that seems intent on turning its back on them or treating them with mockery and disdain.
Perhaps as a function of Rhys’s pervading focus on the loneliness of social outsiders, she became, in her later work, one of the great chroniclers of old age – that period of societal isolation and abandonment. One of Rhys’s quintessential characters is Miss Verney, the elderly protagonist of “Sleep It Off Lady.” Miss Verney could easily be considered the apotheosis of Rhys’s fictional oeuvre: alcoholic, acerbic, and addled (though not, like the title character in “The Lotus,” from mental illness, but from the ravages of age). “For Rhys’s characters, the journey through life is less an arc than a steep slide,” writes Power, “and lying at the bottom of it is Miss Verney.”
In the story, Miss Verney, now “certainly well over seventy,” lives alone in a village cottage. She has decided that a shed on her property is “an eyesore” that must be taken down and she tries to enlist a local handyman to do the job for her. The shed is of “a greenish colour” and is overlarge and dilapidated: “Part of the roof was loose and flapped noisily in windy weather and a small gate off its hinges leaned up against the entrance.” In case it wasn’t clear enough, Rhys makes explicit the connection between the decrepit shed and Miss Verney: “Long after she was dead and her cottage had vanished it would survive. The tin bucket and the rusty lawnmower, the pieces of rag fluttering in the wind. All would last forever.”
That the shed will outlive Miss Verney is an untenable thought for her, though no matter how diligently she tries to put it out of her mind, she finds she is unable:
But it was astonishing how it haunted her dreams. One night she was standing looking at it changing its shape and becoming a very smart, shiny, dark blue coffin picked out in white. It reminded her of a dress she had once worn. A voice behind her said, “That’s the laundry.”
“Then oughtn’t I to put it away?” said Miss Verney in her dream.
“Not just yet. Soon,” said the voice so loudly that she woke up.
The association of the shed and a coffin is clear enough; the voice in her dream that tells Miss Verney “Soon” is equally indicative of creeping mortality and the impermanence of human life.
Rhys is unsparing in her presentation of the degree to which the elderly in our society are sloughed off and forgotten or, alternatively, mocked as feeble and incapable. When Miss Verney begins seeing rats in her shed, she tries to solicit help from her neighbour, Tom. Though the man is initially accommodating, he quickly loses patience with the woman, who may only be imagining the vermin in any case. Similarly, a local child, Deena, acts with enormous disrespect and disdain toward the old woman, refusing help in a mortal situation because her mother has told her that Miss Verney is nothing more than an old drunk. It is Deena who hurls the epithet in the story’s title, in a moment of unbridled cruelty as Miss Verney lies on the ground after taking a fall.
Typical of Rhys’s fiction, the narrative voice in “Sleep It Off Lady” is detached and dispassionate, yet it retains a potency that renders her character and her situation all the more plaintive as a result. As Diana Athill writes, “Who else has reported back from the frontier of old age with such clarity, speaking truthfully about being old in the voice of the young person who continues to inhabit all of us for so long as we hold onto full awareness?” In “Who Knows What’s Up in the Attic?,” another story of the same vintage, Rhys encapsulates the essential dilemma facing not just Miss Verney, but all of the author’s struggling, searching, yearning women: “How few people understood what a tightrope she walked or what would happen if she slipped. The abyss. Despair. All those things.”