Lately I have been very into the flâneurs of Paris: Baudelaire, Baldwin, Sontag, Rilke. What I love about these writers who go to Paris when they are young is they all have one thing in common. They are dreamers. They are destitute, they are lonely, and they are all wearing haloes of poetry. Something about this appeals to me. And Jean Rhys was one of the best of them. She had an amazingly fluid style. For example, a lot of writers who try stream-of-consciousness end up just rambling, but Jean Rhys can pull it off. Her books feel like she is right there talking to you. You could listen to her for hours.
Recently, I was sitting in the waiting room at Planned Parenthood (the one on Long Island City), and I was reading Good Morning, Midnight. I was at the part where she gets a job in a dress shop. Rhys’s inner thoughts, as the hours tick by in this shop in Paris, meander between boredom and nervousness and declaration, then back to boredom again. She helps a customer. She gets scolded by her boss. Then, at the end of the day, she quits. She walks out into the street and never goes back to the job. I do not know if anyone reading this has ever worked in retail before, but trust me, if you have, it is hard not to love Jean Rhys for this. This grab for her own freedom.
Later, of course, you learn that Rhys is haunted by the memory of a failed romance, a difficult pregnancy, and a dead baby. The way she writes about hospitals, you know she did not have any money. Her biographers will tell you this, too—but you can absolutely feel it in her fiction. The fear of cold metal beds and hospital bills.
The doctor who called my name at the clinic was a short woman with deft manners, square glasses and a graying blond bob. After a few introductory remarks she came to the inevitable question about how long I had been experiencing pain. Two or three months. I had already rehearsed my spiel about this inside my head. I kept my chin up, and my voice steady, as I explained that I did not come sooner because I don’t have health insurance. I did not have health insurance for the entirety of 2018. I used to have a catastrophic plan for freelancers, but I canceled it when the cost went up. I’m a writer.
“I love my work,” I said. “I have always worked more than I was cautious…”
After a moment of awkward silence, I added, as a joke: “This administration, am I right?”
The doctor blinked and typed some notes into her computer. Doctors who choose to work at Planned Parenthood are a particular breed, obviously. Her knowing nod said everything. A mixture of emotions chased across her face—compassion, indignation, fatigue—and pity, too, as she typed away at her computer.
I thought about my mother, briefly. Clinics like Planned Parenthood are a fraught topic in the part of the country that I grew up in, and I do not think my mom has ever set foot inside of one. On the other hand, my mom has never had to go to the doctor as a single adult woman. Single women face a different set of pressures from the world, I think, than married women do. But I was relieved to be there, in the care of this kind and competent doctor. A word to anyone who needs to know it: the Planned Parenthood in Long Island City is well-equipped, and they will not charge you more than you can pay.
And in case you are wondering why I am not embarrassed to relate this personal information in print (about my health and my finances), I will say this: writing is my profession. I will continue to write about matters that strike me as important, whether that keeps me in a constant state of brokeness for the rest of my life or not. I did not choose to be a woman, but I did choose to assume the role of woman-writer in the world. I choose to always do the best job of writing that I can. For my mother’s honor, in fact. Even though, sometimes, I think my mom wishes that I didn’t write.
In Good Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys’s narrator never tries to get another job. She drifts around hotels and restaurants, worrying that the strangers around her imagine she is wasting her life. At one point, she splurges on a nice haircut because she is terrified of looking shabby. This is a theme with her: This fixation with personal appearance. Looking pulled-together was Rhys’s armor—her only defense against the cruelty of the world. In biographies, I have read that Rhys spent at least an hour every morning on her make-up. She even dressed up to write. All writers have their rituals, obviously—walking the dog, cooking breakfast for the kids—mundane tasks you that build into your day, which are somehow just as valuable as the time you spend knocking words out at your desk. I think, as readers, it is not our place to judge Rhys for how she spent her time.
Except, in Good Morning, Midnight, the hotel rooms she stays in are increasingly not nice. As the plot advances, it becomes painfully clear that Rhys’s narrator is living beyond her means. “A room is a place where you hide from the wolves. That's all any room is,” she reasons to herself. It is a fascinating counterpoint to that maxim from Virginia Woolf, actually: “If a woman is to write fiction, she must have money and a room of her own.” These words are famous because they are true, of course, but they are also a little unfair. Woolf herself was born into a rich family. It is thanks to Woolf’s inherited wealth and social standing that she was able to write A Room of One’s Own at all. She had medical problems, too, but she always received the best care. On the other hand: Jean Rhys was equally worth her snuff as a writer. Obviously, Rhys could write. Only: she did it by staying in hotels she could not afford, and by spending money she did not have.
Lying on my back in a blue paper gown, with the doctor’s gloved hand inserted up my cervix—probing for swelling or abnormal growths—I saw all of this more clearly than I ever had in my life. “I had an intern this summer…” I blurted, almost as an afterthought, in response to small talk from the doctor.
I don’t know why I said that. Maybe I felt the need to prove my legitimacy. My intern had won a grant from his school, and whichever magazine he chose to spend his summer with would be awarded the money. He chose to work with me. I guess I was proud of this—this earning of a few dollar bills. The grant money went straight into the magazine’s coffers, of course. But still, it’s money. If a young person with a grant thinks journalism is still a business worth going for, then maybe, just maybe, I do not need to be so ashamed of the fact that I own just one pair of winter shoes. Or that the hem of my coat is running a little ragged. Or maybe—maybe even, I was trying to show this doctor that I have a maternal side. I had liked having an intern for the summer. The kid was fun to have around. Maybe a detail like this would prove that I, as a woman-person, deserved to have my ovaries looked after. Even though I did not know how to pay for them.
In her real life, Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, to a Creole mother and Welsh father, and educated in London. She spoke in a West Indies accent her entire life and never seemed to belong anywhere. Starting in her late teens, she had a series of boyfriends and husbands (some of whom treated her better than others), who took her around Vienna and Paris, where she learned to speak French. She wrote Good Morning, Midnight in 1939—her fourth novel. Then she disappeared for a while, and many of her fans assumed she was dead. This is a true story. At one point, a radio broadcaster ran a newspaper ad asking for Rhys’s whereabouts because he wanted to make Good Morning, Midnight into a radio play. Rhys was living in Kent at the time—alcoholically—and she reported that none of her neighbors believed she could be this sought-after writer. She finally resurfaced, years later, with Wide Sargasso Sea, the novel that is most studied in schools today. Over the course of her life, she was employed as a chorus girl, a receptionist in a pension office, and (during the First World War), she volunteered in a soldier’s canteen. Rhys spent the last years of her life in Devon, in a series of rented hotel rooms—single, well-dressed, sunk into debt, and drinking heavily.
In short, Rhys’s life was itinerant and often heartbreaking. But it was also noble. In the 1970s, her publisher at Andre Deutsch admitted that the company should have paid her more. They knew how impoverished Rhys was, and yet, she was an amazing perfectionist and produced remarkable work. Her books were good because she worked really hard on them. Sometimes we say about women writers, “she wrote her way out”—meaning that she wrote her way out of poverty, or other kinds of distress. That never happened for Rhys.
When I was growing up, my mother kept a notebook in the glove compartment of her 1989 Ford Escort. She took it out every time she spent money on something. Tank of gas? She would make us kids wait in the back seat while she wrote in meticulous pencil: $21.63. Lunch date with a girlfriend? In the parking lot after, she opened the book against her steering wheel and copied out the receipt before turning her key in the ignition. $1.00 for coffee? This, too, she wrote down
At various times in my adult life, I have tried to keep a similar habit. I am 30 years old now, and I often hear people from my parents’ generation complain that young people have atrocious spending habits. “Don’t spend everything you make,” they warn. “Don’t put anything on a credit card unless you know you’ll pay the bill on time.” As far as financial wisdom goes, this is pretty much the core of it. Except: My life today looks very different from how my mom’s did in the 1990s.
Put aside the encroaching facts of Late Capitalism—the fact that many things we took for granted in the 1990s have now become destabilized (Brexit, closed borders, the debt crisis, our country’s broken healthcare system, our broken housing market, climate change)—. Every day, the prospect of saving up for a quiet, happy future seems less possible for my generation.
I thought about the state of the world, and I thought about Jean Rhys as I spoke to my mother on the phone, after my visit to the doctor.
“They want me to get an ultrasound,” I said to my mom.
“Oh, are you pregnant?”
My mother and I never had the kind of relationship where we were comfortable talking about reproductive health. She grew up in an era where it wasn’t done, essentially.
“I’m not pregnant, mom,” I sighed. “An ultrasound is just a scan, like an x-ray.”
“Will it be expensive?” she worried.
I took a deep breath and explained to my mother the mission and inner workings of clinics like Planned Parenthood.
“Oh,” she said. And that was it.
I think, truly, my mom had never considered these questions before—the fact that women’s bodies have always been politicized. The fact that some people in Rhys’s life never forgave her for being an inattentive mother, and some people in Woolf’s life never forgave her for skipping children altogether. And maybe that’s not fair. I imagined my mom sitting in the driver’s seat of her car as we spoke—clutching the notebook, where, for decades, she has painstakingly guarded every penny that passed through her hands. I tried to imagine the kind of fear, or anxiety, or isolation that might have prompted her to do this, for years.
My mom did not grow up in a house where people talked about art or travel. Nobody encouraged her to follow her passions, or taught her that she could lead an intellectual life if she wanted to. I finally realized that I owe it to my mom to take care of myself. So that she can see me go through life and be happy. That is all she wants. If I cannot be happy, then, at least, I can have a body that is not falling apart—and if I cannot have that, then at least I can go to the doctor. So that is why I re-enrolled in health insurance for 2019. I owe it to my mom. (Though now I also owe $405 a month to Healthfirst Silver Leaf Premier.) Hooray.
As for Jean Rhys, maybe we are supposed to disapprove of the way she led her life. She tipped into worse and worse debt as she wrote novels, with no real family around her. I find myself unable to disapprove of her, though. I see her as brave. I see her as brave, and I see her as free. To be a writer is to be free.
by Rachel Veroff
header image by Robin Garnier.