Jean Rhys's: 'Let Them Call It Jazz'

By Miranda Seymour

No special study has ever been made of 'Let Them Call It Jazz' and its origins.Which is strange, given how powerfully Rhys's story of a lonely but spirited young Creole outsider in Fifties' London still resonates with its readers. Odder still is the fact that nobody has picked up on the fact that Rhys, while hiding some of her own most humiliating experiences behind the mask of her mixed-race Creole protagonist, Selina Davis, created a young woman whomshe seemingly intended to represent the plight of the Windrush generation. Sadly, Andrea Levy never wrote about a writer whose story seems certain to have contributed to her own tenderly unforgettable portrait of a group of migrant Jamaicans inSmall Island. The connection between the outwardly bold Selina and Levy's more refined and uncomprehending Hortense cannot be coincidental. Levy admired Rhys's work.  Her familiarity with Rhys's finest post-war story is apparent on almost every page that Levy wrote.


Rhys was a notoriously slow and careful writer. Wide Sargasso Sea, her fifth and final novel, took almost thirty years from its gestation in 1937 (inspired by a once-in-a-lifetime return to Rhys's native island, Dominica) to its publication in the autumn of 1966.  'Let Them Call It Jazz' took its first dim shape in Rhys's mind almost as soon as she walked out of Holloway prison in the summer of 1949, when she announced to a close friend (Peggy Kirkaldy) that she intended to expose the wretched conditions in which women prisoners were held at a grim faux-medieval fortress known to inmates as 'Black Castle' [1]

Eleven years later, out of the blue, Rhys told a recently acquired confidante, Francis Wyndham, that she had been working on a new story called 'They Thought It was Jazz'. Published three years later by Alan Ross in the London Magazine, 'Let Them Call It Jazz' attracted praise from a discerning few for its presentation of a world with which few of the distinguished magazine's readers were familiar. Nobody knew enough about Rhys to guess how personal the story's content was. Nobody, back at a time when the fate of Caribbean migrants living in London was rarely discussed, paused to wonder whether Rhys was making a political point.

Why did it take Rhys so long to write a story that stands apart from the rest of her post-war work in its voice and the boldness of its subject matter?

Rhys's sojourn in Holloway's psychiatric wing marked the ugly climax to an escalating series of rows with her neighbours and tenants in what was then – and, post David Bowie, perhaps still is – the self-consciously conventional south London borough of Beckenham. (Selina Davis, living in an unidentified part of London after being kicked out of her Notting Hill room for not paying a month's advance rent, ends up in prison after throwing a brick through her racist neighbour's window. Rhys's troubles in Beckenham began when she committed the same offence after her neighbour's guard-dog killed two of Rhys's trio of cats.) Omitted from Selina's story – and from Rhys's carefully edited accounts of her own history - was the fact that Rhys's third husband, Max Hamer, swiftly followed his wife to prison, sent down with a two-year sentence for fraud and theft.

Rhys, during the grim years that followed Max's release in 1952, spent several months living at a derelict hotel in Bayswater, then at the heart of London's Caribbean community as magnificently and poignantly evoked in Sam Selvon's 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners. Living at the Elizabeth Hotel, Rhys was well-placed to observe how badly women like Selina Davis were treated by a predominantly white society, and how little opportunity they were given to fight back, or to progress. Acutely sensitive about her own outsider status as a white Creole, Rhys identified with Selina's situation. Selina – as Rhys must have decided during a long and wretched period of poverty, obscurity and homelessness when she wrote almost nothing – offered her a unique opportunity to speak up for the dispossessed (a white musician robs Selina's of her only treasured possession, a song she heard in Holloway which he sells in his own jazzed-up version, for which Selina receives a meagre five-pound fee) while drawing on her own hidden life.

Silence never meant that Rhys was not thinking about her work. Rediscovered after an adaptation of Good Morning Midnight was broadcast by the BBC in 1957, she clearly had a version of the still unwritten Wide Sargasso Sea in her head when she accepted a payment (from Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch) for a novel that she promised to complete within a year. Three years later, she announced the birth of 'Jazz' to Francis Wyndham, while failing to disclose that she had been plotting it since 1949. By 1960, she had successfully channelled her enduring sense of alienation into the story of Selina. 'If they treat you wrong over and again the hour strikes when you burst out that’s what,' Selina says. And that's how it was with Rhys whenever alcohol liberated her from the unobtrusive, almost dull persona – whispering voice, gloves on, mousy smile in place – she had learned to assume as a way of passing unnoticed. Writing as Selina, the voice of her secret self, she could be free to sing, dance, rage and mock. As Selina, just for once in her long and unhappy life as a hypersensitive outsider, Rhys was able to celebrate herself both as a woman of the Caribbean, and as a woman of power. When Selina gets drunk, she sings the island songs that Rhys herself could still warble in her Seventies. More importantly, Selina enabled hercreator to highlight the cruelties imposed by a racist, postwar world upon the innocent migrants who had grown up – like Rhys herself – idealising England as the benign Mother Country, the blessed place in which all of her empire's members received their due.

The problem that Rhys's story posed in 1960 was its content. In the spring of that year, when she first mentioned its existence (with seeming nonchalance) to Francis Wyndham, Rhys and her husband were living at Perranporth, a gossipy little seaside resort in North Cornwall. Rhys herself was a notoriously incompetent typist and Max, unlike his wife's previous husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, was not equipped to be her devoted secretary. How was her illegible manuscript to be turned into a form that Wyndham could read? Too scared of scandal to use a local typist, Rhys wrote for help to her daughter, Maryvonne Moerman. Her fear that the truth about her own disgrace might be disclosed is evident in her anxious assurances to Maryvonne that the story was 'not (repeat not) autobiography, and not to be taken seriously.' We can see that attempt to distance herself again in Rhys's subsequent and bizarre attempt to convince Wyndham that he, who had published Naipaul, knew more than a writer who spent her first seventeen years in the Caribbean about the authentic way for Selina to speak. 'What do you think?' she asked him after finally sending two pages of the story in December 1960 with a disclaimer about the 'stylised patois' that she had created from ear and memory. 'Does it sound right?' Sadly, Wyndham’s response was not preserved.

No careful reader of 'Let Them Call It Jazz' can doubt that Selina speaks both for her creator and for their forlorn compatriots from the Caribbean. 'I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it,' Rhys wrote in Smile Please, an unfinished memoir dictated to the novelist David Plante during her eighties. '…I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.' [2] And here's Selina, responding to the stranger's gift of a fiver for her stolen song, the song that was, she admits at the end of her bittersweet tale, 'all I had. I don't belong nowhere really, and I haven't money to buy my way to belonging. I don't want to either.'

But Rhys, so anxious to distance herself from Selina's shaming experiences, couldn't resist adding one almost invisible hint of an author's connection. 'So let them call it jazz…and let them play it wrong,' Selina concludes with a valiant shrug. 'That won't make no difference to the song I heard. I buy myself a dusty pink dress with the money.'

Dusty pink was the colour Jean Rhys loved best.

  1. The quotations are from Jean Rhys Letters, 1931-1966, ed by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly, Andre Deutsch
  2. JR, Smile Please, an Unfinished Autobiography, 1979


   Added: Tuesday 02 August 2022