Friday, 30 March 2012

Jean Rhys and her new blue plaque

In London post-WW2 there's never been quite the equivalent of a Parisian crepuscule, that brief 'blue hour' to which Jean Rhys often refers in her pre-war writings set in these cities. At any rate, it was around 4 o'clock on a dull grey but luckily dry March afternoon (06.03.2012) when the impressive English Heritage blue plaque for Jean was unveiled.

Witnesses to this memorable day numbered about two dozen, most notably Jean's granddaughter Ellen Moerman and various Dutch and French friends and colleagues; the excellent organisers from English Heritage, Dr Celina Fox and Libby Wardle; my partner Maggie Fisher, photographer for both my memoirs of Jean; Paul Sieveking, co-founding Editor of Fortean Times, and a mixed bag of cross-generational admirers, along with several biographers of the psychologising/speculative variety. Ironically but perhaps fittingly too, there were no publishers, no literary critics and no journalists to be seen. Jean had stated quite specifically that she never wanted biographies of herself – something Ellen also confirmed. (See too my recent haiku The Author/ities included with the short speech mentioned below.) However, Jean would doubtless have been delighted to be accepted, acknowledged and celebrated so enthusiastically and indeed definitively as a famous name in 20th century literature.

The distinguished historian and author Celina Fox, opening the proceedings, spoke about the work of English Heritage and their criteria for blue plaque consideration. It was at Flat 22, Dr Fox pointed out, that Jean and her second husband Leslie Tilden Smith lived, after their visit to Dominica. This was the only time Jean revisited the island of her childhood and it had proved a bitter experience, though it did bear strange and extraordinary fruit in Wide Sargasso Sea. If Jean's most famous book was written in Devon, however, it was fitting she should be commemorated in London where she spent much of her life, the city serving as background for much of her fiction. At Paultons House Jean Rhys wrote that superb and tragic book Good Morning, Midnight. But it was also in Chelsea, in 1914, that she first began setting down in notebooks bought in the Kings Road, memories of an emotionally devastating love affair – the sort of traumatic material she could later describe, concisely and objectively, like no other modern writer.

The traffic on the Kings Road scarcely required raised voices, let alone microphones, and after my own short speech, I introduced Ellen, who concluded her own comments on this relaxed and touching occasion by drawing the red curtains (which a cherrypicker had earlier placed high on the wall), and so the plaque was permanently on view to London and the world.

Photos of this ceremony – plus the cover of a special commemorative booklet of a quartet of her terrific short stories, edited by Ellen Moerman – may be viewed at Click on Articles and Reviews, then on Jean Rhys Used To Live There Once for my short eulogy on the occasion, and for further information about the proceedings.

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