Jean Rhys, Paul Theroux, and the Imperial Road

By O'Connor, Teresa F. | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Jean Rhys, Paul Theroux, and the Imperial Road


O'Connor, Teresa F., Twentieth Century Literature


Toward the end of her life Jean Rhys offered many of the private papers and manuscripts still in her possession for sale through the booksellers Bertram Rota, Ltd. Their catalogue listed an unpublished story, "The Imperial Road," with the notation: "Miss Rhys has stated that her publishers declined to include this story in Sleep It Off, Lady, considering it to be too anti-negro in tone" (7). The story was never published and its major components never appeared in any of Rhys's other work.(1) Though I was familiar with the manuscript, two stories in Paul Theroux's collection World's End spurred my interest in a closer reading of Rhys's unpublished one.

World's End contains two consecutive and connected pieces: the first, "Zombies," is clearly a portrait of the elderly Jean Rhys and refers to the reasons why "The Imperial Road" was not published. Theroux's second story, "The Imperial Ice House," renders a variant of Rhys's "The Imperial Road," thereby tendering a further subtextual comment on its rejection by her publishers.

In "Zombies" Miss Bristow, an aged writer originally from the island of "Isabella," lives in exile in England. She is courted by the literati who have recently rediscovered her and her work after a long disappearance. ("She knew the talk that people believed she had been dead for years. . . . She could not remember when people had listened to her so keenly. She began to write again" |27~.) "Zombies" is related from the point of view of Miss Bristow, a fragile and fearful alcoholic. From her profession and history to her posture and presence, Miss Bristow immediately calls to mind Jean Rhys.

At a party Miss Bristow meets Philippa, a young editor from Howlett's, her publishing house. Philippa, who is "bright and dull" and who never fully understands Miss Bristow's sarcasm and irony, is anxious to please the now famous writer and to do well at the publishing house. Toward the end of the story, it is Philippa's job to report to Miss Bristow that Howlett's will not publish "the icehouse story" in Miss Bristow's forthcoming collection. As Philippa haltingly tells her this, Miss Bristow reflects on the volume as "an old woman's book, rather a monochrome, all memory, without adornment or invention" (36)--a suitable description of Sleep It Off, Lady, Rhys's last book of fiction. Though Philippa tells Miss Bristow that the story is "easily one of the best-written things" she's done, she finally agrees with her superiors, who will not publish it because "It's anti-Negro."

I had no doubt that Miss Bristow and her story were based on Jean Rhys and her experience with the publication history of "The Imperial Road." It also seemed likely that there might be a connection, in either style or content, between the second Theroux story, "The Imperial Ice House," and Rhys's unpublished one. Certainly their titles were similar. A comparison of the Rhys manuscript and Theroux's story suggest no strong stylistic relationship but there certainly are thematic connections.

"The Imperial Ice House" is about a white newcomer to a Caribbean Island who, unaccustomed to the realities of life there, decides one day to haul a cart containing a large block of ice back to his plantation using the labor of three of his black workers. The ice melts; the cart, under its great burden, begins to break; the horse resists; and the black workers, first cajoled and then threatened by the planter finally, under the hot sun, on the lonely difficult road to the plantation, murder the planter with the icepick.

I was curious to know whether Theroux had ever seen Rhys's story or whether Rhys had seen Theroux's. And, even if Rhys was not aware of Theroux's reference to her and her work, I was interested in the underlying significance of this literary alliance, particularly because Jean Rhys, as a person and as a writer, seems to have attracted other writers who use elements of her personality and history as the bases for characters in their own fiction. …

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