The author Jean Rhys moved to Bude in 1955.

She nicknamed it Bude the Obscure, and complained about the summer tourists who endlessly knocked on her door, assuming that the whole town was open for business. She threatened to nail a sign to her front door that said: No matches, No cigarettes, No sandwiches, No water. Don’t know where anybody lives. Don’t know anything. Now BUGGER OFF. Only her husband stopped her from seeing it through.

But then, by the time she washed up in Bude, Rhys had a track record of burning through places and people, leaving her constantly on the run. After coming to England from Dominica at seventeen to go to school, she lived all over Europe with her first husband, before an affair with Ford Maddox Ford ended their marriage. When she left, she left her six-year-old daughter behind in France. She married again in 1934, and although she lived in London with her husband Leslie, he often paid for her to go elsewhere: to the seaside to dry out after she started to drink two bottles of wine a day; to Paris in 1937 when she felt she could no longer write in her study. Here, she appears to have had some kind of breakdown, and ended up in a clinic in Versailles. Back home again, she refused to get out of bed, writing in her notebook, ‘I’m drunk mostly all the time.’

When the Second World War came in 1939, Jean was nearly fifty. She had published four novels and a collection of short stories, and although she was admired in the literary world, she had yet to capture the popular imagination. She saw nothing in common with the other writers of the time, and so drifted away from the scene. Her husband, who had typed many of her previous manuscripts, became too engaged in war work to support her; she worried constantly about her daughter, now seventeen and living in occupied Holland. She had to move out of the RAF base in Norfolk where Leslie was stationed; she had embarrassed herself somehow, stepped over some boundary or other. She ended up living alone in a rural cottage in another Norfolk village. She could hear the villagers talking about her through the walls. In 1941, she was fined for being drunk and disorderly in Holt, shouting, ‘I am West Indian, and I hate the English. They are a bloody mean and dirty lot.’

There were other incidents: Leslie felt he had to leave the RAF because of Jean’s conduct, and wouldn’t let his own daughter have contact with her. At the end of the war, Leslie and Jean went on holiday to a cottage on Dartmoor, where Leslie died suddenly. The neighbours reported hearing a screaming row the night before. Jean gave several conflicting accounts of the circumstances of his death. At the very least, she exacerbated the stress that led to it; other people suspected darker truths.

Ever the survivor, she married again, this time to a relative of Leslie’s, Max Hamer. Max was a solicitor, and they moved to a large house in Beckenham in Kent, which they planned to renovate, turn into flats, and rent out the top floors. But there were problems, as there always were. The builders ripped them off; Max lost his job at a law firm and made a series of questionable investments instead. Jean began to fall out with the neighbours. When the next-door neighbour’s dog killed Jean’s beloved cat, Mr Wu, she threw a brick through the window. She was remanded on bail for thirteen days. The next year, she got into a row with her tenant when he held a party in his flat; she ended up slapping his face, hurling abuse at his wife and their guests, and then throwing a punch. She slapped and bit the constable who came to arrest her, and called him a ‘dirty gestapo’.

She was fined four pounds in court, and then got into another altercation with the same tenant on returning home. This time, she was referred for psychiatric examination. The psychiatrist diagnosed her as a ‘hysteric’. In court, Jean said she felt he had been ‘very fair’, but then lost control of herself and embarked on a tirade that only served to underline the severity of her condition in the eyes of the judge. She spent a week in Holloway, on the psychiatric wing. She was glad of it; it shut everyone else out. She later referred to herself as an ‘old Hollowayian’.

It didn’t stop her fighting. She couldn’t get control of it. She went to the police station in 1950 to report being struck by a neighbour. But she was very drunk, and panicked. She ended up shouting that England was run by ‘rotten, stinking Jews’, and she carried on shouting after she was thrown out of the police station. They had to arrest her. She was fined a pound in court, but three days later the argument broke out again, and she was charged with three assaults. This time, the court gave her three weeks to leave Beckenham. It didn’t matter by then, anyway: Max was awaiting trial for some misdemeanours of his own: larceny and gaining money under false pretences.

While Max served two years in prison, Jean found a strange peace. She moved to Maidstone to be near him and lived above a pub, which had the curious effect of stopping her drinking. She started writing the story she had yearned to tell about the first Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. It had been a long time since she had been able to write. When Max was released, they moved to the cottage in Bude, where she admired the kitchen but fought against the cold. She wrote to her granddaughter about wreckers, railed against the local sheep who ate her spring flowers, and craved trees instead of sand and rocks.

It is tempting to say ‘and so on’ at this point, and note the cycle of cantankerousness, drunkenness and rage that saw Jean through to her death in 1979, aged eighty-eight. But here’s the thing: in Bude, she finally settled down seriously to writing The Wide Sargasso Sea, at that point called The Revenant or Creole. She signed a publishing contract in 1957, and delivered the book nine years later, the day after Max died.

The novel was immediately acknowledged as a work of considerable significance and genius, and, of course, now finds its way onto school syllabuses and lists of favourite, life-changing books. Perhaps it is the psychological realism of a woman driven to madness by an inhospitable world around her, which could only be told by a woman who herself fought hard against the necessity of an attic and the custody of a Grace Poole. Literary success made Jean no less difficult, coming so late in her life, when she was fast approaching her eighties, but she made the most of it, drinking whisky in London night clubs, wearing a pink wig that protected her from the shyness she had always felt around people. There was sympathy for Jean now, but friends continued to peel away from her, right to the end of her life. Yet people continued to adhere to her too; to find her electric and extraordinary. Friends, to Jean, were like a fuel that stoked her fire, and she burned them up accordingly.

We will never know, now, what made the world chafe so horribly against Jean – whether it was the trauma of her early years, or something deeper-seated, that would never let her settle. None of us has the right to speculate. But she was a difficult woman who found the world difficult, who found the city too crowded and the country too quiet. She found solace in walking from Bude to Widemouth Bay, even if the fields were so damp and cow-infested that she wished they would all get washed into the sea. This is a kind of balance that I recognize.

stem: Katherine May
titel: Morwenstow to widemouth bay, march
perspectief: Katherine May loopt – tamelijk verloren op zoek naar zelfkennis – in kleine stukjes, zo gefragmenteerd als ze zelf lijkt, the South West Coast Path, klein kind en man en zichzelf controlerend. De inzichten die ze opdoet stopt ze in haar volgende boek Wintering (2021). Dit gaat over de ontdekking van haar autisme.
bron: The electricity of every living thing (2021) – a woman’s walk in the wild to find her way home
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