Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys, 1968

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by Jean Rhys, 1968

Jean Rhys considered "Till September Petronella" the story that "just about saved [her] life." Originally begun as a 50, 000-word novel that she "cut and cut," it was written during the 1930s and initially rejected when she submitted it for publication in the 1940s as part of a collection called The Sound of the River. Rhys, almost always apologetic about her work, feared that the stories might be "dated" or "a bit lifeless." She wrote in a letter in 1959, however, that "I think there might be an idea or two knocking about….Especially in the last which is called 'In September, Petronella.' Dated. But purposely." Through the offices of Francis Wyndham, Rhys managed to place the story, for which Wyndham himself wrote an introduction, in the London Magazine. "Petronella's" appearance in the January 1960 issue brought Rhys not only some much needed cash but also a small flurry of acclaim from publishers and from other writers, which pleased her greatly. Wyndham was even approached by the critic and poet Goeffrey Grigson to write an entry on Rhys for World Literature 1900 to 1960. In 1966, after favorable reviews of her long-awaited novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys hoped that "Petronella" might appear in The New Yorker, but it was not reprinted until the collection Tigers Are Better-Looking appeared in 1968.

The story takes up many of the concerns and themes familiar in Rhys: poverty, misogyny, exploitation, addiction, depression, and isolation. Although Rhys claimed in a letter to her daughter in 1960 that "Petronella" was " not autobiography," one cannot help but see the parallels between the life of Petronella Gray, the narrator, and Rhys, whose stage name during the time she toured England as a chorus girl was Ella Gray.

As Thomas Staley has observed, this important story is one of the few in Rhys's canon that is internally dated; sitting in a pub, Petronella notices a calendar marked 28 July 1914. As Staley suggests, the time frame sets the characters on the verge of war, which "will only confirm the underlying human barbarism" of the relationships in the story "on a grander and more violent scale."

The plot involves a young model who leaves her dreary Bloomsbury existence for a fortnight in the country with a young painter, Marston, who, despite her lack of feelings for him, offers her "a bit of a change." Staying at his country cottage are a cynical music critic, Julian, to whom Petronella is attracted, and Frankie Morell, Julian's current lover. It is clear immediately that class is an issue in the story, as in much of Rhys's work: Frankie speaks to Petronella in a "patronizing voice" of opera, Marston taunts her for having "no money, no background," and Julian, in a drunken outburst, condemns her as "fifth rate," a "ghastly cross between a barmaid and a chorus-girl."

Even more marked, however, is the pervasive misogyny, seen in both men's barely disguised disgust with women and in women's animosity toward each other. There is no escape in Rhys's world as Petronella passes from one encounter to another, from the women in street markets staring at her "with hatred" to Julian who condemns her as a "female spider" to Marston who sees her as a "poor devil of a female, female, female, in a country where females are only tolerated at best!"

Finally unable to bear the cruelty and vindictiveness of this odd ménage à quatre, Petronella leaves the house, intending to return to London. As she walks along the main road, formulating her plan, a car stops, and she accepts a ride with a man who identifies himself as a farmer on his way to market. As in much of Rhys, the story is constructed around a series of nonevents: she waits in a pub for the farmer while he attends to business; he drives her back to Marston's to pick up her belongings; he drops her at the depot; and she takes the train back home. Issues cover the text like standing water; no one swims or dives or even drowns, although early on Petronella confesses that "the thought came to me suddenly, like a revelation, that I could kill myself any time I liked and so end it. After that I put a better face on things."

Back in London, Petronella shares a cab with a stranger named Melville, then dines with him, sleeps with him, and lets him take her home. "I daresay he would be nice if one got to know him," she thinks as they exchange banter and she tells him of her failed theatrical career, due to her inability to say lines on cue. The irony here is not to be missed, for in much of Rhys it is just this problem that haunts women: the inability to perform, to say or do what other people, usually men, want. Petronella still seems resilient enough to absorb the emptiness of her encounters; she doesn't seem to realize, as do Rhys's older women, that no one ever "gets to know" anyone and has not yet, as Staley notes, "progressed very far along that inevitable downward spiral of life" so familiar to Rhys's older heroines. The story is still somewhat open-ended—the phrase "till September" echoes twice as both Marston and Melville part and promise to see Petronella in the fall. But as Judith Kegan Gardiner has observed, the title also presages the guns of August, connecting "world war with the battle between the sexes."

For Rhys, however, the sustaining metaphor is not battle but a kind of cruel passivity, seen in the striking last scene of the story when Petronella stands looking out the window in her sitting room, remembering the night on stage she forgot her lines. She is fixated by the face of a man in the front row whom she sees "quite clearly" and whom she wills to help her, to tell her what she has forgotten: "But though he had looked, as it seemed, straight into my eyes, and though I was sure he knew exactly what I was thinking, he had not helped me. He had only smiled. He had left me in that moment that seemed like years."

"Till September Petronella" is significant in that artistically it articulates this key Rhysian "moment" and yet in a sense historically ruptures it, for it was through this story that Rhys looked out again after many years of despair into the face of her audience and saw, if only briefly, what it was she had forgotten.

—Deborah Kelly Kloepfer