Jean Rhys

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Jean Rhys
Born (1890-08-24)24 August 1890
Roseau, Dominica, British West Indies
Died 14 May 1979(1979-05-14) (aged 88)
Exeter, Devon, England
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, essayist
Nationality Dominican
Genre Modernism, Postmodernism
Spouse Jean Lenglet (1919–1933)
Leslie Tilden-Smith (1934–1945)
Max Hamer (1947–1966)
Children A son and a daughter by Lenglet

Jean Rhys, CBE (/rs/; 24 August 1890 – 14 May 1979), born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, was a mid-20th-century novelist from Dominica. Educated from the age of 16 in Great Britain, she is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a "prequel" to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.[1]

Early life[edit]

Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica, an island of the British West Indies. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scots ancestry. Creole was broadly used in those times to refer to island white people, whether they were of mixed or non-mixed blood.

Rhys was educated in Dominica until the age of sixteen when she was sent to England to live with her aunt. She attended the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge,[2] where she was mocked as an outsider and for her accent. She attended two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London by 1909. Her instructors despaired of Rhys ever learning to speak "proper English" and advised her father to take her away. Now unable to train as an actress and refusing to return to the Caribbean as her parents wished, she worked with varied success as a chorus girl, adopting the names Vivienne, Emma or Ella Gray.[2]

After her father died in 1910, Rhys apparently experimented with the prospect of living as a demimondaine; she became the mistress of a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith. Though a bachelor, Smith did not offer to marry Rhys and their affair soon ended; he continued to be an occasional source of financial help. Distraught by events including a near-fatal abortion (not Smith's child), Rhys began writing and produced her novel Voyage In The Dark.[2] In 1913 she worked for a time as a nude model in Britain.

During World War I, Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918 she worked in a pension office.

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1919 Rhys married the French-Dutch journalist (and spy) and songwriter Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, the first of her three husbands.[2] She and Lenglet wandered through Europe, living mainly in London, Paris and Vienna. They had two children, a son who died young and a daughter; they divorced in 1933.

The next year she married Leslie Tilden-Smith, an editor. They moved to Devon in 1939, where they lived for several years. He died in 1945.

In 1947 Rhys married Max Hamer, a solicitor and cousin to Tilden-Smith. He spent much of their marriage in jail having been convicted of fraud;[3] he died in 1966.

Writing career[edit]

In 1924 Rhys came under the influence of the English writer Ford Madox Ford. After they met in Paris Rhys wrote short stories under his patronage. Ford recognized that her experience as an exile gave Rhys a unique viewpoint, and he praised her "singular instinct for form". "Coming from the West Indies, he declared, 'with a terrifying insight and ... passion for stating the case of the underdog, she has let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World'."[2] It was Ford who suggested she change her name to Jean Rhys (from Ella Williams).[4] (At the time her husband was in jail for what Rhys described as currency irregularities.) She moved in with Ford and his longtime partner, Stella Bowen. An affair with Ford ensued, which, in fictionalized form, she portrayed in her novel Quartet.[4]

With Voyage in the Dark published in 1934, Rhys continued to portray the mistreated, rootless woman; here as a young chorus girl grown up in the West Indies who now finds herself in England and alienated. In Good Morning, Midnight published in 1939, the author used modified stream of consciousness to voice the experiences of an aging woman.

In the 1940s Rhys all but disappeared from public view; from 1955 to 1960 she lived in Bude in Cornwall, where she was unhappy—calling it "Bude the Obscure"—before moving to Cheriton Fitzpaine in Devon. After a long absence from the public eye she published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, having spent years drafting and perfecting it. Begun well before she came to Bude, the book won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys returned to themes of dominance and dependence, especially in marriage; here she depicted the mutually painful relationship between a privileged European man and a woman made powerless on being duped and coerced by him and others—quite a different perspective on the "madwoman in the attic" than that drawn in Jane Eyre. Diana Athill of the André Deutsch house gambled on publishing Wide Sargasso Sea,; she and the writer Francis Wyndham helped revive widespread interest in Rhys's work.[5]

Later years[edit]

Jean Rhys (left, in hat), 1970s

From 1960, for the rest of her life, Rhys lived in Cheriton Fitzpaine, a small Devon village she once described as "a dull spot which even drink can't enliven much".[6] Characteristically, she remained unimpressed by her belated ascent to literary fame, commenting, "It has come too late."[5] In an interview shortly before her death Rhys questioned whether any novelist, not least herself, could ever be happy for any length of time. She said: "If I could choose I would rather be happy than write ... if I could live my life all over again, and choose ...".[7] She died in Exeter on 14 May 1979 before completing her autobiography, which she had begun dictating only months earlier, at the age of 87.[8] In 1979, the incomplete text appeared posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

In 2012 English Heritage marked Rhys's Chelsea flat at Paulton House in Paultons Square with a blue plaque.[9]

Selected bibliography[edit]


Rhys's collected papers and ephemera are housed in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library.


  1. ^ Modjeska, Drusilla (1999). Stravinsky's Lunch. Sydney: Picador. ISBN 0-330-36259-3. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Carr, Helen (2004). "Williams, Ella Gwendoline Rees (1890–1979)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ "Kent: From Maidstone Prison to the Wide Sargasso Sea!", Reading Detectives.
  4. ^ a b Owen, Katie, "Introduction", Quartet, Penguin Modern Classics edition, Penguin, 2000, p. vi. ISBN 978-0-14-118392-3
  5. ^ a b Anonymous preliminary page in Jean Rhys, Quartet, Penguin: 2000, ISBN 978-0-14-118392-3
  6. ^ "Villagers reject 'dull spot' jibe", Exeter Express & Echo, 11 February 2010.
  7. ^ In Their Own Words: British Novelists. Ep. 1: Among the Ruins (1919–1939). British Broadcasting Company (2010).
  8. ^ Lisa Paravisini, "BBC Interviews Jean Rhys’ Typist", Repeating Islands, 14 May 2009.
  9. ^ "RHYS, JEAN (1880–1979)". English Heritage. Retrieved January 6, 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Angier, Carol, Jean Rhys. Life and Work, Little, Brown and Co., 1990.
  • Cheryl M. L. Dash, "Jean Rhys", in Bruce King, ed., West Indian Literature, Macmillan, 1979, pp. 196–209.
  • Joseph, Margaret Paul, Caliban in Exile: The Outsider in Caribbean Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1992.
  • Lykiard, Alexis, Jean Rhys Revisited, Stride Publications, 2000. ISBN 1-900152-68-1
  • Lykiard, Alexis, Jean Rhys Afterwords, Shoestring Press, 2006.

External links[edit]