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Jean Rhys

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Jean Rhys

Rhys and Mollie Stoner in the 1970s
Rhys and Mollie Stoner in the 1970s
BornElla Gwendoline Rees Williams
(1890-08-24)24 August 1890
Roseau or Grand Bay, British Leeward Islands (now Dominica)
Died14 May 1979(1979-05-14) (aged 88)
Exeter, Devon, England
OccupationNovelist, short story writer, essayist
GenreModernism, postmodernism[1][2]
Notable works
Jean Lenglet
(m. 1919; div. 1933)
Leslie Tilden-Smith
(m. 1934; died 1945)
Max Hamer
(m. 1947; died 1966)

Jean Rhys, CBE (/rs/ REESS;[3] born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams; 24 August 1890 – 14 May 1979) was a British novelist who was born and grew up in the Caribbean island of Dominica. From the age of 16, she mainly resided in England, where she was sent for her education. She is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.[4] In 1978, she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her writing.

Early life[edit]

Rhys's father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh medical doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, née Lockhart, a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scots ancestry. ("Creole" was broadly used in those times to refer to any person born on the island, whether they were of European or African descent, or both.) She had a brother. Her mother's family had an estate, a former plantation, on the island.

Rhys was educated in Dominica until the age of 16, when she was sent to England to live with an aunt, as her relations with her mother were difficult. She attended the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge,[5] 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 her ever learning to speak "proper English" and advised her father to take her away. Unable to train as an actress and refusing to return to the Caribbean as her parents wished, Rhys worked with varied success as a chorus girl, adopting the names Vivienne, Emma, or Ella Gray. She toured Britain's small towns and returned to rooming or boarding houses in rundown neighbourhoods of London.[5]

After her father died in 1910, Rhys appears to have experimented with living as an artist's model after she became the mistress of wealthy stockbroker Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, whose father Hugh Colin Smith had been Governor of the Bank of England.[6] Though a bachelor, Smith did not offer to marry Rhys, and their affair soon ended. However, he continued to be an occasional source of financial help. Distraught by events, including a near-fatal abortion, Rhys began writing sketches and short stories.

During the First World War, Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918, she worked in a pension office to help the families of dead or wonded soldiers and sailors.

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1919, Rhys married Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, spy, and songwriter. He was the first of her three husbands.[5] She and Lenglet lived in Paris, where their baby son died, before living in Vienna and Budapest before returning to Paris. Their daughter was born in 1922. In 1924, the year that the newly named Jean Rhys was discovered and published by Ford Madox Ford, Lenglet was imprisoned for embezzlement. The couple eventually divorced in 1933, but remained loyal to each others' work, while sharing the care of their daughter, Maryvonne.

The next year, Rhys married Leslie Tilden-Smith, an English agent and editor. In 1936, they went briefly to Dominica, the first time Rhys had returned since she had left for school. Her brother Owen was living in England, and she took care of some financial affairs for him, making a settlement with a mixed-race woman on the island and Owen's illegitimate children by her.[citation needed]The visit exerted a powerful influence on Rhys's most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.

In 1937, Rhys began a friendship with novelist Eliot Bliss (who had adopted that first name in honour of an admired writer). The two women shared Caribbean backgrounds. The correspondence between them survives.[7] Rhys also became close to Phyllis Shand Allfree, whose family also lived in Dominica.

Rhys and Tilden-Smith lived in London through World War II, while Rhys agonised over the possible fate of her daughter, living in Amsterdam. (Maryvonne had joined the Dutch Resistance and married a fellow fighter against Fascism) Tilden-Smith died in 1945. In 1947, Rhys married Max Hamer, a solicitor who was a cousin of Tilden-Smith. He was convicted of fraud and imprisoned after their marriage. Rhys remained admirably loyal to him throughout, while their lives descended into conditions of extreme poverty, including even the hold of a boat and a horsebox. They settled in 1960, in a cottage in Cheriton Fitzpaine, purchased for Rhys by her oldest brother, Edward. Max Hamer died in 1966, the year in which Wide Sargasso Sea began a remarkable change in Rhys' fortunes.[8]

Writing career[edit]

In 1924, Rhys came under the influence of English writer Ford Madox Ford. After meeting Ford in Paris, Rhys wrote short stories under his patronage. Ford recognised that her experience as an exile gave Rhys a unique viewpoint, and praised her "singular instinct for form". "Coming from the West Indies, [Ford] 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'."[5] This he wrote in his preface to her debut short story collection, The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927).

It was Ford who suggested she change her name from Ella Williams to Jean Rhys.[9] At the time her husband was in jail for what Rhys described as currency irregularities. Rhys moved in with Ford and his long-time partner Stella Bowen. An affair with Ford ensued, which she portrayed in fictionalised form in her novel Quartet (1928).[9] Her protagonist is a stranded foreigner, Marya Zelli, who finds herself at the mercy of strangers when her husband is jailed in Paris. The 1981 film adaptation of the novel was produced by Merchant Ivory Productions.

In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), the protagonist, Julia Martin, is a more unravelled version of Marya Zelli, romantically dumped and inhabiting the pavements, cafes and cheap hotel rooms of Paris.

With Voyage in the Dark (1934), Rhys continued to portray a mistreated, rootless woman. Here the narrator, Anna, is a young chorus girl who grew up in the West Indies and feels alienated in England.

Good Morning, Midnight (1939) is sometimes (inaccurately) considered a continuation of Rhys's first two novels. Here, she uses modified stream of consciousness to voice the experiences of an ageing woman, Sasha Jansen, who drinks, takes sleeping pills, and obsesses over her looks, and is adrift again in Paris. Good Morning, Midnight, acknowledged as well written but deemed depressing, came as World War II broke out and readers sought optimism. This seemingly ended Rhys's literary career.

In the 1940s, Rhys largely withdrew from public life. From 1955 to 1960, she lived in Bude, Cornwall, where she was unhappy, calling it "Bude the Obscure", before moving to Cheriton Fitzpaine, a small village in Devon.

After a long absence from the public eye, she was rediscovered in Beckenham, South London, by Selma Vaz Dias, who in 1949 placed an advertisement in the New Statesman asking about her whereabouts, with a view to obtaining the rights to adapt her novel Good Morning, Midnight for radio. Rhys responded, and thereafter developed a long-lasting and collaborative friendship with Vaz Dias, who encouraged her to start writing again. This encouragement ultimately led to the publication in 1966 of her critically acclaimed novel Wide Sargasso Sea. She intended it as an account of the woman whom Rochester married and kept in his attic in Jane Eyre. Begun well before she settled in Bude, the book won the notable WH Smith Literary Award in 1967. She returned to themes of dominance and dependence, especially in marriage, depicting the mutually painful relationship between a privileged English man and a Creole woman from Jamaica made powerless on being duped and coerced by him and others. Both the man and the woman enter marriage under mistaken assumptions about the other partner. Her female lead marries Mr. Rochester and deteriorates in England as the "madwoman in the attic". Rhys portrays this woman from a quite different perspective from the one in Jane Eyre. Diana Athill of André Deutsch gambled on publishing Wide Sargasso Sea. She and the writer Francis Wyndham helped to revive interest in Rhys's work.[10] There have been film, operatic and radio adaptations of the book.[11][12][13] [14]

In 1968, André Deutsch published a collection of Rhys' short stories, Tigers Are Better-Looking, of which eight were written during her 1950s period of obscurity and nine republished from her 1927 collection The Left Bank and Other Stories. Her 1969 short story "I Spy a Stranger", published by Penguin Modern Stories, was adapted for TV in 1972 for the BBC's Thirty-Minute Theatre starring Mona Washbourne, Noel Dyson, Hanah Maria Pravda, and Basil Dignam.[15][16] In 1976, Deutsch published another collection of her short stories, Sleep It Off Lady, consisting of 16 pieces from an approximately 75-year period, starting from the end of the 19th century.

Later years[edit]

From 1960, and for the rest of her life, Rhys lived in Cheriton Fitzpaine in Devon that she liked but is unfortunately remembered for having once casually referred to as "a dull spot which even drink can't enliven much."[17] Characteristically, she remained unimpressed by her belated ascent to literary fame, commenting, "It has come too late."[10] In an interview shortly before her death she questioned whether any novelist, not least herself, could ever be happy for any length of time: "If I could choose I would rather be happy than write... if I could live my life all over again, and choose...."[18] Today, she is regarded as one of the greatest of twentieth century writers.


Jean Rhys died in Exeter on 14 May 1979, at the age of 88, before completing an autobiography, which she had begun dictating only months earlier.[19][20] In 1979, the incomplete text was published posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Legacy and honours[edit]

In an appreciation in the New York Times Book Review in 1974, A. Alvarez called Jean Rhys “quite simply, the best living English novelist".[21]

Jean Rhys was appointed a CBE in the 1978 New Year Honours.

Australian filmmaker John Duigan directed a 1993 erotic drama, Wide Sargasso Sea,[22] based on Rhys's best-known novel.

The 2003 book and stage play After Mrs Rochester by Polly Teale is based on the life of Jean Rhys and her book, Wide Sargasso Sea.[23]

In 2012, English Heritage marked her Chelsea flat at Paulton House in Paultons Square with a blue plaque.[24]

In 2020, a pen allegedly owned by Rhys - a devotee of the ballpoint - was added to the Royal Society of Literature's historic collection for the signing of their Roll Book.[25]


Rhys's collected papers and ephemera are housed in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library.[26] The British Library acquired a selection of Jean Rhys Papers in 1972, including drafts of short stories, novels; After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Wide Sargasso Sea, and an unpublished play entitled English Harbour.[27] Research material relating to Jean Rhys can also be found in the Archive of Margaret Ramsey Ltd at the British Library relating to stage and film rights for adaptations to her work.[28] The British Library also holds correspondence between Jean Rhys and Patrick Garland relating to his adaptation of "I Spy a Stranger" and about Quartet.[29]

Selected bibliography[edit]


  1. ^ Gardiner, Judith Kegan (Autumn 1982 – Winter 1983). "Good Morning, Midnight; Good Night, Modernism". Boundary 2. 11 (1/2): 233–51. doi:10.2307/303027. JSTOR 303027.
  2. ^ Castro, Joy (Summer 2000). "Jean Rhys" (PDF). The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XX (2): 8–46. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 December 2014.
  3. ^ "Collins English Dictionary: Definition of Rhys". Collins. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  4. ^ Modjeska, Drusilla (1999). Stravinsky's Lunch. Sydney: Picador. ISBN 0-330-36259-3.
  5. ^ a b c d Carr, Helen (2004). "Williams, Ella Gwendoline Rees (1890–1979)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ "Lancelot Grey Hugh SMITH". genealogy.links.org. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  7. ^ McFarlin Library Retrieved 17 September 2015. Archived 27 October 2017 at the Wayback Machine Bliss is quoted on their relations in Alexandra Pringle's introduction to the 1984 reissue of Bliss's novel Luminous Isle: "She used to make me delightful West-Indian suppers, and we used to drink an awful lot. Well, she could hold it, but it used to make me ill, frequently ill. And she had a delightful husband who used to leave us, go out. Well, often he would come home and find us drunk. He once picked her off the floor. And he was furious if he found we'd drunk his wine."
  8. ^ "Kent: From Maidstone Prison to the Wide Sargasso Sea!" Archived 3 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ a b Owen, Katie, "Introduction", Quartet, Penguin Modern Classics edition, Penguin, 2000, p. vi. ISBN 978-0-14-118392-3
  10. ^ a b Preliminary page in Jean Rhys, Quartet, Penguin: 2000, ISBN 978-0-14-118392-3.
  11. ^ Brian Kellow,"On the Beat: A novel that sings: Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea", Opera News, December 2012 — Vol. 77, No. 6.
  12. ^ "Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea", RadioListings.
  13. ^ "Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea", BBC Radio 4 Extra.
  14. ^ "Wide Sargasso Sea", Drama, BBC Radio 4.
  15. ^ Rhys, Jean; Melly, Diana; Wyndham, Francis (1984). Letters, 1931-1966 Jean Rhys ; Selected and ed. by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly. Deutsch. ISBN 978-0-233-97567-2. OCLC 251855018.
  16. ^ Thirty-Minute Theatre | I Spy a Stranger (TV Episode 1972) – IMDb, retrieved 1 May 2020
  17. ^ "Villagers Reject 'Dull Spot' Jibe" Archived 21 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine, Exeter Express & Echo, 11 February 2010.
  18. ^ In Their Own Words: British Novelists. Ep. 1: Among the Ruins (1919–1939). BBC (2010).
  19. ^ Mitgang, Herbert (17 May 1979). "Jean Rhys, 84, Novelist Known for 'sargasso Sea'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 24 April 2020.
  20. ^ Lisa Paravisini, "BBC Interviews Jean Rhys's Typist", RepeatingIslands.com, 14 May 2009.
  21. ^ Alvarez, A. (17 March 1974). "The Best Living English Novelist". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  22. ^ |https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108565/ "Wide Sargasso Sea"] at IMDb.
  23. ^ Teale, Polly (2003). After Mrs Rochester: a play. London: Nick Hern. ISBN 1-85459-745-0. OCLC 52145874.
  24. ^ "Rhys, Jean (1880–1979)". English Heritage. Retrieved 6 January 2012.
  25. ^ Flood, Alison (30 November 2020). "Royal Society of Literature reveals historic changes to improve diversity". The Guardian.
  26. ^ "Collection: Jean Rhys archive, 1920–1991 | ArchivesSpace Public Interface". utulsa.as.atlas-sys.com. Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  27. ^ Jean Rhys Papers, archives and manuscripts catalogue, the British Library. Retrieved 13 May 2020
  28. ^ Archive of Margaret Ramsay Ltd, archives and manuscripts catalogue, the British Library. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  29. ^ Correspondence in the British Library between Jean Rhys and Patrick Garland about adaptations of "I Spy a Stranger" and more.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]