Jean Rhys

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Jean Rhys
Jean Rhys (left, in hat) with Mollie Stoner, Velthams, 1970s B.jpg
Jean Rhys and Mollie Stoner in the 1970s
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[1][2]
Notable works
  • Jean Lenglet (1919–1933; divorced)
  • Leslie Tilden-Smith (1934–1945; his death)
  • Max Hamer (1947–1966; his death)
Children A son and a daughter by Lenglet

Jean Rhys[needs IPA], CBE (/rs/; 24 August 1890 – 14 May 1979), born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, was a mid-20th-century novelist who was born and grew up in the Caribbean island of Dominica, though she was mainly resident in England from the age of 16. She is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.[3]

Early life[edit]

Rhys was born in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, an island in 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 people born on the island, whether they were of white or mixed blood.)

Rhys was educated in Dominica until the age of 16, when she was sent to England to live with an aunt. She attended the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge,[4] 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. 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.[4]

After her father died, in 1910, Rhys appeared to have experimented with the prospect of living as a demimondaine. She became the mistress of a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith. Though he was 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 (not Smith's child), Rhys began writing and produced an early version of her novel Voyage In The Dark.[4] In 1913 she worked for a time as a nude model in Britain.

During the First World War 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 Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, spy and songwriter. He was the first of her three husbands.[4] 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 English editor. In 1937 she began a friendship in 1937 with the novelist Eliot Bliss, who shared her Caribbean background. The correspondence between them survives.[5]

In 1939 Rhys and Tilden-Smith moved to Devon, where they lived for several years. He 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.[6] 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'."[4] It was Ford who suggested that she change her name to Jean Rhys (from Ella Williams).[7] At the time her husband was in jail for what Rhys described as currency irregularities.

Rhys 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.[7]

With Voyage in the Dark (1934) Rhys continued to portray the mistreated, rootless woman. In this novel her protagonist is a young chorus girl who grew up in the West Indies and is living in England, feeling alienated. In Good Morning, Midnight published in 1939, Rhys uses modified stream of consciousness to voice the experiences of an ageing 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. She intended it as the 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 prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967.In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys 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 Dominica made powerless on being duped and coerced by him and others. Both the man and woman enter into marriage under mistaken assumptions about the other. Her female lead marries Mr Rochester and deteriorates in England as the "madwoman in the attic". Rhys portrays this woman from quite a different perspective than that drawn in Jane Eyre. Diana Athill of the publishing house André Deutsch gambled on publishing Wide Sargasso Sea, and she and the writer Francis Wyndham helped to revive interest in Rhys's work.[8]

Later years[edit]

From 1960, and for the rest of her life, Rhys lived in Cheriton Fitzpaine, a small village in Devon that she once described as "a dull spot which even drink can't enliven much".[9] Characteristically she remained unimpressed by her belated ascent to literary fame, commenting, "It has come too late."[8] In an interview shortly before her death she 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 ...".[10] She died in Exeter on 14 May 1979, at the age of 88, before completing her autobiography, which she had begun dictating only months earlier.[11] In 1979 the incomplete text was published posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Legacy and honours[edit]

In 2012 English Heritage marked Rhys's Chelsea flat at Paulton House in Paultons Square with a blue plaque.[12]

Selected bibliography[edit]


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


  1. ^ Gardiner, Judith Kegan (Autumn 1982 – Winter 1983). "Good Morning, Midnight; Good Night, Modernism". boundary 2 11 (1/2): 233–51. JSTOR 303027. 
  2. ^ Castro, Joy (Summer 2000). "Jean Rhys" (PDF). The Review of Contemporary Fiction XX (2): 8–46. 
  3. ^ Modjeska, Drusilla (1999). Stravinsky's Lunch. Sydney: Picador. ISBN 0-330-36259-3. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Carr, Helen (2004). "Williams, Ella Gwendoline Rees (1890–1979)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
  5. ^ McFarlin Library Retrieved 17 September 2015. 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.”
  6. ^ "Kent: From Maidstone Prison to the Wide Sargasso Sea!", Reading Detectives.
  7. ^ a b Owen, Katie, "Introduction", Quartet, Penguin Modern Classics edition, Penguin, 2000, p. vi. ISBN 978-0-14-118392-3
  8. ^ a b Preliminary page in Jean Rhys, Quartet, Penguin: 2000, ISBN 978-0-14-118392-3
  9. ^ "Villagers Reject 'Dull Spot' Jibe", Exeter Express & Echo, 11 February 2010.
  10. ^ In Their Own Words: British Novelists. Ep. 1: Among the Ruins (1919–1939). British Broadcasting Company (2010).
  11. ^ Lisa Paravisini, "BBC Interviews Jean Rhys’s Typist", Repeating Islands, 14 May 2009.
  12. ^ "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]