Jean Rhys, CBE (August 24, 1890 - May 14, 1979), born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was a Caribbean novelist who wrote in the mid twentieth century. Her first four novels were published during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, that she emerged as a significant literary figure. At the age of 76, her "prequel" to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre won a prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967, and the Heinemann Award.
Rhys's Creole heritage, her experiences as a white Creole woman, both in the Caribbean and in England, influenced her life and writing. Her fiction was autobiographical in nature, often dealing with the theme of a helpless female, an outsider, who is victimized by her dependence on an older man for support and protection.
Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica, to her father Rhys Williams, a doctor of Welsh descent, and her mother, Minna Lockhart, a third-generation Dominican Creole whose family had owned a plantation that was burned down after the 1830 Emancipation Act. She later adopted her father’s name as her own surname. Growing up in Dominica, an island of the Lesser Antilles, Rhys was heavily influenced by her mother’s Creole cultural background, and would later manifest this in her writing. She was particularly intrigued by black culture and the colonial aspects of life in the islands. She associated black life with color and vigor, while she characterized whiteness as often hollow and barren.
In 1907, after completing her schooling at a Catholic school in Roseau, Rhys left the islands for England. There she felt suddenly confronted by the foreign culture and quickly identified with blacks there. While living with her aunt, Clarice Rhys Williams, she briefly attended Perse School in Cambridge before going to the Trees School (now the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), but had to discontinue her studies after one term because her father died.
When her father died, Rhys was forced to abandon her studies. Instead of returning to the Caribbean, as her mother wished, she joined a touring musical company as a chorus girl and ghostwrote a book about furniture. She also received a small allowance from a former lover, Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith. During World War I, she served as a volunteer worker in soldiers canteen. In 1918, she worked in a pension office.
Her experiences traveling were adapted in her novel, Voyage in the Dark (1934). During this period, Rhys lived in near poverty, while familiarizing herself with modern art and literature, and acquiring the alcoholism that would persist throughout the rest of her life. Her experience of living in a patriarchal society and feelings of displacement during this period would form some of the most important themes in her work. Working among the many similarly young, poor, passive, and uneducated women around her at this time, Rhys adopted the plight of females as her cause, which she would represent in her writing.
In 1919, she went to Holland, where she met and married Jean Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist and songwriter, whose novel, Barred, Rhys later translated from the French. Lenglet served in the French Foreign Legion in Africa, fought on the Western Front, served in the Deuxième Bureau, and traveled on secret diplomatic missions for the French. She lived with him in 1920-22, in Vienna and Budapest, then in Paris, and after 1927, mainly in England. The couple had two children together—a son that died in its infancy in 1919, and a daughter, Maryvonne, born in 1922. The family returned to Paris shortly after Maryvonne's birth.
Rhys was able to fashion a literary career after meeting Ford Madox Ford in Paris, an English novelist, poet, critic, and editor, who was always a champion of new literature and literary experimentation. During the same time, Lenglet’s financial woes led him to make illegal transactions, and he was convicted and sent to prison. Left to support herself and her daughter, Rhys published a collection of stories in The Left Bank (1927), with editorial help from Ford, who became her mentor and her lover. Her first novel Postures, was a fictional account of her affair with Ford. Lenglet was eventually released from prison in the early 1930s, and they were divorced in 1933.
Rhys became acquainted with Leslie Tilden Smith and soon started a relationship. Smith, a literary agent, was able to introduce Rhys to many figures in literary circles, but because she was shy and somewhat reclusive, she remained on the periphery of these circles. In 1934, Smith and Rhys were married. Their years together were highlighted by the couple's visit to Rhys's native Dominica. Though she had developed such a fondness for her origins, she found that she had idealized her memory of the land and the life of its people. Her efforts to write while there were not fruitful. She returned to London, and never again visited the island. As the war broke out in Europe, Rhys was unable to visit Maryvonne, who lived with her father in the Netherlands, but maintained correspondence with her through friends in Portugal.
From 1939 to 1957, Rhys dropped from public attention. At the onset of the war, Smith enlisted with the Air Force and was stationed at Norfolk, but Rhys spent most of her time in London. Smith died in October 1945, after the end of the war. It was at Smith's funeral that Rhys met his cousin, Max Hamer. Two years later, Rhys and Hamer married and moved to Beckenham, Kent. Hamer, a solicitor, spent much of their marriage in jail. He died in 1966.
Rhys died in the Royan Devon and Exeter Hospital on May 14, 1979.
Rhys's writing often centers on the lives of women transplanted from their roots and left to die at the whims of unfamiliar societies—an obvious echo of her own life. Her style is often noted for its distinctive blend of modernist techniques and West Indian sensibilities.
The publication of Postures, later published as Quartet, immediately showcased Rhys' primary thematic concern—that of the socially-trapped woman. Though her writing in Postures did not demonstrate the polish of her later work, it introduced her ubiquitous heroine—beautiful, thoughtful, and often the subject of oppression. Following Postures was After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, a novel about human relationships. Rhys demonstrated an improvement over Postures in narrative composition, and additional focus on the male consciousness.
For her next novel, Voyage in the Dark, Rhys borrowed heavily from her experiences traveling with a musical troupe. The female protagonist, like Rhys, experiences a longing for the climate and color of the Caribbean. It introduces in Rhys's work the motif of the exotic islands, which play a more prominent role in later work, with Wide Sargasso Sea. While critical reception of Voyage in the Dark was good, Rhys was often cited for the dark quality of her narratives.
With Good Morning, Midnight (1939), Rhys continued to present the idea of the interior female consciousness, in contrast with her other contemporary modernist writers, who seemed heavily influenced by the worldly and political issues during that time.
After her marriage to Hamer, Rhys became increasingly reclusive, living alone in her primitive Devon cottage at Cheriton FitzPaine, drinking heavily but still writing. Because of her lengthy absence from publication, her devoted readers believed she may have died. Not until 1949, when actress Selma Vaz Dias printed an ad in the New Statesman to try to find Rhys, did she resume her work. When she responded to Dias' ad, she learned that Dias had obtained a dramatic adaptation of her novel Good Morning, Midnight. Dias went on to perform the adaptation at the Anglo-French Center in November 1949, and it was later produced for BBC's Third Programme in 1957. The newfound attention to her novels prompted Rhys to end her hiatus.
In 1957, Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch's publishing house helped return Rhys's work to a wider audience after her writing had fallen out of favor and out of print. Athill was a key player in generating Rhys's resurgence. Two short stories, "Till September Petronella" (1960) and "Let Them Call It Jazz" (1962) were published in London Magazine. Athill was responsible for choosing to publish Wide Sargasso Sea as a novel in October 1966, when Rhys was 76.
Again, like Rhys's previous novels, Wide Sargasso Sea goes deep in exploring male-female relationships, but it stands alone as Rhys's most famous work. The novel is imagined as a prelude to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, exploring the early years of the marriage between Rochester and the madwoman in the attic—here, named Antoinette.
Rhys published three more books, Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), Sleep It Off, Lady (1976), and the autobiographical My Day (1975). She died before she could complete her autobiography. The unfinished work was published posthumously as Smile Please (1979).
The success of Wide Sargasso Sea brought Rhys an unprecedented level of popularity. After receiving the WH Smith Literary Award and the Heinemann Award for Wide Sargasso Sea, the bulk of her earlier work was republished, giving her greater exposure and critical acclaim.
In 1978, Rhys was made a Commander of the British Empire.
Playwright Polly Teale brought the story of Rhys's life to the stage, in After Mrs. Rochester. The play was first produced at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London, in 2003.
Her collected papers and ephemera are housed in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections and University Archives.
The University of the West Indies held the Jean Rhys Conference and Festival on Dominica, June 10-13, 2004.
The American Library Association's Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the twentieth century lists Wide Sargasso Sea as number 81.
All links retrieved May 1, 2018.
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