Jean Rhys (1890-1979) is best known for her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was published in 1966 when she was 76. Rhys's life was profoundly marked by a sense of exile, loss, and alienation-dominant themes in her novels and short stories. Despite critical acclaim at the end of her life, Rhys died in 1979 still doubting the merit of her work.
Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rhys (sometimes spelled Rees) Williams on August 24, 1890 in Roseau, on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Her father, Rhys Williams, was a Welshman who had been trained in London as a doctor and emigrated to the colonies. Her mother, Minna Lockhart, was a third-generation Dominican Creole. According to her biographer, Carole Angier, Rhys associated her mother with conformity and the "civilizing" mission of the English in the colonies at the end of the Victorian period. Her mother, Rhys claimed, was cold, disapproving, and distant. In one of the notebooks she kept during her life, Rhys recorded a time when her mother, after an attempt to discipline her daughter, gave her "a long, sad look," and said, "'I've done my best, it's no use. You'll never learn to be like other people.'" Rhys writes, "There you are, there it was. I had always suspected it, but now I knew. That went straight as an arrow to the heart, straight as the truth. I saw the long road of isolation and loneliness stretching in front of me as far as the eye could see, and further. I collapsed and cried as heartbrokenly as my worst enemy could wish."
As a child and adolescent, Rhys was, according to her own account, "alone except for books" and voices that "had nothing to do with me. I sometimes didn't even know the words. But they wanted to be written down, so I wrote them down." Finding little comfort at home, Rhys explored other worlds available to her. At a convent school that she attended, Rhys, an Anglican Protestant, was drawn to the ritual of Catholic worship. In addition to being fascinated by the sheer sensual component of the service, Rhys noted that "instead of the black people sitting in a different part of the church, they were all mixed up with the white and this pleased me very much." For Rhys, the black women who worked in her house as servants offered her access to a secret world and a secret language, both far different from the disinterestedness of her mother. In her writing, Rhys would explore the tension between the ordered world of colonial life and the seductive world of island sensuality. But in her life, her sense of abandonment remained acute. "Gradually," she wrote, "I came to wonder about my mother less and less until at last she was almost a stranger and I stopped imagining what she felt or what she thought."
A Life of Exile
In 1907, Rhys left Dominica for England, where she enrolled in the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge. The departure was typical for young colonial women of her station who were encouraged to finish their educations abroad. Although Rhys embraced the journey with a sense of adventure, the contrast between the cold and damp English climate and the lush surroundings of her island home would haunt Rhys throughout her life. At the Perse School, according to Angier, she was tormented by classmates who disapproved of her Creole background and her quick mind. Rhys spent two years at the Perse School before enrolling in the Academy of Dramatic Art in 1909, intending to become an actress. Her stay was brief, but before she left, Rhys signed a contract to become a chorus girl. When her father died and money became scarce, she began touring England with a theater troupe. Neither the life of the theater nor the drab towns in which she performed held much charm for Rhys, but she did find a sort of camaraderie among the chorus girls. According to Angier, "the girls spoke a secret language, like the ones at home-the servants' patois, or the Carib women's language, which the men didn't know." Rhys, writes Angier, "shared their reliance on mascots, superstition, lucky charms. Above all she shared their simple division of the sexes. Men were either protectors or exploiters; women were either winners or losers, and what they won or lost was men."
Rhys would be linked to a succession of men all of her life. Her emotional and financial dependence on them was exacerbated by her life-long alcoholism. "When slightly tight," Rhys wrote later in her life, "I can relax-also there are red letter days when I feel that after all I'm as much fun as the next woman really. However this doesn't happen often." Rhys's first love affair, her most traumatic and defining, began in 1910 when she met a distinguished and respectable Englishman named Lancelot Hugh Smith. Smith's power and charm captivated Rhys, but she was devastated when he ended the affair and arranged to pay Rhys a monthly allowance. Alone with her despair, Rhys began to write diaries and notebooks recording her emotional states; it was her first attempt since she was a girl in Dominica to order her experience through writing. In the voice of Julia, the protagonist of her second novel After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Rhys wrote, "I knew that if I could get to the end of what I was feeling it would be the truth about myself and about the world and about everything that one puzzles and pains about all the time." Rhys packed these notebooks away in the bottom of an old suitcase and they remained hidden for years, but the idea of writing had taken hold.
Rhys continued to receive money from Smith and for the next few years lived a meager life in a London boarding house. In 1917, she met Jean Lenglet to whom she became engaged after a few short weeks. Her relationship to Lenglet reinforced a pattern of exile and rupture that would become a familiar one to Rhys. By 1919, they had married and moved to Holland, where Rhys worked in a office. Shortly after, they moved to Paris. Rhys, now pregnant, worked for a time as an English tutor. She gave birth to a son, William Owen, who died within a few weeks. Lenglet, who had by this time become involved in a number of clandestine and illegal activities, continued to travel across Europe, at times to elude authorities. From 1919 to 1922, Rhys followed Lenglet to Vienna, Budapest, Brussels, and Paris, all the while working at odd jobs in offices and dress shops or translating articles into English to help support her husband. In Brussels, Rhys had another child, Maryvonne.
Early Literary Career
In 1923, Lenglet was finally arrested and extradited. Rhys, alone and desperate, turned for support to the writer Ford Madox Ford, who had published some of her short stories in the Transatlantic Review. Rhys became involved in a complicated and, by her own account, abusive relationship with Ford and his mistress, Stella Bowen. She wrote about this relationship in her first novel, Quartet, published in 1929. When the affair ended, she returned for a short time to her husband and daughter, who were now in Amsterdam, but Lenglet's suspicions about her relationship with Ford and Bowen brought the marriage to an end. When Lenglet and Rhys separated, Rhys left Maryvonne in her father's care. Though her affair with Ford Madox Ford helped to end her marriage, and brought her much unhappiness and pain, the encounter nonetheless allowed Rhys entry into the contemporary literary world. Her career as a writer was finally launched.
During the next ten years, Rhys would write three more novels, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, (1930); Voyage in the Dark, (1935); and Good Morning Midnight, (1939). In 1992, Ann Hulbert, a reviewer for the New Republic, described Rhys's early work: "The style of her novels is pristinely pared down in describing depravity and excess, perfectly balanced in evoking instability; she is a master of dialogue between characters for whom communication is mostly a lost cause." After the publication of Quartet, Rhys met Leslie Tilden Smith, a literary agent who helped her find publishers for her novels. They married in 1934, after living together for five years. During the time she wrote most of her early novels, Rhys depended on Smith to type her manuscripts, subsidize trips to Paris, and manage her writing life. The process of writing for Rhys was always a difficult one; over the course of these years she became severely depressed.
With the start of World War II in 1939, Smith was gone much of the time. The short stories Rhys produced during this period, none of which were published until later in her life, are marked by violence and paranoia. In 1945, Smith died suddenly, leaving Rhys completely alone and virtually helpless. Two years later, she married Smith's cousin and estate executor, a soliciter named Max Hamer. Like Rhys's first husband, he became involved in illegal financial dealings. By this time, Rhys had virtually disappeared from public view; her novels went out of print and she was presumed dead. By 1949, Rhys, as she put it, "cracked" and assaulted a neighbor who was rude to her. She spent a week on the hospital ward of Holloway prison before being released on probation. Shortly after this, Hamer was arrested for stealing checks. While he served his prison term, Rhys lived in poverty and continued to drink.
A Brief Renaissance
By 1950, luck had changed for Rhys when she answered an advertisement placed by Selma Vaz Dias, an actress who had adapted Good Morning, Midnight for the radio and needed Rhys's permission to perform it. The BBC initially rejected the adaptation, and Good Morning, Midnight wasn't broadcast until 1957. At that time, Rhys once again caught the attention of literary agents, this time Francis Wyndham, an admirer of her work who would later become her most competent promoter. He was interested in gaining publishing rights to Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel Rhys had begun almost 20 years before, in 1939. They agreed that she would deliver the novel in nine months, but it took another eight years for her to finish the manuscript. Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre from the perspective of Bertha Mason, Rochester's mad Creole wife whom he locks in the attic, was psychologically and structurally complicated for Rhys. In order to finish the novel, Rhys had to return to the scenes of her past, to the island she had left as a girl and to the abandonment she had suffered as a young woman. The novel was a critical success, winning the W. H. Smith literary award for excellence. She was 76 years old.
Despite this stunning achievement after a decade of obscurity and poverty, Rhys retreated further into the pain that had come to define her life. Though she produced two volumes of short stories, Tigers Are Better-Looking in 1968 and Sleep It Off, Lady in 1976, as well as a volume of autobiographical sketches in 1975 called My Day, Rhys regarded her later work as "no good, no good, magazine stories." She died on May 14, 1979 in Exeter, England. Though at times bitter and self-pitying, Rhys was also aware that her profound isolation intimately informed her work. "I have only ever written about myself," she once wrote, "people have always been shadows to me."
Further Reading on Jean Rhys
Angier, Carole, Jean Rhys, Viking, 1985.
Contemporary Authors, Gale.
Atlantic, August, 1984.
New Republic, February 17, 1992; September 10, 1984.
New York Times, June 28, 1991.