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Jean Rhys (1890-1979) - pseudonym of Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams


West Indies-born writer - self-destructive and alcoholic, whose rootlessness and familiarity with the seedy side of life featured in her work. Jean Rhys called herself as "a doormat in a world of boots." She is best known for Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a novel that gave voice to Edward Rochester's mad wife, Bertha Mason, in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Rhys's fiction was more or less autobiographical, often dealing with theme of a helpless female, an outsider, who is victimized by her dependence on an older man for support and protection.

"She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen." (in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, 1931)

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Roseau, Dominica, West Indies. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and mother, Minna Williams (née Lockhart) was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scottish ancestry. Rhys's Creole heritage, her experiences as a white Creole woman, both in the Caribbean and in England, influenced deeply her life and writing. Most of Dominica's people are of African descent. The slavery had ended in the island in 1834. After taking the side of the blacks and the workers against the white ruling class, Rhys was labelled as "socialist Gwen".

As a child Rhys loved literature and longed to visit the places she read about. Rhys was educated at a convent school in Roseau. At the age of 17 she was sent by her father to England to live with her aunt. She attended briefly the Perse School, Cambridge (1907-08), and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London (1909). 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 at a soldier's canteen. In 1918 she had a job in a pension office.

In 1919 Rhys went to Holland and married the French-Dutch journalist and songwriter Jean Lenglet. She lived with him in 1920-22 in Vienna and Budapest, while Lenglet was working for a disarmament Commission, then in Paris, and after 1927 mainly in England. They had two children, a son who died in infancy and a daughter. Rhys began writing under the patronage of Ford Madox Ford, whom she met in Parisin the autumn of 1924. At that time her husband was sentenced to prison for illegal financial transactions. With her earnings Rhys tried to support herself and her daughter.

Ford had lived with his common-law wife Stella Bowen, an Australian artist, for six years, a long time for him, and eventually his relationship with Rhys became intimate. Stella and Ford found a place for Rhys, a long way from Paris in Juan-les-Pins, with a rich American, Mrs Hudnut, who daughter was married to Rudolf Valentino. After some months Rhys was fired, when Ford accused Mrs Hudnut of exploiting her. Ford then moved Rhys into a hotel near Gare Montparnasse. He was not interested when she promised to show him sexual tricks she had learned in the tropics. (The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini, 2009, pp. 186-191)

The affair ended with much bitterness and prompted them to produce books. Rhys and her husband were divorced, but in her novels she constantly returned to it, more than to her second and third marriage. Ford's view was presented in When the Wicked Man (1931), in which the hero has a relatioship with a hysterical, alcoholic Creole journalist named Lola Porter. Stella Bowen gave her account in Drawn from Life (1940). Jean Lenglet, who hated Ford, wrote of his imprisonment and the subsequent events in Sous les Verrous (1931), published under the pseudonym Edward de Néve. This work was translated into English by Rhys. After their separation, Lenglet worked for a period in odd jobs here and there, while not supporting himself as a street musician.

"The perpetual hunger to be beautiful and that thirst to be loved which is the real curse of Eve." (in 'Illusion', The Left Bank, 1927)

In 1927 Rhys published her first collection of stories, The Left Bank and Other Stories, taking the penname Jean Rhys. Her first novel, Postures (1928), is a classical version of the fate of the innocent, helpless victim who do not have control of her own life. The book is considered to be an account of Rhys's affair with Ford Madox Ford. Marya Zelli, the heroine, is a young English woman. She meets and marries a Polish man, Stephan, who lives in Paris. While her husband is in prison, she is seduced by a friend. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931) was a story of Julia Martin, for whom poverty is a way to hide her need of love and security. She has parted from her lover, Mr. Mackenzie, to live in a cheap hotel, where she talks to herself. Eventually Julia learns to lend money without feeling guilty, and accepts insecurity as a part of her existence.

The portrayal of the mistreated, rootless women, continued in Rhys's following works. In Voyage in the Dark (1934), which was based on her notebooks after the break with Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, the young protagonist, Anna Morgan, is a passive victim. She is a typical Rhys protagonist, an outcast, powerless, and unable to change her fate. As a child she has spent many hours listening to stories told by a black cook. "I wanted to be black. I always wanted to be black," she says. Anna leaves her Caribbean island to live in England, where her stepmother gradually abandons her. She works a chorus girls, her lover, Walter Jeffries, is much older than she. At the end of the novel she has an abortion. Shortly before the abortion she sinks into reverie, recalling her home island. In Good Morning, Midnight (1939) Rhys used a modified stream-of-consciousness technique to portray the consciousness of an aging woman, Sasha Jensen. Sasha has returned to Paris, where she reviews her happiest and most desperate moments of life. "She must cry so that others may be able to laugh the more heartily." Her relationship with a gigolo becomes a nightmare, but at the same time she renews her relationship with the society outside.

From 1939 to 1957 Rhys dropped from public attention. Throughout the 1930s, she spent periods alone in Paris, writing in cheap hotels. In 1935 she was fined for being drunk and disorderly. Having divorced Lenglet in 1933, Rhys married in 1934 Leslie Tilden-Smith, an editor; he died in 1945. Two years later she married his cousin Max Hamer, a solicitor, who had served a prison term and spent much of their marriage in jail. He died in 1966. With her second husband Rhys retired to Devonshire in 1939. She lived for many years in the West Country, often in great poverty, avoiding literary circles. In 1949 Rhys was arrested for assaulting her neighbors and the police.

Rhys herself was though to be dead, but after a radio company became interested in her work, she returned to publicity. Her novel Good Morning, Midnight was adapted by the actress Selma Vaz Dias for the BBC. Encouraged by Francis Wyndham, Rhys started to write again, and her short stories were published in the London Magazine and Art and Letters. Rhys continued to live alone in her primitive Devon cottage at Cheriton FitzPaine, drinking heavily but still writing.

"I also was tired of learning and reciting poems in praise of daffodils, and my relations with the few 'real' English boys and girls I had met were awkward. I had discovered that if I called myself English they would snub me haughtily: 'You're not English; you're a horrid colonial.'" (in 'The Day They Burned the Books', The Collected Short Stories of Jean Rhys, 1968)

Rhys gained international acclaim in the 1960s with the publication of her most admired novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. which won the W.H. Smith Award and the Heinemann Award. Again Rhys returned to the theme of dominance and dependence, ruling and being ruled, through the relationship between a self-assured European man and a powerless woman. The story of the conflicting cultures is examined in the character of Antoinette Bertha Cosway, a West Indian. She is the narrator of part I. As a child she is called "white nigger" by her black playmate. She marries a constrained and domineering Englishman, Edward Rochester, and follows him to his home country. Like Bertha in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, she ends up confined in the attic of a her husband's country house. "The mad wife in Jane Eyre always interested me," Rhys said later in an interview. "I was convinced that Charlotte Brontë must have had something against the West Indies, and I was angry about it." Edward is a tormented character, who admits that "she had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I had found it." He is the narrator of part II. Much of the action takes place in the West Indies. In her madness and misery Antoinette burns up the house and herself. Rhys' answer is not solidarity between the females; her heroines are victimized both paternal men and society, where women fail to provide protection for each other. Black women Rhys considered stronger than white - "Dear God, let me be black," she wrote in her autobiography.

Rhys was made a CBE in 1978. She died on May 14, 1979, in Exeter, before finishing the autobiography she was working on. The incomplete text appeared posthumously under the title Smile Please (1979). "There are a few soft sentences, a few agitated passages but, these apart," wrote Diana Trilling in the New York Times Book Review (25 May 1980), "Miss Rhys's prose is as astute and unfaltering as ever. In fact, it is only by a miracle that it escapes being depressing in its precision and cautions."

For further reading: Jean Rhys by Louis James (1978); Jean Rhys: A Critical Study by Thomas F. Staley (1979); Jean Rhys by Peyer Wolfe (1980); Jean Rhys by Arnold E. Davidson (1985); Ladies and the Mammies: Jane Austen and Jean Rhys, ed.  Selma James (1986); Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text by Nancy R. Harrison (1988); Critical Perspectives in Jean Rhys, ed.  Pierrette Frickey (1990); Jean Rhys: A Life and Work by Carole Angiers (1990); Jean Rhys's Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole by Veronica Marie Gregg (1995); Jean Rhys by Carol Ann Howells (1991); Jean Rhys by Sanford Sternlicht (1997); Jean Rhys by Sylvie Maurel (1999); The Worlding of Jean Rhys by Sue Thomas (1999); Jean Rhys by Elaine Savory (1999); The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini (2009)

Selected works:

  • The Left Bank and Other Stories, 1927
  • Postures, 1928 (US title: Quartet, 1929)
    - Kvartetti (suom. Hanna Tarkka, 2000)
    - film: Quartet, 1981, prod. Merchant Ivory Productions, dir.  James Ivory, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, starring Isabelle Adjani, Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Anthony Higgins 
  • translator: Perversity (by Francis Carco), 1928
  • After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, 1931
    - Herra Mackenzien jälkeen (suom. Hanna Tarkka, 2001)
  • translator: Barred (by Edward de Nève), 1932
  • Voyage in the Dark, 1934
  • Good Morning, Midnight, 1939
    - Huomenta, keskiyö (suom. Hanna Tarkka, 2002)
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966 (introd. by Francis Wyndham)
    - Siintää Sargassosmeri (suom. Eva Siikarla, 1968)
    - films: Wide Sargasso Sea, 1992, prod. Laughing Kookaburra Productions, Sargasso Productions, dir. John Duigan, starring Karina Lombard, Nathaniel Parker, Claudia Robinson; TV film 2006, dir.  Brendan Maher, teleplay Stephen Greenhorn, starring Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Nina Sosanya, Victoria Hamilton
  • Tigers Are Better-Looking, with a Selection from the Left Bank: Stories, 1968
    - films: Tigers Are Better Looking, TV film 1973, in Then and Now, dir. John Glenister, starring William Bond, Ken Halliwel, Rhoda Levis; Outside the Machine, TV film 1973, in Then and Now; Lotus, TV film 1973, in Then and Now;  short film 1979, dir. Hussein Shariffe, starring Tim Brown, Julie Covington, Susan Littler, Malcolm McDowell
  • Penguin Modern Stories 1, 1969 (with others)
  • My Day: Three Pieces, 1975
  • Sleep It Off, Lady, 1976
  • Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, 1979
  • Tales of the Wide Caribbean, 1980 (selected and introduced by Kenneth Ramchand)
  • Jean Rhys Letters 1931-1966, 1984 (selected and edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly)
  • Early Novels, 1984
  • The Complete Novels, 1985  
  • The Collected Short Stories, 1987 (introduction by Diana Athill)
  • Let Them Call It Jazz and Other Stories, 1995

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