Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys (August 24, 1890 – May 14, 1979) was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams  in Roseau, Dominica, Jean Rhys is best known for her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, prequel and what modern critics consider a post-colonial response to Charlotte Brontës Jane Eyre. Published when Rhys was 76 and shaped by her Dominican heritage and reoccurring themes of exile, loss, alienation, sexual inequality, and enslavement, it imagines the descent into madness of Rochester’s white-Creole wife Antoinette (Bertha, “the madwoman in the attic”). It won the W.H. Smith Literary Award in 1967.

Rhys described her childhood as one spent “alone except for books” and with voices “that had nothing to do” with her. Her father, William Potts Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor. Her mother, Minna, a third generation Dominican with Scottish ancestry, was cold and disapproving towards her daughter, creating a sense of abandonment for Jean that haunted her throughout her life. Although an Anglican Protestant, Rhys attended a convent school, was fascinated by the Catholic rituals and also the integration of blacks and whites in church. The servants in her household offered the companionship her mother didn’t, while pulling her into the magic and mayhem of their Caribbean culture.

When Jean was 16, she was sent to England to live with her aunt and attend the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, a typical scenario for a young well-bred colonial woman. Jean embraced the adventure, while despising the cold, damp English climate in contrast to the warmth and lushness of the British West Indies. Her classmates ridiculed her for being a foreigner, something which also troubled her when she briefly attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was told she would never “learn proper English.” For a time, Jean worked as a touring chorus girl under the names Vivienne, Emma, and Ella Gray, and even as a nude model.

Rhys married three times. Her first husband, Jean Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, spy, and songwriter, occasioned her move to Paris and the couple frequently wandered around Europe. They had a son, who lived for only three weeks, and a daughter. In 1922 she met the American writer Ford Maddox Ford and, with his encouragement, she began to write short stories. When her husband went to jail for “currency irregularities”, Rhys moved in with Ford and his partner, and had an affair with him fictionalized in her novel Quartet. She and Lenglet divorced in 1932. Two years later she married Leslie Tilden Smith, an English editor, who died in 1945, and in 1947 she married Max Hammer, a solicitor who was sent to prison for fraud.

Determinedly unconventional, Jean always found writing difficult and expressed that she would rather be happy than be a writer. She returned to Dominica only once, in 1936, visiting her grandfather’s plantation, the estate and his possessions destroyed during the 1844 “Census Riots” / ”La Guerre Negre.” The house itself had been burned down by arsonists in 1930, a tragedy Jean integrated into Wide Sargasso Sea. Her Caribbean roots also figured into her novel Voyage in the Dark and shorter fiction such as The Day They Burned the Books. Rhys kept a very low profile for a decade and a half, until the 1957 BBC dramatization of Good Morning, Midnight, a book that sold poorly after its initial publication in 1939.

She lived out her later years in a small Devon village, finally free from financial worries, but unenthusiastic about her belated literary success. She was working on her autobiography at the time of her death in May 1979 at the age of 88.

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Jean Rhys quotes

Jean Rhys young“You can pretend for a long time, but one day it all falls away and you are alone. We are alone in the most beautiful place in the world…”  (Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966)

“There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”  (Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966)

“Justice. I’ve heard that word. I tried it out. I wrote it down. I wrote it down several times and always it looked like a damn cold lie to me. There is no justice.” (Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966)

“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.” (Good Morning, Midnight, 1939)

“Today I must be very careful, today I have left my armor at home.”  (Good Morning, Midnight, 1939)

“Not that she objected to solitude. Quite the contrary. She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.” (Quartet, 1929)

“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.”  (Smile, Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, 1979)

“When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy, Do you think anyone has?”

“When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down . I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes.”

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Contributed by DM (Diane) Denton, a native of Western New York, a writer and artist inspired by music, nature, and the contradictions of the human and creative spirit. Her historical fiction A House Near Luccoli, which is set in 17th century Genoa and imagines an intimacy with the charismatic composer Alessandro Stradella, and its sequel To A Strange Somewhere Fled, which takes place in late Restoration England, were published by All Things That Matter Press, as were her Kindle short stories, The Snow White Gift and The Library Next Door. Diane has done the artwork for both her novels’ book covers, and published an illustrated poetry flower journal, A Friendship with Flowers. Visit her on the web at at DM Denton Author & Artist and  BardessMDenton.

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