Jean Rhys

Last updated

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 or Grand Bay, British Leeward Islands (now Dominica)
Died14 May 1979(1979-05-14) (aged 88)
Exeter, England
OccupationNovelist, short story writer, essayist
Genre Modernism, postmodernism [1] [2]
Notable works
    Jean Lenglet
    (m. 1919;div. 1933)
      Leslie Tilden-Smith
      (m. 1934;died 1945)
        Max Hamer
        (m. 1947;died 1966)

Jean Rhys, CBE ( /rs/ REESS; [3] born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams; 24 August 1890 – 14 May 1979) was a British novelist who was born and grew up in the Caribbean island of Dominica. From the age of 16, she mainly resided in England, where she was sent for her education. She is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre . [4] In 1978, she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her writing.


Early life

Rhys's father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh medical doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, née Lockhart, a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scots ancestry. ("Creole" was broadly used in those times to refer to any person born on the island, whether they were of European or African descent, or both.) She had a brother. Her mother's family had an estate, a former plantation, on the island.

Rhys was educated in Dominica until the age of 16, when she was sent to England to live with an aunt, as her relations with her mother were difficult. She attended the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, [5] 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. Unable to train as an actress and refusing to return to the Caribbean as her parents wished, Williams worked with varied success as a chorus girl, adopting the names Vivienne, Emma, or Ella Gray. She toured Britain's small towns and returned to rooming or boarding houses in rundown neighbourhoods of London. [5]

After her father died in 1910, Rhys appeared to have experimented with living as a demimondaine. She became the mistress of wealthy stockbroker Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, whose father Hugh Colin Smith had been Governor of the Bank of England. [6] Though 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 . [5] In 1913, she was self-employed for a time in London.

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

In 1919, Rhys married Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, spy, and songwriter. He was the first of her three husbands. [5] She and Lenglet wandered throughout Europe. They had two children, a son who died young and a daughter. They divorced in 1933, and their daughter lived mostly with her father.

The next year, Rhys married Leslie Tilden-Smith, an English editor. In 1936, they went briefly to Dominica, the first time Rhys had returned since she had left for school. She found her family estate deteriorating and island conditions less agreeable. Her brother Oscar was living in England, and she took care of some financial affairs for him, making a settlement with a mixed-race woman on the island and Oscar's illegitimate children by her.

In 1937, Rhys began a friendship with novelist Eliot Bliss (who had taken her first name in honour of two writers she admired). The two women shared Caribbean backgrounds. The correspondence between them survives. [7]

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. [8] He died in 1966.

Writing career

In 1924, Rhys came under the influence of English writer Ford Madox Ford. After meeting Ford in Paris, Rhys wrote short stories under his patronage. Ford recognised that her experience as an exile gave Rhys a unique viewpoint, and praised her "singular instinct for form". "Coming from the West Indies, [Ford] 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'." [5] This he wrote in his preface to her debut short story collection, The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927).

It was Ford who suggested she change her name from Ella Williams to Jean Rhys. [9] At the time her husband was in jail for what Rhys described as currency irregularities.

Rhys moved in with Ford and his long-time partner Stella Bowen. An affair with Ford ensued, which she portrayed in fictionalised form in her novel Quartet (1928). [9] Her protagonist is a stranded foreigner, Marya Zelli, who finds herself at the mercy of strangers when her husband is jailed in Paris. The 1981 film adaptation of the novel, produced by Merchant Ivory Productions, starred Maggie Smith, Isabelle Adjani, Anthony Higgins, and Alan Bates.

In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), the protagonist, Julia Martin, is a more unravelled version of Marya Zelli, romantically dumped and inhabiting the sidewalks, cafes and cheap hotel rooms of Paris.

With Voyage in the Dark (1934), Rhys continued to portray a mistreated, rootless woman. Here the narrator, Anna, is a young chorus girl who grew up in the West Indies and feels alienated in England.

Good Morning, Midnight (1939) is often considered a continuation of Rhys's first two novels. Here, she uses modified stream of consciousness to voice the experiences of an ageing woman, Sasha Jansen, who drinks, takes sleeping pills, and obsesses over her looks, and is adrift again in Paris. Good Morning, Midnight, acknowledged as well written but deemed depressing, came as World War II broke out and readers sought optimism. This seemingly ended Rhys's literary career.

In the 1940s, Rhys largely withdrew from public life. From 1955 to 1960, she lived in Bude, Cornwall, where she was unhappy, calling it "Bude the Obscure", before moving to Cheriton Fitzpaine, a small village in Devon.

After a long absence from the public eye, she was rediscovered by Selma Vaz Dias, who in 1949, placed an advertisement in the New Statesman asking about her whereabouts, with a view to obtaining the rights to adapt her novel Good Morning, Midnight for radio. Rhys responded, and thereafter developed a long-lasting and collaborative friendship with Vaz Dias, who encouraged her to start writing again. This encouragement ultimately led to the publication in 1966 of her critically acclaimed novel Wide Sargasso Sea . She intended it as an 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 notable WH Smith Literary Award in 1967. She 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 the woman enter marriage under mistaken assumptions about the other partner. Her female lead marries Mr. Rochester and deteriorates in England as the "madwoman in the attic". Rhys portrays this woman from a quite different perspective from the one in Jane Eyre. Diana Athill of André Deutsch gambled on publishing Wide Sargasso Sea. She and the writer Francis Wyndham helped to revive interest in Rhys's work. [10] There have been film, operatic and radio adaptations of the book. [11] [12] [13] [14]

In 1968, André Deutsch published a collection of Rhys' short stories, Tigers Are Better-Looking , of which eight were written during her 1950s period of obscurity and nine republished from her 1927 collection The Left Bank and Other Stories . Her 1969 short story "I Spy a Stranger", published by Penguin Modern Stories, was adapted for TV in 1972 for the BBC's Thirty-Minute Theatre starring Mona Washbourne, Noel Dyson, Hanah Maria Pravda, and Basil Dignam. [15] [16] In 1976, Deutsch published another collection of her short stories, Sleep It Off Lady , consisting of 16 pieces from an approximately 75-year period, starting from the end of the 19th century.

Later years

From 1960, and for the rest of her life, Rhys lived in Cheriton Fitzpaine in Devon that she once described as "a dull spot which even drink can't enliven much." [17] Characteristically, she remained unimpressed by her belated ascent to literary fame, commenting, "It has come too late." [10] In an interview shortly before her death she questioned whether any novelist, not least herself, could ever be happy for any length of time: "If I could choose I would rather be happy than write... if I could live my life all over again, and choose...." [18]


Jean Rhys died in Exeter on 14 May 1979, at the age of 88, before completing an autobiography, which she had begun dictating only months earlier. [19] [20] In 1979, the incomplete text was published posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography .

Legacy and honours

In a 1974 New York Times Book Review written appreciation, A. Alvarez called Jean Rhys “quite simply, the best living English novelist". [21]

Jean Rhys was appointed a CBE in the 1978 New Year Honours.

Australian filmmaker John Duigan directed a 1993 erotic drama, Wide Sargasso Sea, [22] based on Rhys's best-known novel.

The 2003 book and stage play After Mrs Rochester by Polly Teale is based on the life of Jean Rhys and her book, Wide Sargasso Sea. [23]

In 2012, English Heritage marked her Chelsea flat at Paulton House in Paultons Square with a blue plaque. [24]

In 2020, a pen owned by Rhys (with another owned by Andrea Levy) was added to the Royal Society of Literature's historic collection for the signing of their Roll Book. [25]


Rhys's collected papers and ephemera are housed in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library. [26] The British Library acquired a selection of Jean Rhys Papers in 1972, including drafts of short stories, novels; After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Wide Sargasso Sea, and an unpublished play entitled English Harbour. [27] Research material relating to Jean Rhys can also be found in the Archive of Margaret Ramsey Ltd at the British Library relating to stage and film rights for adaptations to her work. [28] The British Library also holds correspondence between Jean Rhys and Patrick Garland relating to his adaptation of 'I Spy a Stranger' and about 'Quartet'. [29]

Selected bibliography

Related Research Articles

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1979.

Anna Kavan was a British novelist, short story writer and painter. Originally publishing under her first married name, Helen Ferguson, she adopted the name Anna Kavan in 1939, not only as a pen name but as her legal identity.

<i>Wide Sargasso Sea</i> 1966 novel by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 novel by Dominican-British author Jean Rhys. The novel serves as a postcolonial and feminist prequel to Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre (1847), describing the background to Mr. Rochester's marriage from the point-of-view of his wife Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress. Antoinette Cosway is Rhys's version of Brontë's devilish "madwoman in the attic". Antoinette's story is told from the time of her youth in Jamaica, to her unhappy marriage to an English gentleman, Mr. Rochester, who renames her Bertha, declares her mad, takes her to England, and isolates her from the rest of the world in his mansion. Antoinette is caught in a patriarchal society in which she fully belongs neither to Europe nor to Jamaica. Wide Sargasso Sea explores the power of relationships between men and women and discusses the themes of race, Caribbean history, and assimilation.

Caribbean literature is the literature of the various territories of the Caribbean region. Literature in English from the former British West Indies may be referred to as Anglo-Caribbean or, in historical contexts, as West Indian literature. Most of these territories have become independent nations since the 1960s, though some retain colonial ties to the United Kingdom. They share, apart from the English language, a number of political, cultural, and social ties which make it useful to consider their literary output in a single category. The more wide-ranging term "Caribbean literature" generally refers to the literature of all Caribbean territories regardless of language—whether written in English, Spanish, French, Hindustani, or Dutch, or one of numerous creoles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Phyllis Shand Allfrey</span>

Phyllis Byam Shand Allfrey was a West Indian writer, socialist activist, newspaper editor and politician of the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. She is best known for her first novel, The Orchid House (1953), based on her own early life, which in 1991 was turned into a Channel 4 television miniseries of the same name in the United Kingdom.

The Left Bank and Other Stories is the first collection of short stories and literary debut of Dominican author Jean Rhys. It was first published by Jonathan Cape (London) and Harper & Brothers in 1927, and contained an introduction by Ford Madox Ford. The original subtitle of the collection was "sketches and studies of present-day Bohemian Paris."

<i>Wide Sargasso Sea</i> (1993 film) 1993 film

Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1993 Australian film directed by John Duigan and starring Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker. It is an adaptation of Jean Rhys's 1966 novel of the same name.

Marie-Elena John is a Caribbean writer whose novel, Unburnable, was published in 2006. She is an Africanist, development and women’s rights specialist, currently serving as the Senior Racial Justice Lead at UN Women

The soucouyant or soucriant in Dominica, St. Lucian, Trinidadian, Guadeloupean folklore in Haiti, Louisiana, Grenada and elsewhere in the Caribbean or Ole-Higue in Guyana, Belize and Jamaica or Asema in Suriname), in The Bahamas and Barbados it is known as Hag. It is a kind of blood-sucking hag.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dominica</span> Country in the Caribbean

Dominica, officially the Commonwealth of Dominica, is an island country in the Caribbean. The capital, Roseau, is located on the western side of the island. It is geographically situated as part of the Windward Islands chain in the Lesser Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Dominica's closest neighbours are two constituent territories of the European Union, the overseas departments of France, Guadeloupe to the northwest and Martinique to the south-southeast. Dominica comprises a land area of 750 km2 (290 sq mi), and the highest point is Morne Diablotins, at 1,447 m (4,747 ft) in elevation. The population was 71,293 at the 2011 census.

Pınar Kür is a Turkish author and dramatist. She currently teaches at Bilgi University.

<i>Good Morning, Midnight</i> (Rhys novel)

Good Morning, Midnight is a 1939 modernist novel by the author Jean Rhys. Often considered a continuation of Rhys' three other early novels, Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931) and Voyage in the Dark (1934), it is experimental in design and deals with a woman's feelings of vulnerability, depression, loneliness and desperation during the years between the two World Wars. The book initially sold poorly—critics thought it well written, but too depressing—and after its publication Rhys spent a decade living in obscurity. It was not until it was adapted by Selma Vaz Dias into a radio play, first broadcast by the BBC in 1957, that Rhys was once again put into the spotlight.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bertha Mason</span> Fictional character from the novel Jane Eyre

Bertha Antoinetta Rochester is a character in Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre. She is described as the violently insane first wife of Edward Rochester, who moved her to Thornfield Hall and locked her in a room on the third floor.

Eliot Bliss was a Jamaican-born English novelist and poet of Anglo-Irish descent, whose literary friendships encompassed Anna Wickham, Dorothy Richardson, Jean Rhys, Romer Wilson and Vita Sackville-West.

Rukhsana Ahmad is a Pakistani writer of novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and a translator, who after marriage migrated to England for further studies and pursue a career in writing. She has campaigned for Asian writers, particularly women.

Quartet is Jean Rhys's 1928 debut novel, set in Paris's bohemian café society. Originally published by Chatto and Windus, Quartet was Rhys's first published book other than her short story collection The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927).

<i>After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie</i>

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931) was Jean Rhys's second novel, originally published by Jonathan Cape. Set in interwar Paris and London, the novel is autobiographical fiction and thematically sequential to Rhys's debut novel Quartet (1928). As Quartet explored Marya Zelli's relationship and breakup, this novel tracks Julia Martin's post-breakup months when her ex-lover's allowance cheques stop.

<i>Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-1966</i>

Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-1966 is a posthumous compilation of author Jean Rhys's letters, first published in 1984 by André Deutsch and from 1985 by Penguin Books.

Ada Quayle was the pseudonym of Kathleen Louise Woods, née Robinson. Woods was a Jamaican novelist, author of a historical novel, The Mistress (1957).


  1. Gardiner, Judith Kegan (Autumn 1982 – Winter 1983). "Good Morning, Midnight; Good Night, Modernism". Boundary 2. 11 (1/2): 233–51. doi:10.2307/303027. JSTOR   303027.
  2. Castro, Joy (Summer 2000). "Jean Rhys" (PDF). The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XX (2): 8–46. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 December 2014.
  3. "Collins English Dictionary: Definition of Rhys". Collins. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  4. Modjeska, Drusilla (1999). Stravinsky's Lunch. Sydney: Picador. ISBN   0-330-36259-3.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Carr, Helen (2004). "Williams, Ella Gwendoline Rees (1890–1979)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
  6. "Lancelot Grey Hugh SMITH". Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  7. McFarlin Library Retrieved 17 September 2015. Archived 27 October 2017 at the Wayback Machine 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."
  8. "Kent: From Maidstone Prison to the Wide Sargasso Sea!" Archived 3 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine , Reading Detectives.
  9. 1 2 Owen, Katie, "Introduction", Quartet, Penguin Modern Classics edition, Penguin, 2000, p. vi. ISBN   978-0-14-118392-3
  10. 1 2 Preliminary page in Jean Rhys, Quartet, Penguin: 2000, ISBN   978-0-14-118392-3
  11. Brian Kellow,"On the Beat: A novel that sings: Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea", Opera News, December 2012 — Vol. 77, No. 6.
  12. "Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea", RadioListings.
  13. "Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea", BBC Radio 4 Extra.
  14. "Wide Sargasso Sea", Drama, BBC Radio 4.
  15. Rhys, Jean; Melly, Diana; Wyndham, Francis (1984). Letters, 1931-1966 Jean Rhys ; Selected and ed. by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly. ISBN   978-0-233-97567-2. OCLC   251855018.
  16. "Thirty-Minute Theatre" I Spy a Stranger (TV Episode 1972) – IMDb , retrieved 1 May 2020
  17. "Villagers Reject 'Dull Spot' Jibe" Archived 21 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine , Exeter Express & Echo, 11 February 2010.
  18. In Their Own Words: British Novelists. Ep. 1: Among the Ruins (1919–1939). BBC (2010).
  19. Mitgang, Herbert (17 May 1979). "Jean Rhys, 84, Novelist Known for 'sargasso Sea'". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 24 April 2020.
  20. Lisa Paravisini, "BBC Interviews Jean Rhys's Typist", Repeating Islands, 14 May 2009.
  21. Alvarez, A. (17 March 1974). "The Best Living English Novelist". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  22. |
  23. Teale, Polly (2003). After Mrs Rochester: a play. London: Nick Hern. ISBN   1-85459-745-0. OCLC   52145874.
  24. "Rhys, Jean (1880–1979)". English Heritage. Retrieved 6 January 2012.
  25. Flood, Alison (30 November 2020). "Royal Society of Literature reveals historic changes to improve diversity". The Guardian.
  26. "Collection: Jean Rhys archive, 1920–1991 | ArchivesSpace Public Interface". Retrieved 23 October 2017.
  27. Jean Rhys Papers, archives and manuscripts catalogue, the British Library. Retrieved 13 May 2020
  28. Archive of Margaret Ramsay Ltd, archives and manuscripts catalogue, the British Library. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  29. Correspondence in the British Library between Jean Rhys and Patrick Garland about adaptations of 'I spy a Stranger' and more

Further reading