Jean Rhys and Mollie Stoner in the 1970s
|Born||24 August 1890|
Roseau, Dominica, British West Indies
|Died||14 May 1979 (aged 88)|
Exeter, Devon, England
|Occupation||novelist, short story writer, essayist|
Jean Rhys, (; born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams (24 August 1890 - 14 May 1979), was a mid-20th-century novelist who was born and grew up in the Caribbean island of Dominica. From the age of 16, she was mainly resident 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. In 1978 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her writing.
Rhys was born in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, an island in the British West Indies. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, née Lockhart, was 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, 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 neighborhoods of London.
After her father died in 1910, Rhys appeared to have experimented with living as a demimondaine. She became the mistress of a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith. Though he was 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. In 1913 she worked for a time in London as a nude model.
During the First World War, Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918 she worked in a pension office.
In 1919 Rhys married Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, spy, and songwriter. He was the first of her three husbands. She and Lenglet wandered through Europe. They had two children, a son who died young and a daughter. They divorced in 1933, and her daughter lived mostly with her father.
The next year Rhys married Leslie Tilden-Smith, an English editor. In 1930 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 an island mixed-race woman 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 authors she admired). The two women shared Caribbean backgrounds. The correspondence between them survives.
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. He died in 1966.
In 1924 Rhys came under the influence of the English writer Ford Madox Ford. After she met Ford in Paris, Rhys wrote short stories under his patronage. Ford recognised that her experience as an exile gave Rhys a unique viewpoint, and he praised her "singular instinct for form". "Coming from the West Indies, he 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'." It was Ford who suggested that she change her name to Jean Rhys (from Ella Williams). At the time her husband was in jail for what Rhys described as currency irregularities.
With Voyage in the Dark (1934) Rhys continued to portray a mistreated, rootless woman. Here her protagonist is a young chorus girl who grew up in the West Indies and feels alienated in England. In Good Morning, Midnight published in 1939, Rhys uses modified stream of consciousness to voice the experiences of an ageing woman.
In the 1940s Rhys largely withdrew from public life. From 1955 to 1960 she lived in Bude in Cornwall, where she was unhappy, calling it "Bude the Obscure", before moving to Cheriton Fitzpaine 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 the 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 prestigious 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 woman enter into marriage under mistaken assumptions about the other. Her female lead marries Mr Rochester and deteriorates in England as the "madwoman in the attic". Rhys portrays this woman from quite a different perspective from that drawn in Jane Eyre. Diana Athill of the publishing house André Deutsch gambled on publishing Wide Sargasso Sea; she and the writer Francis Wyndham helped to revive interest in Rhys's work.
From 1960, and for the rest of her life, Rhys lived in Cheriton Fitzpaine, a small village in Devon that she once described as "a dull spot which even drink can't enliven much." She characteristically remained unimpressed by her belated ascent to literary fame, commenting, "It has come too late." 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...".
Jean Rhys died in Exeter on 14 May 1979, at the age of 88, before completing her autobiography, which she had begun dictating only months earlier. In 1979 the incomplete text was published posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.