Jean Rhys occupies a unique position in the history of the twentieth century novel. Scottish and Welsh by heritage, she grew up in Dominica, a West Indian island that colored her perceptions deeply. Nurtured by the modernist writer Ford Madox Ford, she began publishing in the 1920’s, the heyday of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Yet her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, came out in 1966, and she continued writing well into the following decade. Ostensibly, her novels all plead the case of women’s causes, yet she refused to be labeled “feminist” and enjoyed provoking interviewers who attempted to label her so. Jean Rhys was an anomaly, a misfit, and appropriately enough that is the subject of all of her fiction—what it feels like to be an outcast, someone doomed forever to exist on the fringes of society.
For virtually all of her eighty-nine years, Jean Rhys lived on the fringes. She never intended to be a writer; she originally wanted to act. She received a small amount of recognition for her first published novel, Postures (1928)—published in the United States as Quartet (1929)—and for the three that followed it: After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). Then, with the onset of World War II, she disappeared into obscurity. For decades, people who knew of her work thought of her as dead. Eventually, an actress interested in the dramatic possibilities of her novels not only tracked her down but also inspired her to get back to writing. The result was Jean’s finishing Wide Sargasso Sea in the mid-1960’s and finally receiving the acclaim she had deserved for so many years.
With the publication of Jean Rhys: Life and Work, the Canadian writer Carole Angier is attempting to drag Jean further into the public spotlight. Angier met Rhys in the 1970’s, on the heels of public rediscovery. In 1985, she published a short critical and biographical study of the writer. Now she has written a full-blown opus, again combining biography and criticism—a 750-page expansion of the earlier work’s 120 pages. It is an exhaustive and exhausting meditation on the life of one of the saddest writers who ever lived.
Jean was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams to a colonial doctor and his wife living in Roseau, Dominica. The most significant event of Jean Rhys’s early years may be something that took place before her actual birth. An infant sister died, presumably of dysentery. Angier hypothesizes that the Williamses had Jean in an attempt to assuage their grief over this tragedy. Perhaps her parents’ mood of mourning—especially her mother’s—explains the sense of emptiness and rejection that Jean felt even as a child.
The girl who came to England in 1907 to live with her Aunt Clarice was already a sort of outsider whose cultural differences only served to marginalize her further. Jean attended the Perse School in Cambridge and decided to take up acting. Her voice proved to be a fatal liability, for the English thought she sounded like a black. Eventually, Jean learned to whisper rather than risk further embarrassment. She also chose to become a chorus girl, an improper career for a girl from a middle-class family. It implied that she was on display, looking for a wealthy man to keep her, and indeed, Jean’s long adult life did come to revolve around her relationships with men.
The first of these men was Lancelot Hugh Smith, a conventional stockbroker who was forty years old to Jean’s twenty. The two were lovers for about two years, during which time Jean was desperately reliant on Hugh, both financially and emotionally. Eventually, at his cousin Julian’s urging, Hugh extricated himself from the affair Jean was devastated; the psychic wound she suffered over Hugh’s abandonment would mark her for life. She continued to keep in contact with her former lover over many years; he even paid for an abortion she had in 1913. Always, the thought of him hurt her unimaginably.
In 1917, Jean began a romance with Jean—or “John”—Lenglet, a half- French, half-Dutch man residing at Jean’s boarding house. The two ran off to Europe together and were married in 1919. In fact, Lenglet had not bothered to annul a previous marriage, but his bigamy never seemed to affect Jean, and in 1925 the earlier marriage was legally terminated. This sloppiness on John’s part was characteristic. He was plagued all through their marriage by difficulties with immigration papers. Eventually, he took to embezzling. An additional problem was the death of the Lenglets’ infant son. While the child lay suffering in a hospital, Jean and John drank champagne at home, trying to deny the tragedy.
They had a second, healthy child in 1922, a girl named Maryvonne. Yet Jean was not suited to motherhood. Financial pressure offers a partial explanation of why, over the years, Jean spent so little time with her daughter, but only. a partial one. On some level, Jean must have been rejecting her daughter, just as she herself had been rejected. Almost from birth, Maryvonne was boarded out. She lived with her mother only at short intervals and later chose to stay with her father, not Jean.
John considered himself a journalist, and Jean began keeping a kind of literary diary herself. Eventually, an acquaintance introduced Jean to Ford Madox Ford, the novelist, encouraging her to show him her “diary novel.” Ford marveled over Jean’s talent and published a short story of hers in the Transatlantic Review. He also suggested that she change her name from Gwen Williams to Jean Rhys. Inevitably, the thirty- four-year-old Jean became sexually involved with the fifty-year-old Ford. Meanwhile, John was arrested for embezzlement. Destitute and confused, Jean moved in with Ford and his lover Stella Bowen. It was an explosive situation that ended in misery for all involved.
By the mid-1920’s, Jean was publishing The Left Bank (1927), her first book of short stories, and bouncing from Lenglet to Ford and...
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