Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2482
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...
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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 back again. Eventually, Jean left Ford on ugly, acrimonious terms. The whole affair inspired four different books: one each by Ford, Stella, and John, and Jean’s first novel, Quartet, much the finest of the batch. In it, Jean marked out the territory that would continue to be hers for the rest of her writing career: the solitary struggle of a beautiful woman without resources, facing daily life with a self-defeating sense of her own futility.
These two early books inspired grudging admiration in most critics who read them, especially for Jean’s spare, poetic sense of language. One fan of hers was Leslie Tilden Smith, the mild-mannered English agent who began to represent Jean. By 1928, the two were living together in England. It was not until 1932 that Jean and John bothered to get divorced. Then, in 1934, Jean married Smith.
The marriage lasted until Smith’s death in 1945. It was hardly a happy one, yet it seems to have been a productive partnership for Jean as a writer. During the 1930’s, she published three novels, all basically autobiographical, and all, to Carole Angier’s mind, showing increasing self-awareness. Yet in life, Jean’s bitterness and confusion only mounted. Leslie Smith appears to have been a mild-mannered, faithful husband, but his very mildness antagonized Jean. She began to drink more, and drink brought out intense anger in her. She fought with Leslie, sometimes physically. She resented his relatives, who resented her, and rarely was there enough money for the couple.
In 1936, Jean went back to Dominica for the only time in her adult life. It was a mixed experience for her, for she found the island much changed. She began to be paranoid about other people’s reactions to her. On returning to England, Jean began to plot not one but two novels about Dominica. Yet the work progressed badly. Once, during a fight with Leslie, she burned the typescript of a novel.
World War II was misery for Jean as well as Leslie. While he served his commission, she moved from town to town, drinking and worrying about her daughter in Holland. This is where her life becomes hard to follow. Angier speculates that Jean may have attempted suicide and may also have been committed to an institution. Eventually, Leslie was forced to resign his commission. His health became more and more fragile. The couple moved to a remote cottage in Dartmoor, where Leslie died of a heart attack in 1945. Jean, in the next room, delayed phoning for help an unconscionable time—the effect of alcohol, perhaps, or of her characteristic sense of paralysis.
Though Jean rarely spoke of her love of Leslie, his death seemed to disturb her enormously. Nevertheless, by 1946, a cousin of Leslie named George Victor Max Hamer was romancing Jean. Two years to the day after Leslie’s death, they were married. They moved to suburban London, where Jean’s mental deterioration continued. She drank, fought with neighbors, and was arrested for assault. She even spent time in the hospital section of Holloway Prison. Several psychologists found Jean sane, yet her pathetic, self- defeating behavior continued for years. Meanwhile, her third husband followed the path of her first. He was arrested and convicted of larceny.
By this point, Jean was hardly writing at all. Those who remembered her work thought she had died during the war. Then an actress named Selma Vaz Dias decided to create a radio monologue out of Good Morning, Midnight. She tracked Jean down via a notice in the New Statesman. Though nothing initially came of the contact, Jean was amazed to find that anyone cared about her. In 1956, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) decided to give the green light to Selma’s program. With it came a renewal of interest in Jean’s writing and impetus for her to get back to work on her Caribbean novel.
That novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, would not be published for almost ten years. It was torture for Jean to write, for a variety of reasons. One was her husband’s ill health. Max Hamer suffered stroke after stroke, and Jean was determined to care for him. Her old resentment often flared up, however, for men in general and for the fact that Max was keeping her from writing. Once, she actually hit the sickly man.
Jean always experienced difficulty writing, and Wide Sargasso Sea was the most challenging thing she ever wrote. A kind of prequel to Jane Eyre, the novel offers a portrait of Antoinette’s childhood and of her marriage to Rochester. Although Antoinette is clearly akin to Jean Rhys’s earlier heroines, she is also a woman of another century and the creation of another writer. The first section of the novel, told from Antoinette’s perspective, proved very trying for Jean, for it offers a first-hand account of descent into madness. More difficult was the second section of the novel, which is told from Rochester’s point of view It was the only time Jean Rhys placed herself inside a man’s head. As such, it represents a triumph over the novelist’s solipsistic tendencies.
Even given these difficulties, Jean managed to finish the novel substantially several years before it was released. Everyone who read the manuscript adored it. Yet Jean’s obsessive perfectionism kept her from allowing her editors to publish it. Finally, Max died. Soon after, Jean dreamt of giving birth. She took this as an omen and finally let her book go out into the world.
One would expect the acclaim—and the money—that the author received on the release of Wide Sargasso Sea to have mitigated the unhappiness of her life. Perhaps it did somewhat, but only a little. Jean’s misery had become chronic. Not even the rerelease of her other novels or an award of the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) could ease her condition for long. The amazing thing, though, is how long Jean continued to live and how well she went on writing. A collection of short stories, Sleep It Off Lady (1976), and an autobiography, Smile Please (1979), are works that she authored in her mid-eighties. Jean once wrote that she had to earn her death by writing. She went on earning it almost into her eighty-ninth year.
As a biographer, Carole Angier’s chief virtue is her unflappable objectivity. It would be easy to imagine another writer adopting Jean’s point of view too faithfully or condemning Jean heavily for her often appalling behavior. Angier has no ax to grind. She does not wish to make Jean Rhys into a feminist heroine or to twist her achievement into an unlikely shape. One feels almost always that Angier is weighing the evidence dispassionately and arriving at highly reasonable conclusions about this difficult writer’s life.
Nevertheless, one cannot help feeling that Jean Rhys deserves a better biography than this prosaic and prosy book. It is not content merely to narrate Jean’s life story. Larded into the biography are critical chapters on Jean’s five published novels, chapters that are not only inappropriate but decidedly unstartling as criticism. These chapters also turn out to be thoroughly redundant. Given how shadowy much of Jean’s life was and given the autobiographical nature of her writing, Angier finds herself turning repeatedly to the fiction for insights into Jean’s existence. Time and again, one finds Jean’s novels analyzed in the biographical sections and reanalyzed in the critical sections. Angier also has problems organizing her chronologies. Often, she will look ahead from a specific point in time to chart the arc of a particular relationship, then she will retell the same story later, when the time scheme of the biography has caught up with her. Granted, Jean Rhys’s life provides a challenge to a writer in its long duration and its redundancy. Still, a determined and resourceful editor could have probably shortened Angier’s book by half.
As a writer, Jean Rhys believed in distillation. She took the facts of her sordid existence and selected her details carefully. Then she honed the work, chiseling away at her words to balance all the misery with a formal beauty. The magic of her fiction comes as much from what is unsaid as what is said. In Jean Rhys: Life and Work, things are said and said again. The lines are all etched in; but the vividness is gone, and so is the shapeliness.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. June 16, 1991, XIV, p. 3.
The Christian Science Monitor. July 16, 1991, p. 13.
London Review of Books. XII, November 22, 1990, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times. September 13, 1991, p. E10.
The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, October 10, 1991, p. 40.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, June 30, 1991, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, April 19, 1991, p. 54.
The Spectator. CCLXV, December 1, 1990, p. 53.
The Times Literary Supplement. November 23, 1990, p. 1257.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, June 23, 1991, p. 1.