Jean Rhys 1890–1979
West Indian-born English novelist, short story writer, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Rhys's career through 1990. For further information on Rhys's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 6, 14, 19, and 51.
With the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a critically acclaimed reinterpretation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys suddenly emerged from more than two decades of obscurity. A noted Left Bank literary figure and author of four novels during the 1920s and 1930s, Rhys ceased to publish and disappeared from the public eye until her work was rediscovered in the late 1950s. Her highly regarded novels and short stories are distinguished for their spare, understated prose and complex psychological portraits of dispossessed though determined women who struggle unsuccessfully against poverty, loneliness, and humiliating dependencies on loveless men. Praised as a master stylist, Rhys is also identified as a powerful commentator on the exploitative social structures and sexual power dynamics that reduce women to despondency and self-abasement.
Born Ella Gwendolen Rhys Williams in Dominica, a British-held island in the West Indies, Rhys was the fourth of five children of Rhys Williams, a Welsh physician, and Minna Lockhart, a Dominican Creole who descended from a long line of slaveholding planters. The island's lush tropical environment, native culture, and racist colonial legacy, particularly that of her maternal ancestors, was deeply imprinted in Rhys's psyche during her formative years. A lonely and introspective child, she received her early education at a Catholic convent school, where she began to write poetry and, for a time, wished to become a nun. At age sixteen Rhys left Dominica for England to live with her aunt in Cambridge and studied at the Academy of Dramatic Art beginning in 1908. When her father's death in 1910 deprived her of financial means, she refused to return to Dominica, opting instead to support herself as a chorus line girl and demimondaine. During the same year, she began an affair with Lancelot Smith, a well-stationed, middle-aged Englishman whose rejection in 1912, the first of several significant romantic betrayals in her life, caused Rhys to plunge into suicidal despair and a series of self-destructive liaisons. In 1919 Rhys married her first husband, John Lenglet, a Dutch writer, singer, and artist who, unknown to Rhys, doubled as a French intelligence agent and black market financier. The couple moved from Holland to Vienna, Paris, and Budapest during the early 1920s and had two children; only the second, daughter Maryvonne, survived infancy. Returning to Paris in 1924, Rhys was introduced to Ford Madox Ford, who adopted her as his protégé and exposed her to the expatriate literary circles of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. Her first published work, an excerpt from the story "Suzy Tells" (renamed "Triple Sec"), appeared in the December 1924 issue of Ford's journal Transatlantic Review. When Lenglet was arrested and imprisoned for fraud, Rhys moved in with Ford and his girlfriend Stella Bowen, with whom she became enmeshed in an exploitative menage a trois. Rhys's sketches from the 1920s were collected and published as Left Bank and Other Stories (1927) with an enthusiastic introduction by Ford. Rhys then moved to Amsterdam with her newly released husband, though they separated before the publication of her first novel, Postures (1928), republished as Quartet the next year. Rhys left for London and moved in with literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith, whom she married in 1934. Though producing three additional novels during the 1930s, her most productive years, Rhys suffered increasingly from severe depression and alcoholism, causing her to cease writing after the publication of Good Morning, Midnight (1939). Following Smith's death in 1945, Rhys remarried his cousin, Max Hamer, and steadily declined in obscurity. She was briefly imprisoned in 1949 for attacking a neighbor in a drunken rage, and the next year Hamer was incarcerated for illegal financial dealings. However, interest in Rhys's writing was suddenly revived after actress Selma Vaz Dias contacted her to arrange an BBC radio adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight, which aired in 1957. With a new contract from Deutsch editor Francis Wyndham, Rhys returned to an early draft for the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which she took six years to complete. Her efforts were rewarded with a W. H. Smith Award, Heinemann Award, and Arts Council of Great Britain Award for Writers in 1967. Rhys continued to write and publish new works until her death in 1979 at age eighty-four, including short stories in Tigers are Better-Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976), and the three autobiographic sketches of My Day (1975). Her unfinished autobiography was posthumously published as Smile Please (1979).
Rhys's trademark fiction is noted for its controlled detachment, shifting perspective, surreal episodes, laconic tone, and vivid psychological profiles of outcasted women. A typical Rhys heroine is a passive, emotionally fragile woman on the verge of homelessness and destitution who clings desperately to a façade of respectability and her ever failing feminine charms. Though not strictly autobiographic, much of Rhys's fiction draws directly from events and circumstances in her own life—particularly her Caribbean upbringing, her precarious existence on the fringes of London and Parisian society, and unhappy relationships with various men. The Left Bank and Other Stories consists of impressionistic fragments and vignettes that describe bohemian life in Paris during the 1920s, introducing the distinct style, themes, and victimized female prototypes of her subsequent fiction. The story "La Grosse Fifi," for example, relates the demise of an aging, self-conscious woman who is murdered by the young gigolo she selflessly supports. Quartet is a fictionalized version of Rhys's relationship with Ford during the mid-1920s; the original title, Postures, was used at the publisher's insistence to prevent against a libel suit. Set in Paris, the novel revolves around protagonist Marya Zelli, a former chorus girl who is helpless and alone after her reckless husband, Stephen, is jailed. Befriended by H. J. and Lois Heidler, a middle-aged couple who offer comfort and security, Marya soon becomes entangled in a manipulative love triangle that reveals the predatory nature of her male host and the self-serving passivity of his wife. Through recurring metaphors and dreamlike imagery that contrast with the narrative's realism, Rhys evokes an atmosphere of entrapment and disorientation that corresponds to Marya's psychic decline and attendant issues of moral ambiguity. Even more pessimistic than Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie chronicles the dissolution of Julia Martin, an abandoned, profligate woman whose daily survival depends upon the reluctant generosity of friends and former lovers. Rejected by the title character, Julia leaves Paris for London, where she visits her sister Norah and enters into a failed relationship with Mr. Horsfield, Norah's role as the dutiful caretaker for their dying mother is contrasted with Julia's reckless drinking and promiscuity. Returning to Paris, Julia finally confronts Mr. Mackenzie, whose condescension and cruelty toward her reflects the contemptible status of women in patriarchal society. Through distancing techniques and shifting narratorial perspectives, Rhys examines the imposture and self-deception that dominate relations between the sexes. Voyage in the Dark, derived from Rhys's early notebooks, traces the emotional deterioration of protagonist Anna Morgan, a naïve, Dominican chorus girl who finds temporary security in an affair with an older Englishman named Walter. When Anna is cast off by Walter, she descends into a vagabond existence and prostitution, resulting in a life-threatening abortion. The first person narrative relates Anna's cycle of despair and delirium though memory sequences and imagery that juxtapose the vibrant environment of her tropical childhood with the cold desolation of England. Good Morning, Midnight features Sasha Jansen, a composite of Rhys's previous protagonists, though older and further bereft. Set in Paris on the eve the Second World War, the novel follows Sasha's efforts to recuperate from the death of her infant child and a failed marriage. She is pursued by a charming gigolo, René, whom she spurns, and finally succumbs to an ambiguous sexual encounter with her neighbor. As in earlier novels, Rhys blurs the division between hallucination and reality, past and present, through the interplay of memory, self-conscious meditation, and imagistic description of the external world. Unlike the contemporary European settings of her previous novels, Wide Sargasso Sea, an interpretative prequel to Brontë's Jane Eyre, is set almost entirely in the West Indies during the mid-nineteenth-century. Through alternating first person perspectives, the complex narrative recounts the traumatic Caribbean childhood of Antoinette Mason and her marriage to an unnamed Englishman whose repressive temperament further weakens her fragile mental state. Their strained relationship is reflected in the foreboding tropical atmosphere, voodoo curses, and the pervasive threat of violent reprisal by the island's newly emancipated slaves. In the last section of the novel, Antoinette accompanies her husband to England, where it is revealed that he is Edward Rochester, Jane Eyre's beloved, and that Antoinette represents Bertha, Rochester's mad first wife who is secretly locked in the attic.
Since the resurrection of Rhys's literary career in the late 1960s, critical reevaluation of her fiction has focused primarily on Wide Sargasso Sea. Generally regarded as her most significant work, Wide Sargasso Sea is praised for its haunting tropical setting, facile appropriation of Brontë's plot and characters, insightful critique of Western imperialism, and stark evocation of psychological isolation. The novel has also received comparison to the work of Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Faulkner for its gothic tone. Rhys's four prewar novels, though well received upon their original publication, have only recently begun to attract serious critical scrutiny. As with Wide Sargasso Sea, they are praised for their penetrating studies of female alienation, technical virtuosity, bitter irony, and multilevel themes surrounding male-female relationships and the construction of female self-identity. Though often overlooked as an innovative modernist writer, many critics note similarities between Rhys's terse, direct style and that of Hemingway. Commentators frequently draw attention to Rhys's disturbing treatment of victimized women and the social significance of their suffering and acquiescence. While some critics dismiss her heroines as self-pitying and sentimental, most appreciate their depth and emotional complexity. Feminist scholars in particular find in Rhys's fiction a prescient elucidation of female persecution and anxiety in a male-dominated society. As Rosalind Miles notes, "Through the power of her analysis, Jean Rhys was one of the few women writers able to make explicit the link between the sex war and the class struggle." Despite the highly personal nature of her fiction, Smile Please, Rhys's unfinished autobiography, received unfavorable reviews for failing to provide greater insight into the author's life.