Rhys, Jean 1890-1979
(Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams) West Indian-born English short story writer, novelist, and autobiographer.
Rhys's works combine personal experience with emotional and psychological insight to examine the nature of relations between the sexes. Her novels and short stories typically focus on complex, intelligent, sensitive women who are dominated and victimized by men and society. Alone and alienated, these women are unable or unwilling to learn from past mistakes, achieve emotional and financial independence, or gain control of their lives. Although Rhys was called "the best living English novelist" by Alfred Alvarez in 1974, she spent most of her career writing in relative obscurity. Her early works, dating from 1927, were largely ignored or forgotten until her novel Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966; the critical and popular success of this work occasioned new interest in her entire output. Rhys's early work has subsequently been reprinted and studied extensively. Critics have praised her spare, understated prose, realistic characterizations, dreamlike imagery, and ironic, often embittered tone in her stories, which depict the plights of her characters while evoking sympathy for their situations.
Rhys's biography is central to any interpretation of her work, as her writings are, by her own admission, largely autobiographical. She was born in Roseau, Dominica, in the Lesser Antilles, where as a young girl she received religious training in a convent. Many of Rhys's stories are infused with her childhood memories of the island. At the age of seventeen she emigrated to England, briefly attending school in Cambridge before pursuing a failed career as a chorus girl. In 1919 she married journalist Jean Lenglet and lived throughout continental Europe. Rhys moved to Paris in the early 1920s with her husband and their new-born daughter. While in Paris Rhys worked at various jobs, pursued occasional writing opportunities, and in 1924, through a literary connection, met author and editor Ford Madox Ford. When Lenglet was jailed in 1925 for dubious business practices, Rhys was taken in by Ford, who published her earliest writings in his Transatlantic Review and sponsored publication of her first collection of short fiction, The Left Bank and Other Stories. Four novels followed, but World War II interrupted Rhys's career and she fell into obscurity. Many of her readers assumed she had died. She was "rediscovered" in 1949 by actress Selma Vaz Dias, who sought her permission to adapt her novel Good Morning, Midnight as a dramatic monologue. Encouraged by the knowledge that her work had not been forgotten, Rhys produced Wide Sargasso Sea, the novel considered her masterwork, and two more short story collections. Rhys was awarded the W. H. Smith Literary Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, and the Council of Great Britain Award for Writers. She died in England in 1979, leaving her autobiography incomplete.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Rhys's stories consistently explore feminine consciousness and illustrate the complexities of relationships between women and men. The lives Rhys portrays are bleak, with desperation at their cores. The women are lonely outsiders, financially and emotionally at the mercy of callous men. The central characters in all Rhys's fiction appear to be versions of Rhys herself, with little attempt at disguise, and the plots seem lifted directly from her own often chaotic life. Her Bohemian existence in Paris during the 1920s, for example, provided the material for The Left Bank, a collection that contains thinly veiled allegories of the author's own alienation, weaknesses, and failed relationships. As Rhys aged, her stories began to examine the effects of growing old; several pieces in Sleep It Off, Lady treat the loneliness and isolation that may accompany aging. The central women in "Rapunzel, Rapunzel," and the title story in the collection, for instance, are humiliated by the other characters simply because they are elderly. Thomas Staley has observed a progression through the stories in this collection in which life is traced "from youth and adolescence to adulthood and, inevitably, to old age."
Rhys's work has been uniformly praised for its economically lucid prose, its realism, its vivid imagery, and for Rhys's stylistic mastery of her material. Critics have also paid close attention to the repression of her female protagonists, their curious inability to rescue themselves, and the author's consistently pessimistic world view, as well as themes of aging, race, and colonialism. Although Rhys's stories commonly focus on women's issues, many commentators have noted that the concerns they express affect all of society, men as well as women. As Staley has remarked, Rhys's work "explores with compassion and a rare intelligence the panic and emptiness of modern life."