Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was born and raised in Roseau, Dominica, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother. Rhys' original name was Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams and she was a member of the plantocratic Lockhart family on her mother's side.
She went to England in 1907 when she was 16 to attend drama school, and became entrapped in what she perceived as a cold and hostile place when her father died a year later. Rhys (pronounced 'Reese') returned to Dominica only once, in 1936, and was disappointed at the changes in the island. She was raised with a colonial mentality and this defined her approach to the Caribbean.
Nevertheless, she is the author of some of the most telling white West Indian texts - novels and short stories - and is without doubt a West Indian writer. Her 'Continental novels' - those set in Paris in the 1930s - reflect the condition of 'lostness' and homelessness that defines the Rhys heroine, and traces of West Indian-ness can be found in these texts also.
Rhys wrote unabashedly about race and class, and she has been acclaimed by feminist scholars for her portrayal of women as underdogs, victims of rapacious men. She wrote of these women with an almost lurid passion, in the words of her early mentor Ford Madox Ford, and with an enigmatic lucidity that has made her writing endure as the work of one of the great writers from the Caribbean.
She is known as a master craftswoman of the short story, a writer with a sure instinct for form, and an artist whose style is pared to the bone; her professional approach involved reworking a manuscript, over and over, until nothing further could be deleted. Francis Wyndham, her mentor in later years and the executor of her estate, remarked in his introduction to her best known novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, that her style is
distinguished by 'that mixture of quivering immediacy and glassy objectivity that is among her most extraordinary distinctions'.
Jean Rhys's work is disturbing on many levels. She writes of a composite heroine, the Rhys Woman - a lost and alienated figure who haunts the streets of Paris or London and who exploits her sexuality for a living. This lonely, bitter, and passive figure appears in all her novels except Wide Sargasso Sea, where she is transformed into a Caribbean heiress who has been virtually sold to the Edward Rochester figure from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Rhys conceived of this novel as a way of talking back to the imperial text, creating a history and a humanity for Bronte's mad Bertha, Rochester's first wife who was locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall and who existed in Bronte's novel as a plot device to enable the Englishwoman Jane Eyre to save Rochester and eventually marry him. Rhys wrestled with this novel for years, using Francis Wyndham as a willing sounding board, and eventually, in 1966, produced a text of great beauty and psychological verity that won the Royal Society of Literature Award and the W.H. Smith Award. Rhys's only comment on the latter was that 'It has come too late.'
With this wry remark, Rhys was not exaggerating. She had spent the previous twenty years in desperate penury, traveling from location to location with her books out of print and their author thought to be dead. When the actress Selma Vas Diaz produced a play for the BBC of Rhys's most unpopular novel Good Morning, Midnight in 1957, Rhys was located through an ad in the newspaper. Wyndham contacted her and was able to be of assistance to her through the hard writing of Wide Sargasso Sea, which Rhys had begun. The great success of this novel brought Rhys's earlier novels back into print: Quartet (first published in 1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). Rhys's first book of short stories, published with the encouragement of Ford Madox Ford, was called The Left Bank (1927) and told tales of the bohemian artist's life in Europe, with some stories set in the West Indies. Although convinced she had no home, Rhys was never very far from the Caribbean in her art.
Voyage in the Dark is the third of Rhys's novels but in fact the first written in the rough. When Rhys first came to London she had an affair with an older Englishman, Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith. He terminated the relationship after a year or so and Rhys - then called Ella Grey on the chorus girl circuit - wrote a manic diary of the affair which became, after several permutations, the basis for the novel.
Voyage, Rhys's first West Indian novel, is a handbook of what goes into the construction of a white Creole woman from Dominica at the turn of the century. It tells the story of Anna Morgan in the past as daughter of the plantocracy, and Anna Morgan in the present, as English tart - for Rhys's character slips into prostitution after being abandoned by her lover (called Walter Jeffries in the novel). Rhys melds the two times and places in an extraordinary psychological and artistic experiment and writes a masterpiece - she effectively writes the white West Indian Creole woman, bringing this hitherto unknown entity into literary existence. Future writers of whiteness needed only draw on Rhys's metaphors - the criss-crossing of oceans being one of the foremost - to illuminate whole areas of experience that were uniquely both white and West Indian. Rhys is the 'ground zero' for the writing of whiteness in the last century.
This novel has two endings. Rhys was unable to sell it to publishers with the original ending and was forced to cut it in half and reduce its negative impact where Anna dies following a botched abortion. She eliminated most of the references to the West Indies and shifted the focus of Voyage from being a book about a white Creole woman stripped of her privilege in Europe to one about an English 'tart'. When Andre Deutsch republished the novel in 1967 they offered to restore the original ending, but Rhys did not agree to it, although she had realised that the new ending was not the right one for the story. It is likely that Rhys realised that the excised material formed the basis for her own West Indian autobiography and intended to use it as such 'to set the record straight'. She had a horror of biographers using her written work to construct biography and wished to write her own; it was eventually published posthumously as Smile, Please (1979). Rhys was then ninety years old; she had written her autobiographical fragment with the help of a young writer called David Plante, who then took advantage of her by publishing his own text, Difficult Women, in which he described Rhys most unflatteringly for her drinking and her somewhat hysterical manner. Rhys's work is a distillation of her own experience but it is a great mistake to take the creative texts as reality, tempting as it is to do so because of the vividness of her creation of the signature, helpless and lost heroine, who is not, however - and here is the key - herself a writer. Rhys's heroines are damned because they do not have that one contribution to offer and so to redeem themselves.
As David Plante reports, Jean Rhys felt that she was part of the stream that created the pool of literature. She felt that she was a pen that could be discarded - a mere medium through which the writing was done. In The Ropemakers' Arms, a short dramatic piece that closes Smile, Please, Rhys conducts a chilling drama of Judgement Day with herself in the dock. She confesses to every sin except that of non-feeling. She examines her long life and concludes that only the writing redeems her. Without this she feels that she will not be redeemed and will die in sin. I believe this was not melodrama on Rhys's part, but rather a clear statement of what drove this tormented woman to write even to the end of her days. (It's possibly also a reflection of her Catholic schooling in Roseau at the turn of the last century.)
Francis Wyndham has noted the capacity for joy in this lonely and passionate woman, and her deep gratitude for things that signal gaiety, like perfume and 'a perfect cocktail'. Rhys's life, like many brilliant artists', was lonely and harsh. Her lack of money was a continual agony for someone who had been raised as a member of the elite plantocracy in Dominica. She dedicated herself to her art and came into her own as an authoritative presence when she talked about or produced her work - otherwise, she was passive and dependent, to a point that some people found repelling.
Rhys's work has survived her and continues to be read and taught to this day. Her texts are so rich in associations that an entire literary industry has arisen around her novels and short stories. She defines the arguments of what is West Indian, what is feminist, what is great writing. Rhys has been called "the Helen of our Wars" by Kamau Brathwaite, and "one of the finest British writers of this century" (by A. Alvarez, writing in the last century). Her work will endure as powerfully and as vividly fresh as when it was first written, for she was decades ahead of her time: there is no other writer to date, to my knowledge, who has examined so closely the white West Indian Creole woman, and who has illuminated this subjectivity within the West Indian literary tradition.
Jean Rhys was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966 and a CBE in 1978.
Works by Jean Rhys:
Jean Rhys. Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
Sleep It Off, Lady. 1976. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1979.
Tigers are Better-Looking, with a selection from The Left Bank.1968. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1972.
Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968.
Good Morning, Midnight. 1939. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1969.
Voyage in the Dark. 1934. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1969.
After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie. 1930. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1971.
Quartet. 1928. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1973.
- Mary Hanna