Jean Rhys wrote five novels and many short stories, beginning her career at the height of early modernism. Each of her texts is finely crafted down to the punctuation, and though she was once separately categorized as a modernist (in the European sense), a Caribbean writer, and a woman writer, it is now generally realized that her extraordinary skill at fiction reflects all these identities. Her life spanned the turn of the century, World Wars I and II, the Depression, the ending of the British Empire, significant immigration from former colonies into Britain, feminism, the US Civil Rights movement, and Black Power. In her fiction, she used many of these as contexts for individual experience, and mined her own experience (colonial Caribbean origin, gender, decades of poverty and struggle).
She was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in Dominica, in the Caribbean, in 1890, though she lied about her age to early critics, subtracting four years. Her father was Welsh, a doctor who took a colonial position in Dominica and married into a prominent family that had belonged to the planter-slave-owning oligarchy. She was always an outsider. She resented being the fairest among her siblings and that Gwendolen means white in Welsh. She was raised white, Anglican, and English speaking in a culture where the majority were of African descent, spoke French Creole, and were Catholic. There was a powerful brown middle class with property and political power, unusual in the colonial Caribbean. Her interior life was complicated by the fact that she was abused as a young teenager by an elderly Englishman, a friend of her mother's, who only touched her breast once but then spun elaborate tales of her sexual and emotional submission to him. Like many abused children, she kept this a secret, but eventually wrote about it in her notebooks and in a short story, called “Goodbye Marcus Goodbye Rose,” published in 1976, just three years before she died. The experience may also explain how she could create the disturbed sexuality often present in her work.
At 16, she left for Britain to finish her schooling, then briefly attended drama school until her Dominican accent was found unsuitable. She refused to return home and became a chorus girl, called Ella Grey. Deeply hurt when the rich and cultivated man she adored ended their affair (1912), and dangerously adrift emotionally, she turned to writing in notebooks as a kind of therapy, but did not begin to write seriously until she went to Paris, after marrying journalist and art-dealer Jean Lenglet in 1919. Ella Lenglet loved Paris and spoke French with her husband, a language which is a key influence on her work. Their infant son, born 1920, died but a daughter, born 1922, survived: Rhys rarely wrote about parenting. In 1924, Lenglet was arrested for dubious art and currency dealings. Ella was without money in Paris, her daughter looked after by someone else. The eminent writer and literary impresario, Ford Madox Ford, became her lover and mentored her first volume of short stories, The Left Bank (1927), into print. Ford wrote a substantial if self-serving introduction to the collection, which she signed Jean Rhys.
The love affair with Ford ended on a sour note, and the marriage to Lenglet was dissolved. In 1928, needing a literary agent in London, she met Leslie Tilden Smith, who became her second husband. Her first novel, Quartet (1928), was a highly polished rendition of the affaire Ford, in which the four main participants, Ella Lenglet, Ford, Ford's companion Stella Bowen, and Jean Lenglet are fictionalized as Marya, Mr. and Mrs. Heidler, and Stefan, Marya's husband. Ford and his supporters were not pleased, but Rhys was clearly a major new talent and was generally praised for her ability to use language and handle the novel form. However, many reviewers found her subject matter and treatment sordid and depressing. Rhys was far ahead of her time in portraying a female-centered world of sexual exploitation and emotional damage, in which money always caused stress and men had the upper hand.
During her marriage to Smith, which lasted until his death in 1945, Rhys published three more novels, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939), as well as working on short fiction. Mackenzie concerns a young woman, Julia Martin, with a disastrous taste in lovers, and whose relations with her immediate family are fragile and tense. Voyage centers on a young woman from the Caribbean, Anna Morgan, a chorus girl in Britain who has a very damaging love affair with an older man, subsequently becomes a half-hearted call girl, and has an abortion. Rhys intended to have her die in the final pages, but her editor at Constable wanted a more hopeful ending. Midnight follows Sasha, a woman with a serious drinking problem through a period in Paris where she has an affectionate relationship with a gigolo and then destroys it out of sheer fear, finally having loveless sex with a sinister man who lives on the same floor. All of these novels were praised for their style, but many reviewers (and readers) were put off by their focus on women who break every rule of female propriety (and even of good common sense).
There are definite similarities between Rhys's first four protagonists, Marya, Julia, Anna, and Sasha. Their names noticeably echo each other, and they attract emotionally damaged men, have little ability to hold jobs, and are hopeless in the domestic realm – the chief site of middle-class female economic security at the time. They are always short of money, love the trappings of femininity, are scared of getting old, drink too much and too often, and are mostly aware of their failings. Francis Wyndham, one of Rhys's earliest and most devoted editors, suggested that they really were the same woman at different stages of life.
But each novel has its own distinct atmosphere and each protagonist her own particular style. Mackenzie is set in Britain (which Rhys despised); Midnight is set in Paris. Voyage is as much about the Caribbean as Britain and was originally called “Two Tunes,” marking its binary structure. Whereas Anna is immature and uninterested in ideas, Sasha is a mordant, brilliantly adroit satirist and a mature intellectual (a cérébrale) who is clear-sighted about her faults and terrified of aging. Julia is the oddest and least attractive of Rhys's protagonists: this is partly because Rhys alternates points of view, a technique she would put to great effect in her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).
Between 1939 and 1966, Rhys fell out of sight to the literary world, so much so that she was thought to have died, but was found because the BBC wanted to broadcast part of Midnight. Sargasso was thought for some time to be Rhys's masterpiece, but though it is hauntingly romantic and very cleverly intertextual with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, to which it is an effective prequel, Midnight is brilliantly postmodern, extraordinary in 1939. In Sargasso, a white Creole widow with a Jamaican plantation, mother of Antoinette, marries a rich Englishman just after Emancipation. His desire to import labor may have encouraged an uprising of hostility among ex-slaves on the plantation: whatever the cause, the house is burned down, Antoinette's brother dies, her mother goes mad, and later she loses her protective stepfather as well. She is then married off to a fortune-hunting younger son of an English family, the (unnamed) “Rochester” who ultimately confines her in England. Rhys boldly tells a good deal of the tale in the voice of “Rochester.” She demonstrates, as Shakespeare does in Richard III, Macbeth, and Othello, that personal insecurity and fear can make a person extremely cruel.
In Rhys's excellent short fiction, each word earns its place. Most pieces in her first collection are sketches in the French manner of the time rather than full stories. Some of her later stories are quite long and complicated, like “Temps Perdi,” and others are hauntingly brief, like “I Used to Live Here Once.” Ford complained that she did not portray place, but increasingly she employed actual street names and made them part of the emotional maelstrom under the surface of her main characters.
She liked to complicate point of view as well as position and identity. She demonstrates how the powerful often get to control a story and how the powerless fight back. Her subversive women are entirely contemporary in their consciousness of gender, race, colonialism, and class. Her “victim” women are often passive-aggressive, even violent, to those they feel control them. Frantz Fanon spoke about the necessity of those abused by power to fight back with violence. In Voyage, Anna grinds the lit end of her cigarette into the palm of her disappointing lover, Walter. But Rhys's women are also self-destructive, likely to lose any chance to make their lives easier.
Rhys's style has justifiably made her famous. As an apprentice writer, she learned from Ford to cut if in doubt, or to translate something into French to test its worth, and she always obsessed about word, sentence, paragraph, character formation, and narrative voice, even about the commas. She knew actual communication is very difficult, whether local or global. Midnight is her most developed comment on that problem, and her most explicitly multilingual text. She turned the most difficult of setbacks into challenges to be overcome. When Constable demanded that the ending of Voyage be more upbeat, she also trimmed Anna's rather shapeless and at times redundant stream of consciousness during the aftermath of the abortion, and so distinctly improved the text.
There has been much critical interest in Rhys, on the part of modernist, Caribbean, and feminist scholars (and those who combine all these perspectives), and despite Rhys's proscription, a biography (Angier 1990). The adroit reader should be wary of the places where Angier turns to the fiction to explain the life: though Rhys did mine her life for raw material, she was a ruthless pursuer of fictional shape, and was not concerned with being faithful to her own experience.
Rhys's reputation with scholars and writers continues to rise, but readers also just enjoy her work, which was so far ahead of its time in its themes that it seems current today.
SEE ALSO: Feminism and Fiction (WF); Fictional Responses to Canonical English Narratives (WF); Film/Television Adaptation and Fiction (WF); Ford, Ford Madox (BIF); Historical Fiction (WF); Migration, Diaspora, and Exile in Fiction (WF); Modernist Fiction (BIF); Postcolonial Fiction of the West Indian/Caribbean Diaspora (BIF); West Indian Fiction (WF)
- Jean Rhys. Boston: Little, Brown. (1990).
- Jean Rhys at “World's End”: Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile. Austin: University of Texas Press. (1990).
- Frickey, P. (ed.) (1990). Critical Perspectives on Jean Rhys. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Jean Rhys's Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. (1990).
- Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. (1988).
- Jean Rhys. New York: St. Martin's. (1991).
- The Rhys Woman. New York: St. Martin's. (1990).
- Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels. New York: New York University Press. (1986).
- The Left Bank and Other Stories. London: Jonathan Cape. (1927).
- Quartet. New York: Carroll and Graf. (1928).
- After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. New York Carroll and Graf. (1931).
- Voyage in the Dark. New York: Norton. (1934).
- Good Morning, Midnight. New York: Norton. (1939).
- Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton. (1966).
- Tigers are Better-Looking. London: Deutsch. (1968).
- Sleep It Off, Lady. New York: Harper and Row. (1976).
- Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography. Berkeley: Donald S. Ellis. (1979).
- The Collected Short Stories. New York: Norton. (1987).
- Jean Rhys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1998).
- The Cambridge Introduction to Jean Rhys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2009).
- The Worlding of Jean Rhys. Westport, CT: Greenwood. (1999).
- Wyndham, F.; Athill, D. (eds.) (1984). The Letters of Jean Rhys. New York: Viking Penguin.
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