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Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys was a British writer born and raised on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Her most notable novel is Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which was written as a prequel to Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë. Rhys' interesting life and upbringing gave her a unique perspective that informed her writing. She is now considered one of the greatest British novelists and was appointed a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1978 for her contributions to literature. Rhys' work is greatly celebrated, so let's find out why!

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Jean Rhys was a British writer born and raised on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Her most notable novel is Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which was written as a prequel to Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë. Rhys' interesting life and upbringing gave her a unique perspective that informed her writing. She is now considered one of the greatest British novelists and was appointed a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1978 for her contributions to literature. Rhys' work is greatly celebrated, so let's find out why!

Jean Rhys: biography

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams on 24 August 1890 on the Caribbean island of Dominica to a Welsh father and a Creole mother of Scottish descent. Whether Rhys had mixed-race ancestry is unclear, but she was still referred to as Creole.

Creole is a term used to describe ethnic groups that formed during European colonisation. Usually, Creole refers to someone with mixed European and indigenous heritage, though it can be used to describe most people with mixed race ethnicity.

At the age of sixteen, in 1907, Rhys was sent to England, where she attended school and attempted to start a career as an actress. During her time in Britain, she was often mocked for her foreign accent and struggled to fit in at school and in her career. Rhys later worked as a chorus girl. In 1910, she began a tumultuous affair with wealthy stockbroker Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, which, when ended, left Rhys heartbroken. In her despair, Rhys took her hand at writing, keeping diaries and notebooks recording her emotional state during this time: this greatly informed her later writing.

In 1919, she moved around Europe after meeting and marrying Frenchman Jean Lenglet, the first of her three husbands. By 1923, Lenglet was arrested for illegal activities leaving Rhys to seek refuge in Paris.

During her time in Paris, Rhys came under the patronage of English writer Ford Madox Ford who published some of her short stories in the magazine The Transatlantic Review. She received much support from Ford, with whom she later began an affair.

By the end of her extensive literary career, Rhys had published five novels and seven short story collections. In 1960, she retreated from public life, living in rural England until her death on 14 May 1979.

Jean Rhys: short stories

Under the influence of Ford, Rhys began her writing career; Ford was the one to suggest she change her name.

Her first short story collection, titled The Left Bank and Other Stories, was published in 1927 with an introduction by Ford: it originally held the subtitle 'sketches and studies of present-day Bohemian Paris'. The collection was critically well-received and was a promising start to Rhys' burgeoning literary career.

Rhys' career ended too with the publication of short story collections. Tigers are Better-Looking, published in 1968, and Sleep it Off, published in 1976, were Rhys' last publications before her death. Though they received critical acclaim, Rhys did not care much for these collections, calling them 'no good magazine stories'.

Jean Rhys: novels

In 1928, Rhys' first novel, Quartet, was published, which found its inspiration in her real life. At this time, Rhys was living with Ford and his mistress, Stella Bowen, which proved difficult and at times abusive, as noted in Rhys' own accounts. The novel follows stranded Marya Zelli as she finds herself struggling after her husband is jailed in Paris. Quartet was also well-received and in 1981 was adapted into a film.

During the next ten years, Rhys published three more novels, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939), which all follow similarly alienated female protagonists. The novels all explore themes of isolation, dependence and domination.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, published in 1931, can be considered a spiritual sequel to Quartet, with its protagonist Julia Martin acting as a more frenzied version of Quartet's Marya Zelli. Julia's relationship unravels, and she spends her time aimlessly wandering the streets of Paris and periodically inhabiting cheap hotel rooms and cafés.

Rhys' next novel, Voyage in the Dark (1934), shows these similar feelings of alienation. Rhys draws further parallels with her own life in the narrator's journey from the West Indies to England. The narrator, Anna Morgan, becomes a chorus girl and later begins an affair with a wealthy older man. Similarly to Rhys herself, Anna feels rootless and lost in England.

Three years later, in 1939, Rhys' fourth novel Good Morning, Midnight was published. This novel is often thought of as a continuation of her first two novels, portraying another woman, Sasha Jensen, traversing the streets of Paris in an aimless haze after the end of a relationship. In Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys mostly uses stream-of-consciousness narration to depict the protagonist's mental state as she excessively drinks, takes sleeping pills and frequents different cafés, hotel rooms and bars in Paris.

Stream-of-consciousness narration is a technique used to more accurately capture a character's inner monologue. Descriptions are used to closely mirror a character's thought process and give the reader an insight into their motivations and actions.

After the publication of Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys disappeared from public life, retreating to rural England where she spent the wartime years. Writing proved difficult for Rhys as it was marked by depression, paranoia and overwhelming feelings of loss: readers alike found her work too depressing during the grim years of World War II (WWII). She did not publish another novel until 1966 but continued to write in private.

In 1950, after the war, Rhys was contacted for permission to broadcast an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight for BBC Radio. Though it was not until 1957 that the adaptation eventually made it to air, this proved vital to the reinvigoration of Rhys' literary career. She caught the attention of various literary agents who purchased the rights to her next novel.

Rhys' final novel, perhaps her most well-known, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published in 1966. It serves as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), lending a perspective to Antoinette Cosway, Mr Rochester's mad wife, whom he locks in the attic. Like many of Rhys' other protagonists, Antoinette shares characteristics with Rhys herself. She, too, is a Creole woman transplanted to England who struggles with feelings of loss and powerlessness. The novel returns to themes of dependence, alienation and psychological deterioration. Wide Sargasso Sea was a critical success, winning the W.H. Smith Literary Award in 1976 when Rhys was 86 years old.

Jean Rhys: significance

Jean Rhys was one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Her exploration of feelings of loss, alienation and psychological detriment sets her apart from other authors of the time and even among modern writers.

Rhys' writing provides an insight into the female psyche in a time when the literary field was dominated by men, exposing thoughts and feelings that remain uniquely female. In portraying these struggles, Rhys' work removes the stigma around what was seen as 'female hysteria'. Instead, she gives perspective to women who have had harrowing experiences that involve loss, domination and transplantation, often at the hands of men in a patriarchal society.

A patriarchy refers to a system in which men hold power and women are usually excluded. This term is usually used to describe societies or governments.

'Female hysteria' was a medical diagnosis for women that encompassed a wide range of symptoms, including nervousness, anxiety, sexual desire, insomnia, loss of appetite, and many more.

In Western medicine up to the late 19th century and even the early 20th century, this was seen as a legitimate diagnosis for women exhibiting many symptoms that were simply evidence of normal functioning female sexuality. Many issues were dismissed as 'female hysteria' and in some cases women were even sent to asylums.

Jean Rhys: quotes

Jean Rhys' works contain important moments of language that encapsulate her significance and writing talents. Let's consider some of these quotations:

I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

(Wide Sargasso Sea, Part 2, Section 9)

Spoken by Rochester, this quote illuminates his hostility not just toward his wife's homeland, but also toward her. He hates the 'beauty' and the unknown that it represents. The simplicity of his description of what is surely a brilliantly coloured scene underscores his distaste for the unpredictability of 'magic and loveliness' and a subsequent need for domination.

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don't, streets that are friendly, streets that aren't, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don't, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won't, and so on.

(Good Morning, Midnight, Part 1)

This quote from Good Morning, Midnight shows the protagonist, Sasha, before she eventually descends into psychological ruin. She simply states the routine of her life that seems 'monotonous' before it unravels out of control on those very 'streets' and in that 'complicated affair of cafés'. Sasha is particularly obsessed with her appearance and how she is viewed by others.

And I saw that all my life I had known that this was going to happen, and that I'd been afraid for a long time, I'd been afraid for a long time. There's fear, of course, with everybody. But now it had grown, it had grown gigantic; it filled me and it filled the whole world.

(Voyage in the Dark, Part 1, Chapter 1)

Rhys' narrator in Voyage in the Dark, Anna Morgan, contemplates her 'fear' that threatens to take over her mental state. This intense and frightening image creates a feeling of foreboding that the character carries with her because of the fear that has built up 'all [her] life'.

Jean Rhys - Key takeaways

  • Jean Rhys was born Ella Williams on 24 August 1890.
  • She was born on the Caribbean island of Dominica and moved to England when she was sixteen.
  • During the 1940s, Rhys withdrew from public view, retreating to rural England, where she wrote in private.
  • In 1966, almost three decades after her last publication, Rhys' novel Wide Sargasso Sea was published.
  • Rhys remains an important literary figure of the 20th century, importantly giving a perspective to tormented female characters that experienced trauma and suffering.

Frequently Asked Questions about Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys was born in the Caribbean to a Welsh father and a Creole mother of Scottish descent. It is unclear whether Rhys was of mixed-race ethnicity, but she was still referred to as Creole.

Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 to provide an alternate perspective to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Rhys' novel focuses on the 'madwoman in the attic', Antoinette Cosway, a Creole woman who marries Mr Rochester. It can be said that Rhys wrote the novel in part to come to terms with her own feelings of alienation after leaving the West Indies, much like Antoinette in the novel. Rhys also combats the label of the 'madwoman' by giving Antoinette her own perspective, thoughts and feelings that were skipped over in the original novel.

Jean Rhys changed her name from Ella Williams in the mid-1920s upon her first publication. This was because of a suggestion made by her mentor and lover, writer Ford Madox Ford.

Jean Rhys was an important writer of the 20th century. Her work explores feelings of loss, alienation and psychological detriment that set her apart from other authors of the time. Rhys' writing provides an insight into the female psyche in a time when the literary field was dominated by men.

Though the label 'feminist' is a more modern term, we can indeed retroactively call much of Jean Rhys' work feminist. Her portrayals of female struggles in a contemporary, alienating, patriarchal society make her work incredibly important to 20th-century feminist literature.

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