Jean Rhys's early life has many parallels with her best-known work, Wide Sargasso Sea. She was born in 1890 on a decaying sugar plantation in Dominica, daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole woman. She was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams: like Wide Sargasso Sea's Antoinette, her name changed many times; unlike Antoinette, she had some control over the process. Many of her names were pseudonyms taken on as a chorus girl and, later, as a writer. Like Antoinette, she was an unhappy child, who felt her mother preferred her younger sibling, and who chafed against the starchiness of colonial life.
Wide Sargasso Sea draws on Rhys's colonial upbringing, and steals too from her family biography: her father, like Rochester, came to the Caribbean, immediately caught fever, and married her mother upon recovery; her great grandfather, like Old Cosway, had many children with his slaves and died in 1837, leaving his young widow to care for the estate. According to her autobiography, Smile Please, this plantation was burned down by former slaves in 1844. However, we must always be suspicious of the stories Rhys told about herself: an inveterate storyteller, she often dealt with her personal traumas by turning them into fictional narratives – in her biography and her art. Despite an unhappy childhood, she nevertheless always referred to Dominica as the only real home she ever had. She wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in her seventies, fifty years after leaving, but the invocations of its landscape, its colours, scents, heat, are as vivid and fresh as if she had never left.
Rhys came to England at 17, the icy greyness shocking her to the core. Abandoning her studies, she considered acting. Her West Indian accent put paid to that ambition, and by and by she became resident in the demimonde of Edwardian London, first as a chorus girl, then a masseuse, artist’s model and perhaps even a prostitute.
At 22, an older man broke her heart, which sent her spiralling into a manic depression. Her abandonment by Lancelot Smith, who she always thought of as the love of her life, informed her later novels, populated as they are by abandoned, betrayed women. Even in her seventies, she was still writing her relationship with Lancelot: Wide Sargasso Sea's Rochester, whose fear of emotion and loss of respectability cripple his relationship with Antoinette, bears an uncanny resemblance to the real life Lancelot. Self-medicating with alcohol, she sowed the seed of a lifelong dependency. Even Jean Rhys's characters would have struggled to match their creator's intake.
In 1919, she married Jean Lenglet, writer, journalist and secret agent, who she’d met in a Soho artists’ dive. For a few years they lived a continental high life. Rhys gave birth to a baby boy who died shortly after. She later had a daughter. In 1924 Lenglet was arrested for black market racketeering and imprisoned. Destitute and alone in Paris, Rhys left her daughter in a convent, and entered a twilight world of whores, artists and writers.
She was soon introduced to literary impresario Ford Madox Ford at a party in Montparnasse. He encouraged her to write about her experiences for his Transatlantic Review. Rhys’s first published work was ‘Triple Sec’, which drew on her days as a kept woman and a plumed and spangled London showgirl. She took up with Ford, moving in with him and his artist wife, forming an ultimately disastrous ménage à trois which became the basis for her first novel: Quartet is a bitter and angry roman-à-clef, published in 1928 and largely ignored (one reviewer said “It certainly makes one think on the inadvisability of solving every problem by getting drunk”).
By 1930, she’d returned to London and married a literary agent who put up with her alcoholic rages through a combination of love and a belief in her genius. The next few years saw the publication of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and Voyage in the Dark, both featuring the (autobiographical) Rhysian woman at different hopeless life-stages. Neither book was a success, dealing as they did with underdog women left to fade on the fringes of society by an uncaring world (in 1931 she wrote to a friend, “I’m always being told that until my work ceases being ‘sordid and depressing’ I haven’t much chance of selling”).
After the publication of Good Morning, Midnight in 1939, and the outbreak of World War II, she ceased to write. Over the next 25 years Rhys was widowed, upped her booze intake to a bottle of whisky a day, remarried, moved to a mouldy rooming house in south London, brawled with the neighbours, was arrested for assault and sent to Holloway Prison for a week (an experience she put into an astonishingly moving story called ‘Let Them Call it Jazz’), and disappeared to rural Cornwall. So successful was her role as recluse that she was widely believed (among those who knew of her existence in the first place) to be dead. Her novels, never great sellers, fell out of print.
In 1949, the actress Selma Vaz Dias placed an advertisement for information concerning her whereabouts in order to obtain permission to adapt Good Morning, Midnight for a BBC radio play, but it was not until 1957 that this project came to fruition. Literary London again took note. Word came out, via Vaz Dias, that Rhys was working on a new novel. Francis Wyndam, critic and long time supporter of Rhys's work, immediately got her a publishing contract. She said it would be ready in nine months. It took nine years.
Rhys, now resident in a clapboard bungalow in a remote Devon village perpetually shrouded in drizzle, wrote and exhaustively rewrote what would became her most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea. The success of this haunting tale of Jane Eyre's Mr Rochester and his first wife, of love and betrayal in the languid heat of the tropics, brought her a CBE, a little bit of cash and a lot of belated recognition. She was befriended professionally by Sonia Orwell and Diana Athill, and socially by George and Diana Melly, who paid for her booze and trips to London. Her only comment on this merry-go-round was: “It’s come too late.” Old habits die hard, and her paranoia, insecurities and drinking were trusted sanctuaries she had no intention of emerging from. She died, aged 88, in 1979.
Jean Rhys once wrote: “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” It's a pity she never found hers.
Jean Rhys Biography with reference to Dominica.
Detailed overview of Jean Rhys's life and works