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Jean Rhys
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, essayist
Genres modernism

Jean Rhys (August 24, 1890 – May 14, 1979), born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was a mid 20th century Dominica novelist. She is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, written as a "prequel" to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.[1]


Early life

Jean Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams (Lockhart family), was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scottish ancestry.

Jean Rhys was educated at the Convent School and moved to England when she was sixteen, sent there to live with her "starchy" aunt, Clarice. She attended the Perse School for girls where she was made fun of because of her accent and outsider status, Cambridge (1907–08) and spent two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London (1909) where they despaired of her ever being able to speak what they considered "proper English" and advised her father to take her away. Unable to train as an actress and refusing to return to the Caribbean, as her parents wished, she chose to work with varied success as a chorus girl, adopting the names Vivienne, Emma or Ella Gray.[2]

After her father died in 1910 Rhys drifted into the demi-monde. Having fallen in love with a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith (1870–1941), she became his mistress; but though Smith was a bachelor he did not offer marriage and their affair was ended within two years, though he continued to be an occasional source of financial help. Distraught both by the end of the affair and by the experience of a near-fatal abortion (not Lancelot Smith's child), Rhys began writing an account which later became the basis of her novel Voyage In The Dark.[2] In need of money, she posed nude for a British artist, probably William Orpen, in 1913.

During World War I, Jean Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918 she worked in a pension office.

In 1919 Rhys married the French-Dutch adventurous journalist, spy and songwriter Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet ps. Eduard le Nève, (1890–1961), the first of her three husbands.[2] She lived with him, in 1920–22, in a rootless wandering life in Europe, mainly in London, Paris and Vienna. They had two children, a son who died three weeks after his birth and a daughter, Maryvonne, born in 1922. At this time Maryvonne's parents were unable to support her and were forced to leave her for some time in care, a solution Rhys felt was distressing but preferable to adoption.[2]

In the meantime she had continued to write, for her own satisfaction. In 1924 her work was introduced to English writer Ford Madox Ford and they met in Paris, Rhys thereafter writing short stories under his patronage. Ford praised her "singular instinct for form" and recognized at once that her outsider status gave her a unique viewpoint: "Coming from the Antilles’, he declared, ‘with a terrifying insight and … passion for stating the case of the underdog, she has let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World" (J. Rhys, The Left Bank, 1927, 24).[2] At that time her husband was in jail for eight months for what Rhys described as currency irregularities: Rhys moved in with Ford and his longtime partner, Stella Bowen and an affair with Ford quickly ensued.

During the period she was in Paris she lived a meager existence, while familiarising herself with modern art and literature and acquiring the alcoholism that would persist throughout the rest of her life. The resentment of a patriarchal society and feelings of displacement which Rhys experienced during this period of her life would eventually form some of the most important themes in her work.

Her first collection of stories, The Left Bank and Other Stories, was published in 1927. Her first novel, Postures, published in 1928, is a classical version of the fate of the innocent, helpless victim who does not have control of her own life. The book is considered to be an account of Rhys’ affair with Ford Madox Ford.

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, published in 1930, was the story of Julia Martin, for whom poverty is a way to hide her need of love and security. She has been left by her companion, Mr. Mackenzie, to live in a cheap hotel, where she talks to herself. In Voyage in the Dark, published in 1934, the portrayal of the mistreated, rootless woman continued. In Good Morning, Midnight, published in 1939, Rhys used a modified stream-of-consciousness technique to portray the consciousness of an aging woman.

In the 1940s, Rhys all but disappeared from public view, eventually being traced to 3 Landboat Bungalows, Cheriton Fitzpaine, in Devon. But it was after that long retirement, when she published her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966, that Rhys emerged as a significant literary figure. With Wide Sargasso Sea she won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys returned again to the theme of dominance and dependence, ruling and being ruled, through the relationship between a self-assured European man and a powerless woman. Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch’s publishing house helped return Rhys’s work to a wider audience and was responsible for choosing to publish Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jean Rhys died on May 14, 1979, in Exeter, England, before completing her autobiography. In 1979, the incomplete text appeared posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Selected bibliography


Rhys's collected papers and ephemera are housed in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections and University Archives.


  1. ^ Modjeska, Drusilla (1999). Stravinsky's Lunch. Sydney: Picador. ISBN 0 330 36259 3. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Carr, Helen (2004). "Williams, Ella Gwendoline Rees (1890–1979)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

External links

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