In his introduction to The Left Bank by Jean Rhys (rees), Ford Madox Ford captured the essence of all Rhys’s work when he wrote that she had a “passion for stating the case of the underdog.” Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in Roseau, in the West Indies, on August 24, 1894. Rhys’s mother, Minna Lockhart, was a white West Indian whose grandfather had been a Dominican slaveholder. Rhys’s empathy for outcasts appears to have originated in her childhood. First, the young Rhys was aware of the tense relationship between blacks and whites in Dominica and of the disesteemed position that her great-grandfather had held. Her complicated feelings about her own relationships with blacks resulted in the creation of fictional relationships such as that between Anna and her black nurse, Francine, in Voyage in the Dark. Second, like Julie in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Rhys believed that her mother preferred Rhys’s younger sister. She remembered her father, a doctor, however, as acting caring toward her. Another event which had a tragic effect upon Rhys was her molestation as a young girl, an episode which she fictionalized in the short story “Good-bye Marcus, Good-bye Rose.” Finally, even though her family was Anglican, Rhys was also influenced by Catholicism, as she was sent to a convent for schooling.
In 1907 Rhys left Dominica for England and eventually became a chorus girl. She stopped acting when she had her first love affair. Devastated when the relationship ended, Rhys found solace in keeping a diary, which later became the basis for Voyage in the Dark. In 1919 she married Jean Lenglet, a Dutch-French journalist, and they moved to Paris. In 1923 Rhys met writer and editor Ford Madox Ford, who created her pen name, Jean Rhys. Rhys’s first published story, “Vienne,” appeared in Ford’s magazine, The Transatlantic Review, in December, 1924. Meanwhile, Rhys’s husband was convicted of illegal entry into France, and during his imprisonment, Rhys became Ford’s lover. When her affair with Ford ended, Rhys began the novel Postures, a fictionalized account of her relationship with Ford. This first novel, published in 1928, is viewed by many critics as Rhys’s most unsuccessful work because she failed to achieve authorial objectivity. Rhys returned to England in 1927 and was divorced from Lenglet in 1932.
Rhys published After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie in 1930, Voyage in the Dark in 1934, and Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. She wrote little during World War II and did not publish again until March, 1966, when Wide Sargasso Sea appeared. In March, 1979, Rhys broke her hip, and on May 14, 1979, she died in the hospital in Exeter. She was survived by her daughter, Maryvonne Lenglet Moerman.
In her novels and short stories Jean Rhys created detailed portraits of women who live marginal existences, outside conventional society. Embodying her work is a pessimistic view of a world in which the individual is isolated from others, trapped by fate, and possessed of little free will. At best, the individual can only hope to survive. Some critics have sought to explain this stark view of reality in Rhys’s work by using feminist, Marxist, or psychoanalytical theories.
Although Rhys basically dealt with the same subject–women who are alone–in all her work, the intensity and vividness of her writing resulted in the creation of characters who are believable and themes which are enduring. One constant theme is rejection and loss. For the protagonists, love and happiness are remembered as brief and evanescent moments in childhood. As adults, the protagonists seek to regain love, but it is impossible. The women become victims of love and, consequently, experience disgrace. Connected to this theme are motifs of loneliness and isolation. Rhys’s female protagonist often lacks a real home, lives alone in a single room, and drifts from one boardinghouse to another. This existence emphasizes the purposelessness of the heroine’s life.
Furthermore, any meaning that the Rhys heroine can find for her existence is often based on her brief relationships with men. Ironically, these relationships allow the protagonist to break out of her isolation and momentarily experience some happiness; yet inevitably, when the men end the relationship, the woman is powerless so that she can do nothing but return to a room to be alone. Rhys also shows men to be emotional victims, unable to reveal themselves and form lasting relationships. Still, at the end of Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys suggests that the human need for closeness with another person is so great that humiliation and failure in relationships will continue to be risked.
In her last and most critically acclaimed novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys explains how the madwoman in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) became locked in the attic. For Rhys, the madwoman in the attic, like the outcast alone in a room, has a story to tell. The story reveals that labels, such as “mad,” often hide and distort who people really are.
When Rhys’s first five books were published, they were enjoyed by a small audience. When she did not publish anything in the 1940’s, her books went out of print. In 1958, however, a radio broadcast of Good Morning, Midnight regenerated interest in her work, and by 1973, all Rhys’s earlier novels had been reissued. Even with so much success, Rhys is still not appreciated by some critics. The main criticism against her work is that each book is essentially the same story, filled with unremitting pessimism and helpless women who contribute to their own victimization. Overall, appreciation for Rhys’s work exists among a small but growing public and critical audience. What is often admired, besides her commitment to the “underdog,” is her spare but forceful writing style, which suits the subject matter of her work; this unity of content and form results in powerful works of art.