Authors: Jean Rhys

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist


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.{$I[AN]9810000869}{$I[A]Rhys, Jean}{$S[A]Williams, Ella Gwendolen Rees;Rhys, Jean}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Rhys, Jean}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Rhys, Jean}{$I[tim]1894;Rhys, Jean}

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.

BibliographyAngier, Carole. Jean Rhys. New York: Viking, 1985. A biography of Rhys that treats her fiction as essentially autobiographical. Far from being seen as a feminist, Rhys is presented as an intensely lonely individualist and solipsist without a program or external loyalties. Her lifelong attempt to understand herself was governed by a tragic and pessimistic view of human nature and the world.Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. This monumental work of Rhys scholarship combines detailed biographical study with sections devoted to interpretations of the fiction. Unfortunately, chapters specifically examining the short stories were deleted due to length considerations. The book contains voluminous notes and an extensive bibliography.Bender, Todd, ed. Literary Impressionism in Jean Rhys, Ford Maddox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and Charlotte Brontë. New York: Garland, 1997. Looks at Ford as a fulcrum between the literary impressionism of Conrad and Rhys as writers who “rewrote” nineteenth century novels in a twentieth century sensibility.Davidson, Arnold E. Jean Rhys. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. Drawing heavily on a number of critical sources, Davidson supports a feminist interpretation of the texts and provides a useful approach to the major works, including the stories.Emery, Mary Lou. “Refiguring the Postcolonial Imagination: Tropes of Visuality in Writing by Rhys, Kincaid, and Cliff.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 16 (Fall, 1997): 259-280. Emery uses one of Rhys’s novels to illustrate a dialectical relationship of the European means of visualization and image-making in postcolonial literatures. Discusses Rhys’s use of the rhetorical device of ekphrasis, the use of language to create a spatial image.Frickey, Pierette, ed. Critical Perspectives on Jean Rhys. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1990. A collection of essays.Gregg, Veronica Marie. Jean Rhys’s Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Emphasizes Rhys’s Caribbean heritage.James, Louis. Jean Rhys. London: Longman, 1978. Although concentrating on Wide Sargasso Sea, James provides a good short introduction to Rhys’s life and work.Kineke, Sheila. “‘Like a Hook Fits an Eye’: Jean Rhys, Ford Maddox Ford, and the Imperial Operations of Modernist Mentoring.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 16 (Fall, 1997): 281-301. Discusses how fatalism, submission, and masochism of Rhys’s main female characters are a side effect of the female condition in white Western culture and specifically of the operation of male mentorship by Ford Madox Ford.Lonsdale, Thorunn. “Literary Allusion in the Fiction of Jean Rhys.” In Caribbean Women Writers, edited by Mary Condé and Thorunn Lonsdale. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Discusses the many critically neglected, intertextual references to nineteenth and twentieth century European and American literature in her novels and short stories. Discusses such stories as “Again the Antilles” and “Let Them Call It Jazz.”Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander, and David Malcolm. Jean Rhys: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996. This book makes up for what Angier’s biography–and most critical assessments of Rhys–lacks. After a section devoted to their assessment of Rhys’s short fiction, the Malcolms provide a chapter on Rhys’s own views of herself–conveyed in excerpts from her letters and an interview–and conclude with a section that reprints a wide range of critical opinion about Rhys’s fiction.Maurel, Sylvie. Jean Rhys. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Examines Rhys’s writings through the frames of feminist criticism and literary theory, while providing close readings of the texts and of their language.Morrell, A. C. “The World of Jean Rhys’s Short Stories.” World Literature Written in English 18 (1979): 235-244. Rhys’s stories are seen as having a unity of vision achieved through the expression of a consistent center of consciousness and sensibility no matter what the narrative point of view. Critical analysis is provided and demonstrates that Rhys’s stories can be categorized as either episodes or completed experiences.Pizzichini, Lilian. The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009. Rhys’ mostly unhappy life is depicted in this biography, which sheds light on her three marriages, her experiences as a mother, and her love affair with Ford Maddox Ford. From her childhood in the West Indies to her death in 1979, Pizzichini traces the highs and lows of Rhys’ life, including her days as a chorus girl and a prostitute, and her struggle with alcoholism and depression. Includes twenty photos. Savory, Elaine. Jean Rhys. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A critical reading of Rhys’s work, drawing on previously unpublished sources.Thomas, Sue. The Worlding of Jean Rhys. Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Considers Rhys’s work as an “autoethnography,” emphasizing her Creole background.Wolfe, Peter. Jean Rhys. Boston: Twayne, 1980. This book, part of a widely available critical series, contains errors in chronology, questionable judgments, and some oddly off-center writing. Rhys is viewed as a meliorist out to civilize and improve relations between the sexes. The long chapter on the short stories should, as with much of the rest of this book, be approached with caution.
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