Now in her thirties and living in Paris, Rhys came upon Ford Madox Ford who became like a mentor to her. He encouraged her to write and it was in fact Ford who gave her the name Jean Rhys. She wrote her first book in 1927, a collection of short stories called The Left Bank, and finally it seemed Rhys had found somewhere she belonged. Unfortunately, this was short lived; Rhys’ relationship with Ford and his mistress became intimate, then complicated and strained. She returned to England where she married her second husband, literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith, who helped her find publishers for her novels. However Rhys’ career never really took off in the way she hoped it would.
Following a third failed marriage, Rhys disappeared into the background, in fact many assumed she had died. However in 1957, now living in Cornwall, she was contacted by Francis Wyndham, a literary agent interested in gaining publishing rights to a novel she had started writing back in 1939. It was another 8 years before 76 year old Rhys would complete ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the novel that became her greatest and most acknowledged work. It was inspired by and written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’. The title, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, refers to the portion of the Atlantic Ocean that separates England and the West Indies. The story begins in Jamaica after the 1833 Emancipation Act, and is a more sympathetic portrayal of the Creole madwoman, Bertha, first wife of Mr Rochester in Brontë’s novel. ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ won Jean Rhys the Royal Society of Literature and W.H. Smith awards in 1966. She was finally being given the credit she deserved, but for Jean Rhys it had “come too late”. Rhys was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966 and awarded a CBE in 1978.