Jean Rhys

Cydonie Mothersill


  • Full Name

    Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams

  • Island


  • Date of Birth

    May 14th 1979

  • Place of Birth

    Roseau, Dominica

The life of Jean Rhys, born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, has certainly been a ‘fascinating’ read. Rhys was born in Dominica to a Welsh father and white Creole mother. She always had a somewhat distant relationship with her mother and it has been said that she spent her childhood searching for her mother’s love.

Rhys left her home country and went to England aged 16. She spent a short time in boarding school before deciding that she wanted to be an actress. Although accepted into the Academy of Dramatic Art, Rhys would not complete her degree. Being a Caucasian girl with a Dominican accent meant that she was at a disadvantage; her headteacher said that she would never get the best acting roles, so Rhys’ father pulled her out of the school. Refusing to give up, Jean Rhys decided to join chorus lines and travelling companies, taking small acting roles here and there. However, her acting career never really took off and after a failed relationship, Rhys succumbed to depression and became a victim of the streets. At this point, Jean Rhys turned to the one comfort she knew from her childhood, writing. 

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.

Many say her writing style was way ahead of its time, and so her books remained unappreciated, that is until ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Rhys experienced much pain in her life, constantly feeling alone, like she never belonged. Her life proved to be good writing material, however she still had to live it; and even when her talents began to be recognised, it was already too late, she had succumbed to the hurt that had come to define her. Jean Rhys passed away before completing her autobiography, ‘Smile Please’, which was published posthumously in 1979. From that it was evident that she never truly felt accepted or appreciated, such a shame as she has come to be known as a truly remarkable writer. A woman who will never know the impact her life had, a lost soul yearning for love, Jean Rhys, Caribbean1st absolutely salutes you.
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