Adventures in Feministory: Jean Rhys

In her autobiography, Jean Rhys writes that it is “idiotic to be curious about the person” when talking about a writer’s writing. Despite this, Elaine Savory comments in her book on Rhys’s writing that thinking about the author’s race, class, nationality, gender, and religion can help us to understand the context in which she came to write stories that were “capable of capturing opposing readings of the world.” In other words, knowing a little bit about Rhys’s life and identity can help us to understand her distinctive literary acheivements.

Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams was born in 1890 on the Lesser Antilles island nation of Dominica, to a father who was a Welsh immigrant and a mother who was a member of a powerful white Creole family of Scottish ancestry. White people were a minority in Dominica, with French and British colonial control changing over time. In 1783, Britain officially took over until independence in 1978. Rhys’s childhood experience of both the racism of colonial British control and the resistance to the colonial system by indigenous Dominicans and former slaves of African ancestry made a marked impression on her which would later appear in her writings.

Rhys left Dominica at 16 to study in England. Despite her Welsh and Scottish ancestry, her childhood years on Dominica had been formative to her identity and she felt herself somewhat of an outsider for the rest of her life in Europe. After she finished secondary school in Cambridge she attempted to study theatre in London, but was kicked out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art because of her West Indian accent, deemed unacceptable for a proper English actress.

Following this event, Rhys’s life was marked by harsh circumstances. She was a chorus girl for a short spell and, later, reportedly became a prostitute for a period. She married three times, spent a brief stint in prison, and suffered a complicated abortion paid for by an ex-lover. Her first child died shortly after she gave birth to him. Her second child, Maryvonne, became involved with the Nazi Resistance in Belgium and went missing during WWII. Rhys was an alcoholic and a depressive for most of her life. Seemingly one of the only fortuitous things to happen in her life was meeting writer Ford Madox Ford in 1924. The two had an affair, but more significantly, it was Ford who encouraged her talent as a writer and gave her the pen name Jean Rhys.

In 1966, when Rhys was 76 years old, her novel Wide Sargasso Sea was published. The novel, a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, is told from the perspective of the Caribbean Creole “madwoman in the attic” who was Mr. Rochester’s first wife. It was only after writing a number of other novels and short stories over the course of more than 40 years that Rhys was finally widely recognized for her literary talent and dedication to the craft of writing. Her editor, who worked with her on Wide Sargasso Sea, highlights the difficulty of Rhys’ life saying, “It is impossible to describe briefly the burdens inflicted on her by poverty, loneliness…It remains a mystery how someone so ill-equipped for life, upon whom life had visited such tribulations, could force herself to hang on, whatever the battering she was taking, to the artists at the centre of herself.”  Although Rhys never considered herself to be a feminist, her creative legacy is an enduring contribution to feminist, post-colonial, and post-modern literature.  In her writing she was able to  portray a few multilayered voices from the kinds of characters who have so often been excluded from narrating their own stories in the English literary canon.

by Lisa Knisely
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Lisa Knisely holds a PhD in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and is an assistant professor of the liberal arts in Portland, Oregon. One of her most cherished pastimes is reading feminist philosophy with a cappuccino.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

I love Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys was a really talented woman, while best known for WSS, she did write other stories, mostly short stories, I have a copy somewhere of them, but I think they're out of print. I can't Bronte or Jane Eyre, but I really took to WSS, seeing a stage version of it by Shared Experience theatre company, which immersed you in Rhys' world of Colonial Caribbean culture. Her life was quite sad, and the production mixed her existence with that of the first Mrs Rochester, comparing their upbringings and their tragedies. Worth checking out if you can get a copy of the script or see a production.

Just Brilliant

Rhys was and is a brilliant writer, but sometimes better taken in small bites since her writing is so depressing. Her prose is brilliant. Thank you for posting and writing this. I find she does not get a lot of space or recognition that she should get as a writer.

Her works are readily available as collected novels and short stories (which I have read very little) in paperback whether new or used, but it has been a while since I looked. Finding hardcovers may be a little more difficult but I dug for a while. There are also two biographies as well as an incomplete autobiography, Smile, Please.

Just thank you for making more people aware of her.

I LOVE that I read this

I LOVE that I read this article, went to my library's website to place a hold on the book, and found myself a few names down on the waiting list. I guess there are a few Bitch readers in the library system :-) (Surprisingly, this is the first I have ever heard of it, and lately I am fascinated with Caribbean stories, histories and the complicated social identities there - my dad is from Barbados, emigrated to Canada as a young man).

Feminisim is the most

Feminisim is the most respected!!

The Left Bank

If you can find it 'The Left Bank' is the best collection of short stories I've ever read. Discovered Jean Rhys at NYU and have loved the stories and novels ever since. FYI Ford Madox Ford is a terrible writer compared to Rhys. So even though he discovered her, she's the real talent. So if you can start with the stories and move to the novels you won't be disappointed. Huge amount of talent. Pay no attention to the individual life. Author was right about that. Happy reading!

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