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.