Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother. She came to England when she was sixteen and then drifted into a series of jobs--chorus girl, mannequin, artist's model--after her father died.
She began to write when the first of her three marriages broke up. She was in her thirties by then, and living in Paris, where she was "discovered" by Ford Madox Ford, who also discovered D. H. Lawrence. Ford wrote an enthusiastic introduction to her first book in 1927, a collection of stories called The Left Bank. Rhys's next book, Quartet, was based on her experience with Ford and his wife, when she was his mistress. It is a scathing book with a wonderful introduction by Ford himself, which seems neither ironical nor tongue-in-cheek in tone. In any case, he helped launch her career as a writer. This was followed by After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). None of these books was particularly successful, perhaps because they were decades ahead of their time in theme and tone, dealing as they did with women as underdogs, exploited and exploiting their sexuality.
With the outbreak of war and subsequent failure of Good Morning,
Midnight, the books went out of print and Jean Rhys
literally dropped completely from sight. It was generally thought that she was dead. Nearly twenty years later she was
rediscovered, largely due to the enthusiasm of the writer Francis Wyndham. She was living reclusively in Cornwall, and during those years had accumulated the stories collected in Tigers are Better-Looking. In 1966 she made a sensational reappearance with Wide Sargasso Sea, which won the Royal Society of Literature Award and the W. H. Smith Award in 1966, her only comment on the latter being that "It has come too late." Her final collection of stories, Sleep It Off Lady, appeared in 1976 and Smile Please, her unfinished autobiography, was published posthumously in 1979. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966 and a CBE in 1978.
Wide Sargasso Sea is probably Rhys's most famous book. It's a fictional account of the fictional character Berthe Rochester in Jane Eyre -- Mr. Rochester's mad wife, who was born in the West Indies. Rhys herself was born in the West Indies, and died in some cold small beach town in England.
Rhys often wrote about women -- in various stages of their lives --
living hand to mouth in London or Paris. The women are always on the economic
edge, needing money, receiving cash and clothes from men, drinking, sitting
in cafes, and endlessly walking. The books are very spare, stark, unsentimental,
Jean Rhys, described by A. Alvarez as "one of the finest British writers of this century," died in 1979.
Some themes to consider:
Colonialism - Because Antoinette was
of Creole descent, her family was exiled in their own society by the Carribean
inhabitants who considered themselves to be the true natives of the islands. The tension between the black and white
cultures was prominent not only in Antoinette's childhood but it carried over into her marriage when her husband's British
influence held an aura of ethnocentric superiority.
Sanity - Antoinette's mental condition
arose out of her disassociation with identity; she did not know where she
the society that called her an outcast. Her disillusionment may have resulted partially from her mother's unstable example
and thus became a precursor to her eventual downfall in being deemed insane. Her husband's disinterest and disrespect
for the marital bond that came to exist primarily in Antoinette's mind was the catalyst for her mental break down.
Dreams - Antoinette has a series of
dreams which relate to the her state of mind and her associations between
fantasy. These dreams can be regarded as a psycho-sexual path to her mentality. Antoinette's reality is based in Jamaica,
and her dreams are set in England. Her experiences prove that there is no reality for her in the cardboard world of
Hatred and Evil - Antoinette learns,
through her experiences in her life in Jamaica, and later in her life with
her husband in
England, that there is no escaping the hatred of those around you and the threats of evil that this prevailing hatred
imposes. From the time of her youth, she had experienced random acts of hatred. This was exemplified by the time her
home was set on fire, and her former friend, Tia's, reaction to this event, and Antoinette's need for reassurance. For
Antoinette, there was no kind past to look back on, and no hopes of future salvation.
For a working bibliography (a partial list of books and articles) of Wide Sargasso Sea click here.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a re-telling of a part of Jane Eyre.
How has Rhys changed the story? What themes are the same? What are different?
Can the story be read independently of Jane Eyre? How does having
read the Brontë novel affect reading the Rhys novel?
Rhys changes the name of her novel's main character (Antoinette Cosway) from that which was used in Jane Eyre (Bertha Mason). Why? Does she change the character in other ways?
Some critics have addressed Rhys' novel as "pioneer in addressing the difficulties faced by a single woman in a male-dominated society." Does she raise an issue we have not seen? In what ways is her presentation different from others we have examined?
Other critics have argued that the novel questions the definition of the word "primitive" in classifying English and Caribbean culture. What do you think they mean?
Early in her career Rhys was part of the Modernist movement. What
influences of Modernism do we see in this novel?
How does Rhys' work compare with that of Virginia Woolf? How is it