The writer Jean Rhys was born in Roseau in Dominica. Her father, a doctor, hailed originally from Wales and her mother, a West Indian, was a creole. Rhys came to England during World War I when she was sixteen where she met and fell in love with a poet from Holland. They travelled the Continent together, living for long periods in Paris and Vienna.
Jean Rhys first book ‘The Left Bank’ was published in 1927. Containing sketches of life lived on the Left Bank in Paris the book has a preface by her mentor and possible lover, Ford Maddox Ford. Ford, author of ‘The Good Soldier’, was quick to spot what he refers to in his preface as Rhys ‘singular instinct for form.’ It’s likely that he was more than just a patron since in her next book ‘Quartet’, Rhys’ portrait of the dilettante H.J. Heidler would appear to be based on Ford and the novels that Rhys wrote following this publication, ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’, ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ and ‘A Voyage In The Dark’ contain portraits of women caught between circumstances as it were – women who drift into relationships with men and drift out again and then find themselves on the margins dependent on alcohol or prostitution or, worse, abortion.
In Rhys’ novels, women are continually hostages to fortune usually for monetary reasons either because they have no money of their own or because they are dependent on some man or other to keep them. Usually they fall foul of the law through ignorance and end up drinking too much or prostituting themselves to make the money needed to pay the rent.
In one of Rhys’ best short stories ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ the protagonist arrives into England and rents a room only to find herself held to ransom by the landlord who asks her for a month’s rent in advance – something that she is only told about after she moves in. When she tells him she doesn’t have the money, she is told she has to move out again. Subsequently picked up she finds herself dependent on charity and spending what money she has on alcohol to blot out the reality of her circumstances – all that she has is a song and even that is taken from her at the end.
Rhys’ novels are a learning curve for the women who inhabit them and mostly they learn the hard way that money does indeed matter and that without it women are totally dependent on others for their existence. Rhys’ renderings of women who drift through life without any foundations are brilliantly realized by a writer who introduces the reader to the complex world of women who have no place in society or who only manage to survive by allowing themselves to be put upon by others who would deny them a status in life.
Despite the fact that most of Rhys’ novels were written in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, they still manage to retain a contemporary feel. Women who depend on men for a living and women whose only escape from enslavement is through sex, alcohol or drugs. Jean Rhys’ psychological insight into the turmoil experienced by women is pivotal to the way her stories are told. In Jean Rhys’ novels when women suffer, they tend to suffer in isolation.
After Jean Rhys wrote these novels she disappeared and was for the most part forgotten. It was not until ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ was broadcast by the BBC in 1958 that she came to the public’s attention once more when she was ‘rediscovered’ living in Cornwall writing a collection of short stories and working on a novel.
Rhys was resurrected in the 1960s after she wrote ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – the Sargasso of the title refers to the weed that grows beneath the Atlantic where things that pass through become entangled in much the same way as the women in Rhys’ books become entangled. ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is Jean Rhys exploration of what happened to the first Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Rhys’ narrative shows a fantastic flight of the imagination when it comes to painting a portrait of a woman who is destroyed by marriage to the man who seeks to control her. In the novel Rhys brings together all of the powerful imagery that pervades her earlier work.
Jean Rhys’ work makes for a disturbing read for it challenges all of the reader’s sensibilities and confronts him/her with the reality of a woman’s situation where the miseries endured tend for the most part to go unnoticed.
Jean Rhys died in 1979. Her going was not easy. Old and fueled by alcohol, she became uncertain and suspicious about others at the end but it is that very quality in her work – that uncertainty and suspicion and insight into the human condition that makes Jean Rhys one of the finest women writers of this or any other century.