Forget old Dod Byron being mad, bad and dangerous to know, Jean Rhys would wipe the floor with him. Rhys is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, a “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre but with the emphasis on the sinister Mrs Rochester’s journey to madness. Set in the West Indies during the abolition of slavery the success of this novel gave Rhys, for the first time, financial security (she invested it in frocks, booze and make-up!) and a measure of fame.
Born in Dominica to a middle-class family, Rhys moved to England to finish her education and attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her impenetrable Caribbean accent scuppered her acting ambitions, so she became a chorus girl and later a kept mistress to Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, a wealthy stockbroker. This period of her life became the background for her second novel Voyage in the dark.
In 1919 she married Willem Lenglet, a Dutch journalist and spy, and together they led a ramshackle life on the outskirts of artistic society. Rhys had an affair with the writer Ford Madox Ford and he promoted her writing, introducing her collection of short stories The left bank. Her affair with Maddox and the collapse of her marriage became the subject matter for Quartet her first full novel.
The 1930s and 1940s saw Rhys publish two more novels, re-marry twice, drink steadily, fight spectacularly with her neighbours and enjoy a brief stay at her Majesty’s pleasure in Holloway Prison. What a girl!
Jean Rhys played the victim and outsider in her own life and used this victimhood as a central motif in her novels, but her novels are also shrewd examinations of power and society, and the harsh realities that await us all.
Rhys died in 1979 leaving an unfinished autobiograhy Smile please.