Biography: Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys as a young woman
Jean Rhys as a young woman

Jean Rhys, when she’s recognized at all, is most widely recognized for her book Wide Sargasso Sea. It was written as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Rhys’ book describes the tragic life of Antoinette Cosway, a wealthy heiress from the Dominica. Manipulated into marrying the young, fortune-less Mr. Rochester from Bronte’s novel, Antoinette is forced by English law to hand her inheritance over to him. She slowly loses her mind amidst the political and social unrest in her not-quite-native Dominica and her daily domestic insecurity. She’s pulled between the advice of her longtime caretaker Christophine and her growing, but confused, love for Mr. Rochester. After he sleeps with the housekeeper in the room next to hers, Antoinette never really recovers. Mr. Rochester feels obligated to bring her back to England with him, like livestock or any other possession. Then he locks her in a room with only Grace Poole allowed to interact with her while he travels about Europe, womanizing and wasting her fortune. When he begins his relationship with Jane Eyre under the same roof, Antoinette–now known as Bertha Mason–is driven to fulfill an insane fantasy of dying in a fire.

The novel’s post-colonial, feminist overtones are very accessible, and as I understand it, the book is widely read by lit majors. But Rhys’ fiction–she wrote four novels, including Wide Sargasso Sea, as well as many short stories and an unfinished autobiography–was also autobiographical to a very high degree. I couldn’t help but read it and wonder how much of Antoinette’s ambivalence about living in Dominica, how much of her insecurity about her identity as a white woman whose family was losing its privilege in a country populated by poor freed black slaves, reflected Rhys’ own struggle  to understand who she was without being able to either to identify herself as native to either Dominica or England.

I hadn’t heard of Jean Rhys until I went to the Green Valley Book Fair and found a copy of her complete novels for ninety-nine cents. Four books for a buck? Yes, please! When I finally started reading Voyage in the Dark, I knew I would fall in love with her writing. I wished I had been reading her instead of Henry Miller as the foil to all my romantic failures while I was an expat in Taiwan.

Jean Rhys as an older woman
Jean Rhys as an older woman

Rhys was born in Dominica in or around 1890. When her parents died, she was sent off to a resentful aunt in England. She finished school, studied theater, and proceeded to get herself into all kinds of trouble with interesting men. Through it all, and inspired by love’s painful ebb and flow, she wrote beautiful books about sad women who survived by depending on men but couldn’t find lasting love and security.

I think the most tragic thing about her is how long she was overlooked. She began writing in the 1920s and continued through the 30s, but by the 40s she had fallen out of the public consciousness. Finally, when Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, she gained the fame she had earned. She enjoyed it in her sad, helpless way until her death in 1979. According to David Plante, the man who helped her compose her unfinished autobiography and a friend to her during her last years of life, she drank too much and spoke masterfully about writing until the end of her days.

I love her books because I can relate to them to a degree. I’ve always felt more like love’s victim than it’s master, and I’ve traveled so much, as a child and an adult, that I can never feel entirely at home. I’ve also used clothes and wine and nice things to buffer myself against a cold world. But I really love how she wrote with a beautiful intensity that someone like Henry Miller, another favorite expat of mine, couldn’t achieve for all his fervent masculinity.

“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.” -Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight

“Of course, as soon as a thing has happened it isn’t fantastic any longer, it’s inevitable. The inevitable is what you’re doing or have done. The fantastic is simply what you didn’t do. That goes for everybody.” -Jean Rhys, Voyage in The Dark

It’s a little weird to include Jean Rhys in the list of people I think are inspiring. Her writing is beautiful, but she didn’t write out of love as much as pain, like many artists seem to do. She wasn’t a channel for her muse, she was more of a victim to it. But she did write, and wrote well, bringing purpose to her own pain and helping other people understand theirs. I’d want as much for myself one day.

“When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy, Do you think anyone has? I think you can be peaceful for a long time, When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down . I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes.” -Jean Rhys

“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”  -Jean Rhys to David Plante in Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three

Here’s a video from Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert that touches upon the idea of the artist being tortured by their muses and how maybe in our society we shouldn’t expect that or think it’s acceptable. What do you think? What’s the difference between a writer like Mindy Kaling and a writer like Jean Rhys. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *