Links: Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys (1890-1979) is my favorite author.

Eavesdrop on two accomplished writers as they discuss the relationship the then-married Jean Rhys had with writer Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen in Paris in the 1920s (1927?). All four went on to publish novels inspired by their tumultuous relationship(s).

It always baffles me that Jean Rhys was there with the Lost Generation–she was sleeping with her mentor, Ford, and she knew Ernest Hemingway and presumably met many other writers in artists in Ford’s network, which extended to “everyone”–but absent from books like Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation. Rhys doesn’t get so much as a footnote, but she was there.

Anyone who made it through high school in the States probably has read The Great Gatsby and at least one of Hemingway’s novels. Yet at the same time, critics have said that Rhys is as good or better Hemingway, but no one is reading her books or short stories.

I think sometimes people read Wide Sargasso Sea in college courses about colonialism, but not the others.

This article is enlightening in terms of the mystery of why Jean Rhys isn’t as well-known or celebrated as Hemingway and his peers from that era, although they all ran in the same circles: because she was a woman.

Ford genuinely liked Jean Rhys’s writing; in exchange for its publication she became his mistress simultaneously with Stella Bowen. Ford also liked Ernest Hemingway’s writing; in exchange for its publication he became a sub-editor of the Transatlantic Review.

Then Ford dumped her and cut her off financially.

Rhys published her first collection [of short stories] in 1927, and her first novel the following year. In the 1930s came three increasingly dark and accomplished novels, but the better she got, the less she was read. She published nothing for 20 years, until stories began appearing in the London Magazine in the early 1960s. In 1966, her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, brought her acclaim and a degree of financial security at the age of 76. Another two short-story collections appeared before her death in 1979. They include some of the best British short stories of the last century. [from A brief survey of the short story: Jean Rhys by Chris Power in The Guardian 14 April 2014]

Writer Paul Piazza in 1977 claimed of Rhys that “cleansed of any excess, her style is near perfect: not a scene, not a word, is wasted. Through a line of dialog or a mere sentence or two of description, Rhys compresses a life. The writer…is as swift and severe as strychnine.”

Tell me that doesn’t sound like something somebody would say about Hemingway’s writing? Yet I only came across Jean Rhys accidentally, just a few years ago, when I took a chance on her collected novels for $1 at a book fair in small-town Virginia. Not many readers have had even that much good luck and Rhys remains on the fringe.

I feel like ironically you have to already know about her if you want to seek her out, unless you find her four novels for $1 at a book fair.

And as far as I know, only her last novel Wide Sargasso Sea is available as an e-book. In my local library in the U.S., I couldn’t find any of her biographies, though I did find David Plante’s book “Difficult Women”: drunk, elderly Jean Rhys is the first accomplished female intellectual he profiled. Shame.

  • The prime of Miss Jean Rhys by Vanessa Thorpe in The Guardian (01 October 2006): a brief introduction of Jean Rhys and her writing with news about Lilian Pizzichini’s The Blue Hour, a biography published that year. The BBC also made a movie of Wide Sargasso Sea that I haven’t seen.
  • Dominica’s Literary Hero by Thomson Fontaine in The, Volume No. 1 Issue No. 23
  • The voice of Jean Rhys, late in life, on YouTube
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, the movies, one from 1993 and one from 2006 on YouTube (I haven’t watched either of these–I am afraid they will just disappoint me! It’s not just the story that’s interesting, which is the best reason to make a book into a movie. But Jean Rhys is such a masterful writer–how can that be captured on film?)
  • The trailer for the movie Quartet, based on Jean Rhys’s novel of the same name (the story of her relationship with Ford Madox Ford)




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