Unheard Voices: Jean Rhys beyond ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’

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It would not be an understatement to say that the early writings of Jean Rhys have been partially obscured by the momentous legacy of Wide Sargasso Sea. Abounding with intertextuality and deeply enmeshed within a rich literary tradition, it is difficult to study Wide Sargasso Sea without Jane Eyre as a point of reference, and equally challenging to discuss Jean Rhys in isolation from Charlotte Brontë. Known by some of her contemporaries as a cantankerous alcoholic and hermit, Jean Rhys’s authorial voice and identity remain nebulous and multifaceted. However, we can infer that Rhys’s high-profile literary friendships and postcolonial upbringing were pivotal forces that characterised the trajectory of her literary career, especially her early work.

Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams to a Welsh doctor and a Dominican Creole mother who originated from a slave-owning plantation family,  Rhys’s childhood in Dominica was embroiled with a keen sense of being an outsider. In 1908, Rhys briefly attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and afterwards she worked as a chorus girl around the UK. Raised as an English speaker in a Creole-French speaking population, but mocked in Britain for her accent, this duality of exclusion and loneliness would later come to the forefront in her novels, notably Voyage in the Dark, which describes the descent of a struggling chorus girl from the West Indies into the demi-monde of London, and her difficulty adjusting to the harsh injustice and hypocrisy of society .

Rhys’s meeting with Ford Madox Ford in Paris in 1924 marked a watershed in her writing career, symbolised by her abandonment of her birth name in favour of the pen name Jean Rhys.  Under his literary patronage, Rhys produced a collection of short stories titled The Left Bank and Other Stories, mostly set in France but also in the Carribean, drawing heavily on autobiographical elements. Most strikingly, the stories Vienne and Hunger paint vivid pictures of the dissolution of relationships and the struggle to forge an identity in a new city. 

In a similarly autobiographical vein, Rhys published her first novel Quartet in 1928, fictionalising her love affair with Ford. Featuring the recurring themes of financial dependence and the commercialisation of the body, the novel depicts an outsider on the fringe of society lacking agency and independence. This is echoed in her 1930 novel After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, which is likewise set in Paris and featuring a penniless female heroine grappling with loneliness and alcoholism. 

this duality of exclusion and loneliness would later come to the forefront in her novels

Clearly, the period between 1928 and 1939 was highly prolific for Jean Rhys, but the critical reception of her work was relatively underwhelming. Her 1939 novel Good Morning Midnight was lamented and deemed repellent by critics for being too bleak. Shortly after the novel’s publication, Rhys ceased writing for over a decade until the actress Selma Vas Diaz adapted the novel for BBC Radio in 1957. In doing so, according to Rhys, Diaz “lifted the numb hopeless feeling” she had felt during her writer’s block.   Throughout her final years, Rhys worked on Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography which was published posthumously in 1979. Comprised of various childhood recollections, Rhys details the complex race relations of her hometown. Her obituary, written by David Holloway, describes her as ‘supremely the voice of the lonely woman crying in pain’, reflecting the sense of estrangement she felt from childhood to adulthood. It is up to the reader and the critic to define their own perception of Rhys’s voice, and I will end with a very fitting quote from Quartet that embodies the importance of the literary in her life: “Not that she objected to solitude. Quite the contrary. She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.”

Photo: Andrew Neel via Unsplash

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