Jean Rhys: voyager in the dark

Gwen Williams never felt like she fit in — not in Dominica, where she was born and grew up, not in Britain, where she worked as an actress, not in Europe...

Jean Lenglet and Jean Rhys, circa 1920. Photograph by the Jean Rhys Papers, University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special CollectionsJean Rhys, circa 1930s. Photograph by the Jean Rhys Papers, University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special CollectionsLancelot Hugh Smith in 1913. Photograph by the Jean Rhys Papers, University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special CollectionsLeslie Tilden Smith, circa 1930s. Photograph by the Jean Rhys Papers, University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special CollectionsMax Hamer. Photograph by the Jean Rhys Papers, University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special CollectionsRhys at her cottage at Cheriton Fitzpaine. Photograph by the Jean Rhys Papers, University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special CollectionsRhys’s daughter Maryvonne. Photograph by the Jean Rhys Papers, University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections

On a cold spring day in 1847, Charlotte Brontë sits at her writing-desk
in her father’s parsonage. She looks out of the window, across the graveyard,
to the sodden, windy moorland of northern England. She is small and delicate
and serious, her dark hair tied loosely back behind her neck. She is 31,
and is struggling to finish her second novel.

It is a love story. Her heroine, the feisty Jane Eyre, is
engaged to Edward Rochester, the brusque and autocratic owner of Thornfield
Hall. But she can’t marry him, because Rochester is married already — to
a beautiful creole heiress from Jamaica, Bertha Mason, whose money he has
been living on. But nobody had told him about the madness in Bertha’s family.
Now she is locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall, guarded by the sinister
Grace Poole; she is tied up like an animal, howling and screeching, ready
to scratch and bite anyone who goes near her.

Charlotte sees at last how she will end the story. Bertha will get loose,
burn down Thornfield Hall, and die in the flames; Rochester will be cruelly
mutilated and blinded; but Jane Eyre will come back to love him and heal
him, his sight will partially return . . . Yes. She picks up her quill
pen and begins to write.

Ninety years later, in London, Jean Rhys reads Jane Eyre, which
she remembers from childhood. She is 49 now; she has published five books.
But her personal life is in chaos — “borderline personality disorder”, her
biographer will later conclude: that grey and desolate area between normal
functioning and psychic disability. She has spent years drifting in London
and Paris, she has become an alcoholic, and is subject to terrible rages
and depressions.

And Jane Eyre enrages her. Jean comes from the same white creole
background as Bertha Mason: established families of European descent, born
in the islands. She too feels locked in an attic of rage and madness, rejected
and unloved. She recognises Bertha’s fury. She has had her own experience
of English “gentlemen” like Rochester. She knows just how he would seize on
Bertha for her money, and would then drive her mad with his cold English ways.

Bertha is herself, Jean realises. Bertha’s experience is her own. Bertha
is the untold story of the Caribbean creole.
She knows she must write the real story of Bertha Mason: give her a human
voice and face, restore her dignity; show how a beautiful West Indian woman
is reduced to a snarling animal in an English attic.

Jean writes fast. But then she has a flaming row with her second husband,
who is typing the pages for her; she tears up the typescript and burns it.
Most of her handwritten manuscript is lost. For 18 years the idea stays
in her head until, in 1957, she starts again. It is the hardest book she
has ever written. It takes her nine years of work. But it turns out to be
her masterpiece: Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jean Rhys never meant to be a writer. When she was growing up in Roseau
a hundred years ago, she would have laughed at the thought that she would
write one of the great Caribbean novels, or be called “the best living English
novelist” in the New York Times. Like Bertha Mason, she just wanted
to be ordinary, safe, and happy.

And she was sometimes happy as she grew up in Dominica, that island
of vertical green mountains and fast-flowing rivers (not to be confused
with the Dominican Republic, several hundred miles to the north-west). Her
father was a well-liked doctor, a broad-minded Welshman who had only arrived
in the island in 1881. He lived in a two-storey house in the middle of Roseau
(it is still there, a guest-house now, though without the open verandah and
garden it once had).

Dr Rees Williams had bought a beautiful but unviable estate up in the mountains,
three hours’ ride from town. His wife Minna Lockhart was a Dominican creole
whose Scottish ancestor had arrived in 1824; her family also owned an estate,
near the coast. They had five children, the fourth of whom, born in 1890,
they named Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams, later to be known as Jean Rhys.

The white creole community in Dominica was small and introverted; the estates
were in decline. Living was comfortable, but the privilege of class and
colour had become a double-edged sword. And Gwen Williams felt somehow different,
an outsider among outsiders, not grounded anywhere. She was fairer in complexion
than her siblings, one of the few whites in her convent school. She felt
that black Dominicans “had a better time than we did, they laughed a lot
. . . they were more alive, more a part of the place than we were”. Yet she
was terrified of her own black nurse Meta (who told her that if she read
so many books her eyes would fall out). Meta, she wrote later, showed her
a world of “fear and distrust, and I am still in that world”.

Gwen Williams could be vivacious and attractive, but she could also be
shy and lonely, awkward and withdrawn. She devoured books and wrote secret
poems. “Fear and distrust” shadowed her. An infant sister died, plunging
her mother into a lasting coldness and grief. Gwen’s isolation became worse
when her youngest sister was born and her mother transferred all her love
to this latest arrival. Later, sexual abuse (involving a family friend) gave
Gwen further proof that she was wicked and unlovable.

Her father encouraged her to be herself; but her mother tried to make her
an English lady. Like everyone in the island’s small white society, she
romanticised England as a land of theatres and shops, “blazing coal fires
in winter . . . exotic food . . . strawberries and cream . . .”.

Naturally it was to England that a clever colonial young lady must go.
There was no further education in Dominica, nobody “suitable” for her to
marry. So in 1907, still 16, to England she went, firmly accompanied by
an aunt.

But England was anything but romantic. It was grey, wet, cold
and hostile. Everything bewildered her — trains, English plumbing, hockey,
riding a bicycle. She felt that everyone was laughing at her and excluding
her. The cold cramped box-houses seemed grotesque after the island houses
of the Caribbean. At her spartan school in Cambridge, the girls called her
“Hottentot”, “coon”, or “West Indies”, and found her accent hilarious.

Her accent was still a problem when she went on to drama school in 1909
— nothing could be done with it, the school said. Her uncertain ethnicity
didn’t help either. Gwen later insisted: “I learnt nothing at the school of
acting except the exact meaning of the word snob.”

She had to leave after two terms anyway, because her father died. But instead
of going dutifully home in defeat, she scandalised her family by finding
herself a job in the chorus of a travelling theatre company. For more than
a year she endured frigid boarding-houses, mean landladies, and the starvation
wages of a third-rate touring musical comedy, Our Miss Gibbs. The
only thing she really enjoyed was the down-to-earth humour of the chorus
girls, with their cigarettes and gin, their flirtations and their Cinderella
dreams of being discovered by a rich and handsome man.

One day, a wealthy businessman called Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, a man twice
Gwen’s age, picked up this desolate Caribbean Cinderella. Gwen thought this
was the passion of her life. When Lancelot dumped her after eighteen months,
she never recovered. He gave her an allowance for several years, and helped
her at crisis points in her later life. But Gwen found it very hard to trust
a man ever again; she had gambled everything, and lost.

She sank into a terrible depression, as she would do many times more. She
abandoned the stage, and drifted into a twilight world of masseurs and escorts
and call girls; she had a risky late-term abortion. “I’m finding out what
a useful thing drink is,” she wrote. Rejection had gone so deep that Gwen
felt completely void: “Nothing matters, nothing matters . . . I would never
be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it
. . . I am a stranger and I always will be”.

It is hard to know who, at this point, she hated most — men, herself, or
the entire human race. On Christmas Day 1913, when Lancelot sent a Christmas
tree to her room, she decided to kill herself by jumping from her window
(until a chorus friend pointed out that it was not high enough).

In London’s King’s Road one day, on the spur of the moment, she bought
a set of coloured quill pens to cheer up the table in a new room. She went
home and began to write down the story of Lancelot Smith. In ten days of
frantic work, she filled three and a half thick black exercise books. The
lodger on the floor below asked the landlady to have Gwen take off her shoes,
since she was keeping him awake striding up and down all night.

The writing eased the hurt, but solved nothing. She drifted back into humdrum
jobs and affairs. She sat for artists, did some stage work, and through
that summer of 1914 partied all night every night at a club in Soho, the
Crabtree, a hangout for artists and writers. She accepted a marriage proposal
from a writer on The Times, and flirted with a famous painter, a sub-editor,
a music critic, a lawyer. She was a strikingly attractive woman, still only
24, and she knew now how to use her sexual power. She scarcely noticed that
a world war had started until the Crabtree closed for the duration.

It was replaced by shift work at a soldiers’ canteen next to Euston station.

When Gwen Williams was happy, she was light-hearted and enchanting, funny
and flirtatious and compassionate. She loved clothes, shopping, good times,
laughter, perfumes, make-up, the brief spark of love when it came. But Lancelot’s
rejection had changed her. Now, when she was unhappy, her childhood shadows
gathered and darkened; she became reckless and obsessive, and could be volatile
and dangerous. Her rages could be frightening and violent, her paranoia
unmanageable, and her drinking became a need.

Her relationships usually started well and went steadily downhill. She
was drawn to older men who made her feel safe, but also to adventurers who
could charm and excite her. The first of her three husbands, a Dutch “journalist”
called Jean Lenglet, was an adventurer. When he proposed to Gwen in 1917,
he was actually married to someone else, had no passport, and was doing
something mysterious for French intelligence.
They were married in Holland in 1919, and Gwen followed him
to Paris, then to Vienna and Budapest, where it turned out that he had been
dealing on the currency black market and had lost a lot of other people’s
money. The couple went on the run before returning cautiously to Paris to
hustle a living; this time Gwen worked as a model, a mannequin, a tour guide,
an English teacher, a shop assistant. They had two children — a son who
survived only three weeks, and a daughter, Maryvonne, who spent most of
her early years in French cliniques because her parents lacked the
time and the money to look after her. In 1924 French police arrested Lenglet;
he was sentenced to eight months in jail for embezzling money from a travel
agency.

By this time Gwen had been introduced to one of the most influential literary
figures of the day, Ford Madox Ford. He was 51, lived in Paris, edited and
published his own literary review, and specialised in discovering new and
exciting writers. By roundabout means, Gwen’s London notebooks about Lancelot
Smith — edited into a novel — reached Ford. He liked her work, and liked
her even better. Although he was living at the time with an Australian painter,
Stella Bowen, he had Gwen move in with them; a bizarre menage à
trois
ensued.

Ford turned Gwen Williams into a professional writer. He made her read
extensively and write stories (“show, don’t tell,” he instructed; “when
in doubt, cut”; “write what you know”). Her first published story appeared
in Ford’s transatlantic review in December 1924, and he wrote a pompous
introduction to her first published book, the Parisian stories and sketches
called The Left Bank. Writing became the most important thing in
her life. Ford even gave her a new name to write under: Jean Rhys.

The affair went sour. Ford was ready to move on to somebody else, though
(like Lancelot) he sent her money for a while. Gwen became bitter and hysterical,
and turned Lenglet and Ford into characters in her angry first novel, Quartet.

Jean married twice more. Her second husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, was her
London literary agent. He was well educated and well spoken, but poor. As
a good English gentleman, he was gentle and kind, but reserved and controlled.

Leslie kept Jean steady and focused in her new mission as a writer. He
helped her to return frequently to Paris because she wrote better there;
he handled her business and domestic affairs; he knew when to take a manuscript
away from her, to stop her endlessly revising it. Together they visited
Dominica in 1936, the last time Jean saw her homeland.

But living with Jean required a saint’s patience. By the mid-1930s, she
was a full-blown alcoholic. They were always poor, and Leslie did not know
how to handle Jean, especially when she was angry or drinking hard. In June
1935, they were both arrested after a 4 a.m. brawl in London’s Soho and were
fined for being “drunk and disorderly”.

The young writer Rosamond Lehmann tried to befriend Jean that same year.
Her first meeting was with a buttoned-up, stylishly-dressed Dominican matron
who would barely talk. The second was quite different, according to Jean’s
biographer Carole Angier. “Jean was lying on the sofa, drunk. She looked
ill, unkempt, dishevelled; she didn’t speak to Rosamond, didn’t seem to know
she was there. Instead she spoke, incoherently and incessantly, half to herself
and half to Leslie. ‘Poor Leslie,’ she kept saying, ‘poor, poor Leslie.
He looks so miserable and wretched and ill.’ And to Leslie: ‘Why are you
so sad? Are you very sad? Why do you look so sad?’ . . . in a needling, taunting
tone, daring him to answer.”

Soon after the second world war began in 1939, Leslie rejoined the RAF,
perhaps with relief. Jean tried to stay close to him — she could not bear
the loneliness. She was desperately worried about her daughter Maryvonne,
who had been with Lenglet in Holland when the Germans invaded. Jean was arrested
again (wandering on a highway cursing the English — someone had thrown a bucket
of water over her), apparently attempted suicide, and spent at least some
time in a “sanatorium” for a “rest”. She was accused of being a German spy
(her wartime story “I Spy a Stranger” conveys her sense of persecution beautifully).
Leslie was demoted and transferred after Jean had provoked a huge row in
a pub, sarcastically shouting “Heil Hitler!” at her opponents.

Anyone who has been seriously adrift in life, alone, or seriously depressed,
will understand Jean Rhys. Today, she would be stuffed with prozac and mood
stabilisers and would feel happy and ordinary in the way she wanted. But
then there would not have been the books.

In 1945, Leslie died of a heart attack, alone with Jean in
a remote moorland cottage where they had gone for a rest. He had been vital
to Jean’s development as a writer. During her years with him, she had written
much of her best work. In After Leaving Mr Mackenzie she started
to examine her response to Lancelot’s rejection. In Voyage in the Dark
she scrutinised her early years in England in the touring company and her
descent into the pit. And in Good Morning Midnight she tried to describe
the nature of the void.

These were deeply sad and beautifully written books, far ahead of their
time in their instinctive modernism, though their existentialist, feminist
aspects were only appreciated much later. Jean’s writing is far more skilled
than its smooth surface suggests. She was a perfectionist, always correcting
and improving, cutting and rewriting. She had developed her own unmistakable
“voice” almost from the start. Writing, she felt, was a matter of enormous
toil, after which every trace of effort had to be erased.

But the heroines of these books from the 1930s are walking disasters. Each
is adrift in London or Paris, drinking hard, at least mildly crazed. They
are moody, with no personal past or social context; nothing in their world
is solid; relationships are casual and whimsical. “The world crushes unloved
and unprotected women like us,” they seem to say; “respectable society is
a farce; without money and power, we can do nothing.”

The self-destructive drifters of these books are all versions of Jean.
“I can’t make things up,” she confessed, “I can’t invent . . . I just write
about what happened. Not that my books are entirely my life — but almost.”
It was by writing about them that she gradually understood how, like her
characters, she was using victimhood as a safe place to hide in.

Jean’s third husband was Leslie’s cousin and executor, Max Hamer, a good-natured
but gullible solicitor of 65. Jean herself was 57 when they married; she
had published nothing since before the war. In 1950, when they had been married
three years, Max was arrested for cheque fraud, a pawn in a friend’s get-rich-quick
scam. He served two years in jail; Jean lodged nearby the whole time, writing
and visiting him. She severed connections with almost everyone else.

Then came eight years of wandering, which in 1955 led to Cornwall, the
south-west tip of England — a bleak, windy, wild coast where she and Max
moved to new rented accommodation five times — and then, in 1960, to a decrepit
cottage in the Devon village of Cheriton Fitzpaine 200 miles from London,
bought for them by Jean’s brother Edward, who had retired after an army career.
Still Jean published nothing, and was widely assumed to be dead.

She was always poor, cold, exhausted, unhappy, lonely and afraid. She was
always wanting and never finding the time and space to write properly; always
moving, drinking, missing her daughter (who did survive the war, as did
Jean Lenglet, though he spent four years in the Sachsenhausen concentration
camp. They had both worked for the Dutch resistance). But always, Jean insisted,
things were just about to get better.

There was plenty more that she didn’t reveal even to friends and correspondents.
Her fights with Max; their desperate poverty when he was barred from his
profession after leaving jail; his failing health. More collisions with the
law (a brick through an annoying neighbour’s window in London, fines for
drunkenness and insulting behaviour, a conviction for assault, five days
in the medical wing of Holloway prison). Her quarrels with the Devon villagers,
who (she said) called her a witch.

She was sustained by a few flimsy lifelines. An “anonymous friend” (probably
Max’s brother) came up with some money. An actress, Selma Vaz Dias, dramatised
Good Morning Midnight for the BBC, and tracked Jean down in Devon;
so did a London editor, Francis Wyndham, who came across her pre-war books.
The BBC broadcast and the story of her “rediscovery” aroused interest; and
when Wyndham heard she was contemplating a new book, he promptly commissioned
it (for £25). Another London editor, Diana Athill, became a good friend;
the village rector understood and supported her, even buying her whisky.
The village taxi driver who drove her into nearby towns for supplies became
a good and reliable friend.

In her Devon cottage, Jean wrote in bed or at the table in her tiny kitchen,
next to a small electric heater. She worked sometimes on stories, sometimes
on her new book, which wouldn’t come right. Notes and drafts and changes
were stuffed into bags under the bed; nobody but herself could decipher them.
There were leaks, floods, rising damp, icicles in the bathroom, unmentionable
things in the ceiling.

It took Jean from 1957 to 1966 to write Wide Sargasso Sea. She had
to keep putting it aside to write stories for cash, or to look after Max
as his health deteriorated. There were technical problems she couldn’t solve;
there were tangles with typists and well-meaning assistants, and pressure
from the publishers in London. In 1964 she had a heart attack. Her life
while writing the book was harder than she let anyone know. But “my dream,”
she wrote brightly, already in her seventies, “is to finish my book, get
a facelift — and a bright red wig”.

Wide Sargasso Sea turned Jane Eyre on its head.
The gene of “madness” in Bertha’s family is played down. Instead, Bertha
is driven to isolation and despair, and beyond, by the cruelty and injustice
of the social order around her; by the fracture between the races (“white
nigger”, “white cockroach”); by the “new” English colonists looking to get
rich off the pickings of the crumbling plantations and their ruined families.
And finally by malice, and by Rochester, who tries to love her but fails,
and takes his predictable revenge. Bertha is destroyed as surely as the
Sargasso weed chokes the ocean between old Europe and the new world.

The book is a brilliant “prequel” to Jane Eyre, by a scriptwriter
bent on subversion. And for Jean Rhys, it was a personal victory. The sense
of misty victimhood from the earlier novels is gone. Rochester, though clearly
flawed as a man, seems human and comprehensible (this was the biggest problem
Jean had had with the book — for in Rochester dwelt so many ghosts, from
Lancelot on). Jean had traced her own turmoil back to its roots, and back
to the Caribbean. She had probed back far enough now to see how the iron
enters the soul in the first place. Both Bertha’s soul and her own.

When Wide Sargasso Sea finally appeared in 1966, Jean was 76. At
last critical and popular success caught up with her. She won awards, her
other books were republished, and she even had some money. She permitted a
few modest comforts in her cottage. The stories she had written since the
1920s were collected and published. She started an autobiography, though she
was exhausted now, unable to work for long, her hands crippled and shaking,
and had to resort to dictation.

A group of admirers including Diana Athill, Francis Wyndham and the widow
of George Orwell kept an eye on her, helped with money, and brought Jean
to London for a holiday every winter to enjoy restaurants and theatres and
champagne, which revived her old charm and humour. They even took her to
Venice.

But in time, she drove even them to despair. It had all come “too late”
for her to rid herself of her demons, the old hurts and fears, the drinking
habit, the rages. She had confronted them in words, but could not exorcise
them from her life.

She was 89 when she broke her hip in March 1979; then, even she had had
enough. Two months later, she died.

Jean Rhys had not managed to be happy, or safe, or ordinary. But nobody
happy, safe or ordinary could have written Good Morning Midnight or
Wide Sargasso Sea.

 

JEAN RHYS (Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams)

“I never wanted to write. I wished to be happy and peaceful and obscure”

1890    Born August 24, Roseau, Dominica
1907    Sent to school in England
1909    School of Dramatic Art; joins Our Miss Gibbs
1910    Father’s death; affair with Lancelot Smith
1919    First marriage (to Jean Lenglet); first taste of
Paris
1920    Death of son in Paris; moves to Vienna
1921    Moves to Budapest
1922    Daughter born in Belgium; returns to Paris
1924    Meets Ford Madox Ford; Jean Lenglet arrested
1927    The Left Bank (stories)
1928    Quartet
1930    After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
1932    Second marriage (to Leslie Tilden Smith)
1934    Voyage in the Dark
1936    Revisits Dominica
1939    Good Morning, Midnight
1947    Third marriage (to Max Hamer)
1955    Retreats to Cornwall
1957    Good Morning, Midnight dramatised on BBC radio
1960    Settles in Cheriton Fitzpaine, Devon
1964    Heart attack
1966    Wide Sargasso Sea; W.H. Smith Literary Award
1968    Tigers Are Better Looking
1976    Sleep It Off, Lady
1979    Dies, May 14; Smile Please
1984    Jean Rhys: Letters 1931–1966