Rhys, Jean (1890–1979)
Rhys, Jean (1890–1979)
Rhys, Jean (1890–1979)
English novelist and short-story writer. Name variations: Gwen Williams; Ella Williams; Ella or Emma Gray. Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in Roseau, Dominica (West Indies), on August 24, 1890; died in Exeter, England, on May 14, 1979; fourth child of William Rees Williams (a Welsh doctor) and Minna Lockhart (a third-generation Dominican Creole); married Jean Lenglet, in 1919 (divorced 1932); married Leslie Tilden-Smith, in 1934; married Max Hamer, in 1947; children: (first marriage) William Owen (b. December 1919, died three weeks later); Maryvonne Lenglet (b. 1922).
Left Dominica (1907); attended the Perse School, Cambridge, England (1907–08); attended the Academy of Dramatic Art, London (1909); had affair with Lancelot Hugh Smith (1910–12); had affair with Ford Madox Ford (1924); husband Jean Lenglet in prison (1923–24); published four novels (1926–39); convicted of assault (1949); husband Max Hamer in prison (1950–52); Wide Sargasso Sea won W.H. Smith & Son Annual Literary Award (1967); published autobiography Smile Please (1979).
At age 65, Jean Rhys wrote to her daughter Maryvonne Lenglet , "[V]ery few people change after well say seven or seventeen.… They get more this or more that and of course look a bit different. But inside they are the same." This, according to Rhys' biographer, Carole Angier , applied to Rhys herself who "was stranded in a permanently prescient childhood." Jean Rhys never wanted to grow up, for this meant making decisions and assuming responsibilities such as raising children, getting a job, and handling one's own business affairs. Rhys never did any of these things. She remained, Angier notes, a child plagued by fears, "marooned in a child's imagination, where ordinary adult life is less than half understood."
Rhys "never wanted to be a writer," Angier claims, "all she wanted to be was an ordinary, happy, passive, and protected woman." But Rhys was no ordinary woman, nor was she ever happy. Submissive, dependent, isolated, and alienated from people and places, she led a life that was sad indeed. All of her fictional heroines, and Rhys herself, were "homeless and alone," struggling to survive "in a shifting, uncertain, dangerous world," a world dominated by men who exploited women. Her peripatetic lifestyle and crushing poverty fed her need for security and increased her dependence and vulnerability. She was more proficient at hating than loving, a better writer than a person; she was weak and self-absorbed. Rhys sought self-knowledge through her writing, and as Angier points out, "she cut everything out of her writing but herself; and in order to write she did the same to her life. She became a near recluse; … she never lived an ordinary family life with her daughter. As she grew older she pared more and more away in her writing—her present husbands, her present surroundings." And all of her life she inhabited an inner, private world of her own making, a world of loneliness and isolation, which she viewed "from the perspective of a displaced person."
Rhys was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Roseau, Dominica, the West Indies, in 1890, the fourth of five children of Minna Lockhart Williams and William Rees Williams. Early in life, Rhys determined that she was different, the only fair member of her family, and that she was ugly. All her life she remembered an encounter with a young man when she was 12 years old; he remarked that she was not pretty. "Oh God, let me be pretty when I grow up. Let me be. Let me be," she wrote later. When she was an old woman, a friend asked Rhys what she would want to be if she were reincarnated: "I would like to be beautiful," she replied.
As a child, Rhys wanted not only to be beautiful, but to be black, to be part of the black culture which was "more alive" and "more a part of [Dominica] than we are." In her novel Voyage in the Dark (1934), she says through her heroine Anna, "I always wanted to be black.… Being black is warm and gay, being white is cold and sad." In late 19th-century Dominica, white families such as Jean's lived in a world of colonial insularity. Rhys attended a Roman Catholic convent school, but her family discouraged her interest in Catholicism as well as in native culture. Never close to her brothers and sisters, Rhys was largely ignored by her mother, but cherished by her Welsh father who "loved words and books … liked odd, eccentric people, and defended them." He taught his reclusive, sensitive young daughter that "if you can't bear something it's all right to run away," and Rhys spent her life running from the fears and misfortunes which haunted her. Dr. Williams was kind, but weak and irresponsible. On the other hand, Rhys' mother represented "strength and protection, but also English superiority, philistinism, and intolerance."
The young Rhys pictured herself as an "outcast," an "alien," in her narrow, confined white world, and she was also aware of "the continued domination of the blacks and the subordinate, reductive role that women had in this culture—the boredom and the feeling of uselessness." Yet she envied the strength and gaiety of the blacks, exemplified by her friend Francine, the model for Francine in Voyage in the Dark and for Tia in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). In contrast, Rhys' nurse Meta, "the terror of my life," filled the child's imagination with debilitating fears and demons that tormented the lonely, insecure adult writer: fear of insects, of zombies, of the dark, and of people—"especially people." The child became a woman and "as an artist she matured and grew," writes Angier, "but as a person … she [remained] stuck emotionally in childhood." And when she left the West Indies in 1907, at age 16, she carried her demons, and Dominica, with her as she sailed for Southampton, England.
If she thought of herself as an outcast at home, the damp, cold grayness of England only exacerbated her "sense of displacement and cultural rift." Where was the grandeur and elegance of Edwardian England that the West Indian colonials so admired? Everything was "small and mean … poor and ugly," and Rhys was miserable. She lived with her strait-laced aunt, Clarice Rhys Williams , who enrolled her in Perse High School for Girls. At the rigid, spartan school, Rhys felt clumsy and ignorant, an unsophisticated provincial. After four terms, she asked her father's permission to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London to study acting. He agreed, and in 1908, she passed her Oxford and Cambridge Higher Certificate, took the entrance exam for the Academy, and was admitted. However, she quickly became dissatisfied and withdrew, claiming she had learned nothing "except the exact meaning of the word 'snob.'"
When Dr. Williams died in 1909, her mother insisted she return home, but Rhys refused, and, much to her aunt's chagrin, joined the chorus of a musical comedy, "Our Miss Gibbs." The show toured northern England during the winter of 1909; the penetratingly cold climate, the dismal small towns, and poor food and lodgings dispelled any romantic notions she had of life on the stage. The sameness and the tedium of touring were somewhat compensated for by the other chorus girls: attractive and spirited, but often coarse, satirical, and fatalistic, Rhys admired their ability to survive. However, their meager talents and lack of money made them easy prey, and many became prostitutes or, if more fortunate, mistresses. Women, as Jean Rhys wrote in Voyage in the Dark, were victims of male exploitation and dominance. She had witnessed their plight and soon would experience a similar fate.
For almost two years, Rhys endured the rigors of itinerant show business. Returning to London, she played in a pantomime of "Cinderella," worked as an artist's model, and posed for advertisements, moving from room to dingy room, clinging to the hope that something wonderful was about to happen. "Real life" turned out to be unhappy, uncertain, and exiguous, but then Rhys fell in love. Her shining knight, her benefactor and lover, was 40-year-old Lancelot Hugh Smith, rich and upper-class, a graduate of Eton and Cambridge, from a respected family of bankers, diplomats, and members of Parliament. Smith was not a handsome Prince Charming, but he was kind, generous, refined, and attentive. The relationship soured, however, probably due to family pressure; Smith's "respectability rejected her," Angier writes, "as she'd been afraid it would." And Rhys "died then, with the end of her first affair—the real death, not the one people know about," as Jean Rhys wrote in Wide Sargasso Sea 54 years later. Thomas F. Staley contends that her "bitterness and disillusionment made it impossible for her ever to love with such
openness and excitement again." Her three husbands would inherit the legacy of this love affair. Alone and frightened, Rhys, like the female character she is describing, "knew that she would never belong anywhere; and also that she didn't want to belong, not to their world.… She knew now what she wanted. She wanted nothing."
But Lancelot had not abandoned his mistress completely; he provided her with a weekly allowance through his solicitors for the next six or seven years. Rhys took the money while hating herself for doing so. "Her habit of reluctant, self-hating dependence had begun," writes Angier, a habit she never had the courage or inclination to break. In 1914, Rhys began to record her feelings and experiences in a notebook which she continued for several years. From her suffering, from the loss of love, the writer Jean Rhys unknowingly emerged. Twenty years later, the first part of her "diary" was the resource for Voyage in the Dark. Rhys rarely alluded to the terrible years after the affair ended, but she had learned that life was a battle for survival and if one adheres to the socially acceptable code of morality, "you are trampled to death before you've begun."
There's very little invention in my books. I don't know other people. I have never known other people. I have only ever written about myself.
During World War I, she lived in London in cheap boarding-houses, periodically working again as an artist's model or in the theater, but largely relying on Lancelot's allowance. In 1917, living on Torrington Square in Bloomsbury, she met Jean Lenglet who was half-Dutch, half-French, had fought with the French Foreign Legion in Africa and on the Western Front in Europe, and served as a French secret agent. They were married in Holland in 1919. Rhys vowed never to return to England and was enthusiastic about their move to Paris. In late December 1919, she gave birth to a boy who died of pneumonia three weeks later. Meanwhile, Lenglet had taken a position with the Allied Commission in Vienna where Rhys joined him in the spring of 1920. By the following spring, the Lenglets were able to settle in a fashionable hotel and engage in rather lavish spending. There was money to be made in turbulent postwar Vienna, and Lenglet became involved in several currency exchange schemes. When the Allied Commission moved on to Budapest, Lenglet was accused of having used and lost money appropriated from the Commission and other agencies. He and Rhys, now pregnant, fled Budapest, eventually reaching London via Prague, Warsaw, and Paris. Their daughter, Maryvonne, was born in Brussels in 1922, and by the end of the year the family was back in Paris.
The vagabond life and oppressive poverty fuelled Rhys' insecurity and loneliness. She suggested that Lenglet, who had an interest in journalism, write a few feature articles which she would translate and sell to English-language newspapers. After several unsuccessful attempts to interest editors, Rhys contacted Pearl Adam, wife of the Paris correspondent for The Times, whom she had met at a party in London. Asked if she had ever written anything, Rhys showed Adam her diary. Impressed with Jean's style and material, she sent it to Ford Madox Ford, novelist, critic, and editor of the Transatlantic Review in Paris. Ford was to be a major influence in Jean Rhys' career; he advised her to read the classical French writers, and provided her with reading lists and copies of contemporary literary magazines containing the best of modern writing. Through Ford, Rhys met other expatriate writers, including Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. And through Ford, she became a writer and Jean Rhys (she had been known as Ella Williams, then Gwen Williams, then Ella or Emma Gray); she had "found the one thing she could do, and she began to do it." Ford told her to write about what she knew. He read and critiqued her work and acted as a mentor and an anchor in Rhys' inherently disordered life.
In the autumn of 1923, Lenglet was arrested and imprisoned for selling objects d'art "of dubious origin." Left with a child and no money, Rhys turned to Ford; her dependence, vulnerability, and passivity dictated her actions. She did not love Ford, but she was desperate, and in the end she lost both Ford and Lenglet who could not forgive her weakness and betrayal: to Rhys, writes Angier, "all that was left was loneliness, fear, drink, and no money, no money." Without a qualm, Rhys again approached Lancelot to provide her with an allowance. Stella Bowen , Ford's long-time lover who broke up Rhys' affair with Ford, described Jean as having a gift for writing and being personally attractive, "but on the other side of the balance were bad health, destitution, shattered nerves, an undesirable husband, lack of nationality, and a complete absence of any desire for independence"—a cogent evocation of the present and future life of Jean Rhys. Female vulnerability and male exploitation served as themes throughout Rhys' writings as she examined her own motives and personality through her fictional heroines. She knew by experience, she wrote, that "beneath the passivity and self-destructiveness of women there was a willingness to engage in a desperate struggle for survival, just as beneath the surface ugliness of their lives there was a yearning for beauty, a new dress, an attractive room."
When Lenglet was released from prison, the family settled in Brussels, but the marriage was over. Rhys was, however, able to write several short stories, based on her life with Lenglet, and The Left Bank was published by Jonathan Cape in London in 1927. She also completed a draft of Quartet, "her most self-centered, vengeful book," notes Angier, and sent it to Cape; they refused to publish it for fear of a libel suit by Ford.
Not to be deterred, Rhys left Lenglet and Maryvonne and went to London to seek a publisher. Here she found a sympathetic editor for Quartet (1928) and a new lover. Leslie Tilden-Smith was a literary agent, the Oxford-educated son of an Anglican cleric. Rhys had acquired another caretaker; they lived together, and Jean was free to write while Leslie edited, typed, handled contracts and Rhys' business affairs. He also cooked, cleaned, and did the laundry. But, as Angier notes, Leslie never entered the world Rhys wrote about. She was obsessed with "the loss of love, the loss of hope," and her objective was "to understand her life, and especially her suffering." In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, the heroine Julia tries "to grapple with nothingness," but never comprehends what it is. Jean/Julia asks, "Why do I suffer?" and she grimly concludes, " There is no love … there is only 'nothing'—emptiness, and the escape of death." During the 1930s, three of Rhys' major works appeared, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939); each received good reviews, but they did not sell well. Rhys was disappointed for "she wrote and rewrote, in an obsessive search for perfection."
Despite her literary production, life with Leslie was not idyllic; financial problems created tensions, and Rhys drank heavily: "her past tormented her," notes Angier, "writing tormented her: she had to drink to write and she had to drink to live." When Leslie's father, who had disapproved of their relationship, died in 1934, they were free to marry. With the money he inherited, Leslie took Rhys on a holiday to her native Dominica in early 1936. At first, she felt "saner and safer" than she had for many years, but Rhys soon became disillusioned as she realized she was considered "one of the old whites," a foreigner, in what now was the blacks' domain. Unwanted, even hated, Rhys "felt more homeless than ever before." Her past had vanished, setting her adrift on a course of further self-destructive behavior. She got drunk, flew into rages, and physically assaulted her husband who did not fight back. In Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys examines the fears, the demons that haunted her—"age and ugliness, drunkenness and paranoia"—through her main character, Sasha. Passive and indolent, Sasha is "the stranger, the alien, the old one," or is she "the other—how do I know who the other is? She isn't me." Rhys was beginning to acquire a degree of self-knowledge, but she could not change her ways.
Leslie volunteered for the military when the Second World War began. Rhys joined him at Norfolk, but because of her erratic behavior, Leslie was judged a security risk and was transferred to another base. Eventually, he was posted to London. Rhys had lost touch with Lenglet and Maryvonne during these turbulent times and did not know if they were dead or alive. She later learned that both had worked for the Dutch resistance; Maryvonne spent some time in prison, and Lenglet was in a concentration camp for four years. Agitated, miserable, and on the verge of collapse, Rhys wrote short stories based on her diaries and notebooks filled with invectives directed at people and society and a savage hatred of England, "Rot its mean soul of shit." A few months after the war ended, Leslie died of a heart attack; Rhys recounted this terrible time in a short story, "The Sound of the River." And in a letter to Leslie's daughter from his first marriage, Rhys wrote, "I had all the time the feeling that Leslie had escaped—from me, from everyone and was free at last."
Rhys wanted to leave London and to work on her novel which she had titled Le Revenant (The Ghost). In a fit of rage, she had burned the first draft that Leslie had typed before the war, but two chapters were later found. Rhys had no money but she would survive, as always. Her rescuer was Leslie's cousin, Max Hamer, a solicitor and executor of Leslie's will. After divorcing his wife, he and Jean married in 1947, the happiest of her marriages, she said. But Max was not the man who could "save" Jean from her paranoia and destructive behavior. Unworldly, sweet-natured, and "full of get rich quick schemes," Max spent most of his time on business in London where they lived. Rhys was depressed, drank heavily, and ate little. And being alone only magnified her fears and released her demons. In spring 1949, Rhys finally exploded, slapped the face of a neighbor man whom she claimed was rude to her, and was brought up on assault charges. She was found guilty. In June 1949, she was remanded into custody and spent five days in the hospital wing of Holloway Prison. Judged sane, she was placed on probation for two years and sent home. Again, Rhys tried to exorcise her pent-up animosities against the nameless, faceless "them" by writing a short story, "Let Them Call It Jazz." Through her black heroine, who was sent to Holloway, Rhys asserts that "if they treat you wrong over and over again the hour strikes when you burst out." Jean was already retreating "further and further into self-absorption, self-pity, and anger," typically blaming others for her own unhappiness. But, as Angier notes, "it wasn't the others, it was herself," and Rhys' acrimony only became more incapacitating as she grew older.
By early 1950, Rhys was a mental and physical wreck, all her books were out of print, and she was forgotten. But trouble seemed to be a permanent part of her existence; Max was arrested in January for illegal financial dealings, tried at the Old Bailey, found guilty, and sentenced to three years in prison at Maidstone. Carole Angier wonders if Max had done it for Jean; poverty frightened her, and she longed for comfort and glamour. Both Lengley and Max ended up in prison, convicted of fraud. Both were "natural gamblers," but, Angier concludes, "the force of Jean's need drove them further than they would have gone without her."
Rhys moved to Maidstone to be near Max. She wrote nothing from 1949 to 1951, when she began a new diary at the Ropemakers' Arms pub in the town. Part of this diary was published in her autobiography, Smile Please (1979). From the diary, it is evident that she wanted to live, to do something worthwhile. Angier claims the Ropemakers' diary is not simply a diary but a "drama.… it is a trial.… The Trial of Jean Rhys," who confesses, "I learnt everything too late." Rhys admits that she is guilty of a multitude of sins but there is also good in her—she is a writer: "If I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people. But it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death."
Max was released from prison in 1952, and he and Jean returned to London. Unable to resume his career as a solicitor, Max was also stripped of his Navy pension. From 1953 to 1956, they moved from London to Wales to Cornwall, living on the charity of Rhys' brother Edward and of friends. After years of poverty, obscurity, and debilitating bouts of drinking and depression, Rhys would once again be "rescued" from penury and literary limbo. In October 1956, the actress Selma Vaz Dias placed a notice in the New Statesman asking Jean Rhys to contact the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Selma had adapted Good Morning, Midnight into a monologue to be broadcast on the radio, but she needed Rhys' permission for the performance. Rhys met with Selma, finalized the arrangements, and the program aired in May 1957. Shortly thereafter, Rhys received a letter from Francis Wyndham, an editor at the publishing house André Deutsch. Wyndham asked if she was still writing, and Rhys promptly replied that she was working on a novel, "Mrs. Rochester," the story of Antoinette Cosway, based on Rochester's mad wife in Charlotte Brontë 's Jane Eyre. By June, Rhys had sold the option on her novel to Deutsch, promising to finish the book by March 1958, an optimistic estimate, for it was not completed until March 1966. "Mrs. Rochester," retitled Wide Sargasso Sea, "turned out to be the most difficult, ambitious, fascinating, elusive book she had ever written." "A demon of a book," Rhys noted.
Jean had originally had the mad Antoinette as sole narrator, but in 1959, she completely revised the book twice; in the final version, Antoinette is the narrator of Part I and Rochester of Part II. To write from a man's point of view was especially difficult for Rhys, but Rochester "is by far the most complex and fully drawn male she has ever accomplished." Rhys' novels and short stories have been compared to those of Colette and Katherine Mansfield ; like them, Rhys was able to create, writes Angier, "an entirely feminine world—a world where the ordering and interpretation are exclusively feminine, and a world where the feminine consciousness is not seen in the reflection of a masculine world." In Wide Sargasso Sea, Mrs. Rochester's story is Rhys' story, the story of a West Indian girl who leaves her native land, loves a man who hates her (Lancelot Hugh Smith, in Rhys' case), goes insane, and dies in "a cold, grey" country (England, "the embodiment of hell"). This is considered by many to be Rhys' best, and culminating, novel. The themes are well developed and many—"that the beauty of the world hides cruelty," notes Angier, "that dream reveals reality, that there is no love." In Part II, narrated by Rochester, Rhys acknowledges that men suffer too, that everyone is weak in some way and that through weakness "cruelty and hurt enter the world." But it is Antoinette who is rejected and isolated, finally descending into madness. As was Rhys, Antoinette is rejected by her mother, by the blacks of her homeland, especially Tia (Francine) who was her childhood friend, and by the West Indian white population who will not accept her and therefore "consign her to the 'outside' forever." "I have only ever written about myself," Rhys once said, and in Wide Sargasso Sea she reveals her ability to give structure to memories, feelings, fears, and regrets from her childhood to her old age. The image of steps, or stairs, which she employs here is particularly trenchant, for at the top of the stairs Antoinette's, and Rhys', "own future waits—an old forsaken woman."
While working on Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys had a myriad of problems that at times overrode her desire to finish her novel. From 1957 on, Max was in poor health from a series of strokes. Rhys herself was aging and ill; drinking, "black moods," and anger still dominated her life as she tried to care for her husband. Max had always been an obstacle to Rhys' writing for he had never understood the effort and dedication required to produce a book. Undoubtedly, he resented her shutting him out of her life when she was struggling to write, and struggle she did. The conflict often left Jean with a choice between Max and her work, and unfortunately Max usually won. Rhys had told Leslie Tilden-Smith when he complained about her detachment, "I don't see how you can write without shutting everything else out." Angier further notes that "Jean's core of being a writer, which was a core of loneliness and separation, remained."
Rhys' brother Edward bought the aging couple a bungalow in a small village in Devon called Cheriton Fitzpaine in September 1960. Finally, Rhys had a room of her own, but she worked on her novel only sporadically. However, she was able to complete several short stories which appeared in Art and Literature. In 1963, Rhys had a heart attack in London where she had gone to work on the novel; in September, Max entered the hospital. Rhys was alone, an intolerable situation for she could not bear being alone, and when she was "she cracked." There were indications that she had a nervous breakdown again; she was convinced that people in Cheriton Fitzpaine thought she was a witch, they stole from her and attacked her. Max had written to Rhys from the hospital, "You deserve something better than me. I wish you had it." On March 7, 1965, Max Hamer died, leaving Rhys on her own. Her isolation would deepen when she ended her friendship with Selma Vaz Dias over broadcasting rights to Rhys' stories and novels. Rhys had signed a legal agreement to give Selma 50% of all proceeds from movie, stage, television and radio performances of her works, "anywhere in the world," and granted Selma "sole artistic control" over the adaptations. Legal and financial matters always frightened Rhys, and she would sign documents "to stop the panic" that she experienced. Later, Rhys realized what she had done and took legal action to modify the agreement. A mutual friend persuaded Selma to accept a third of any proceeds and to relinquish artistic control. Henceforth, Selma's name was added to Rhys' list of those "who had used her and let her down."
At the age of 76, Rhys had been "rediscovered" by the literary community with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), for which she won the W.H. Smith and Son Annual Literary Award. She was labeled a "modern classic writer," and her previous works were reissued. She was also recognized by being made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Rhys was lauded for "her strong originality and her remarkable insight into the feminine psyche," and for her examination of "the panic and emptiness of modern life." But the recognition came too late; Rhys had no one with whom to share her success, and she was too old to enjoy her new celebrity status. In fact, Rhys was becoming more reclusive as she aged. She begrudged interviews, claiming they were untruthful or inaccurate.
In 1975, Rhys, at age 85, began to write her autobiography. But for some reason "she lost faith in the value of her work." Alone and isolated, drunk and angry, she raged against the world, blaming everyone for her unhappiness, except herself. She refused to admit she was responsible for anything that had happened to her, insisting "that people, events, her own fate, swept her along against her will." A creature of stunning contradictions, Rhys both hated and loved her own passivity and paranoia, writes Angier, "because they made her feel a victim, but let her feel innocent."
Jean Rhys had three husbands and at least two lovers, yet her fictional heroines were always isolated beings, as she was in real life. Curiously, she admitted that she preferred the company of men to that of women, but she sympathized with women, women like herself who were lonely and unhappy, the "outcasts" of society. And, as Angier writes, "The truth was that, even with her husbands—even with her daughter, even with her loving friends—she was alone. She was always alone." People, including her husbands and lovers, were a mystery to her for "she knew only herself." In addition, Rhys' view of the world was "tragic and pessimistic.… Her solipsism and her pessimism combined to make her writing exactly what she said it was: a quest for self-knowledge, and nothing to do with anyone else." Writing further isolated Rhys from people and from life, and at times, but not often, she questioned whether it was worth the resultant solitary life.
Rhys hated being old as passionately as she hated being alone, dependent, and poor. Unlike her characters in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie who "have been to the human well and have seen dust instead of their reflections," Rhys' reflection is mirrored in her novels and stories where each heroine is Jean Rhys during various stages of her life. Angier states that Jean thought she had never lived because of her self-imposed, but necessary, isolation from people and places. For Jean Rhys, life was a prison, "the prison of her isolated, unloved self" from which she escaped only through her writing. In an interview in Paris Review in 1979, Rhys said "To give life shape—that is what a writer does. That is what is so difficult."
Rhys' health failed rapidly after she broke her hip in March 1979. Several mild strokes ensued; she refused to eat or speak, slowly lost consciousness, and died in the afternoon of May 14, 1979, at the hospital not far from her cottage in Cheriton Fitzpaine.
Jean Rhys' life was an anguished one, for as Angier affectingly writes, "She had been given a supreme gift of knowing how to write; she had not been given the gift of knowing how to live.… She didn't want admiration as a writer; she wanted love and acceptance and belonging as a woman. She never found them.… Her life was unbearably sad; only her art was triumphant."
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O'Connor, Teresa. Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels. NY: New York University Press, 1986.
Staley, Thomas F. Jean Rhys: A Critical Study. London: Macmillan, 1979.
Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. London: Penguin, 1992.
Howells, Coral Ann. Jean Rhys. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
James, Louis. Jean Rhys. London: Longman Group, 1978.
LaGallez, Paula. The Rhys Woman. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Nebeker, Helen. Jean Rhys: Woman in Passage. Montreal: Eden Press, 1981.
Plante, David. Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three. NY: Atheneum, 1983.
Wolfe, Peter. Jean Rhys. Twayne, 1980.
Wyndham, Francis, and Diana Melly, eds. Jean Rhys: Letters 1931–1966. London: André Deutsch, 1984.
The Jean Rhys Collection is located in the McFarlin Library of the University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah