Jean Rhys (Jean Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams Rhys) Biography
(1890–1979), (Jean Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams Rhys), Postures, Quarted, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
British novelist, born in Roseau, Dominica, of Welsh descent; she moved to Britain in 1907. Her shifting life as a chorus girl, her years in Paris, her difficult first marriage, and her encounter with Ford Madox Ford gave her ample material for her early fiction. Her first two novels, Postures (1928, reprinted as Quarted in 1969) and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), present the story of the recognizable Rhys heroine, a lost woman struggling to survive in a hostile masculine world. With Voyage in the Dark (1934) Rhys found her distinctive voice: her assumption of the first person, her foray into painful reminiscences of her Caribbean childhood, her growing disregard for conventions of plot and characterization, and the soaring, controlled beauty of her prose, render the novel one of the finest of its time. Rhys had intuitively adopted the procedures of modernist writing; her next novel, Good Morning Midnight (1938), was far ahead of its time, a precursor of women's novels of the 1960s in its account of its middle-aged protagonist's struggle with her life, her sexuality, and her pessimism. Rhys's masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), signalled a new understanding of her fiction. Here, she struggles with the canons of English literature to claim the figure of Bertha Mason (renamed Antoinette in this novel), placed by Charlotte Brontë at the villainous periphery of Jane Eyre, as the subjective centre of a distinctively Caribbean work. Rhys counterpoints the voices of Bertha and Rochester to present two contrasting world-views—male and female, imperial and colonial, Northern and Southern. This double process of decolonization and recolonization places Rhys's mature work at the centre of post-colonial ‘English’ literary politics. Two collections of short stories, Tigers are Better Looking (1968, including stories from her first collection, The Left Bank, 1927) and Sleep It off, Lady (1976), display a potential widening of range; some stories, notably ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’, with its black narrator, can be included among Rhys's finest work and display her knowledge of Caribbean culture along with her ambiguous sensitivity to matters of race and colour. However, years of poverty, neglect, and silence had exhausted her, and she died in 1979, leaving her autobiography, Smile Please, published in the year of her death, incomplete. Her Letters 1931–66, edited by F. Wyndham and D. Melly, appeared in 1984.