Rhys, Jean (Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Rhys, Jean (Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams)

Rhys, Jean (Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams) (1890-1979) Dominican-Welsh novelist and short story writer

A West Indian feminist and gothicist, Jean Rhys revisited classic 19th-century English fiction from a colonial perspective. Born Ellen Gwendolen Rees Williams of Creole, Scots, and Welsh ancestry in Roseau, Dominica, she lived isolated from the largely black population. In childhood, she absorbed elements of miscegenation, bigotry, and voodoo that animated her adult fiction. Her education began at an island convent school and progressed to the Perse School for Girls, a British boarding academy in Cambridge, England. In 1909, she entered the Academy of Dramatic Art. From work as an artist's model and a stage dancer in musical comedy at age 29, she escaped into a marriage with Jean Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, that would bring little happiness and end in 1932. She had an affair with the editor and novelist Ford Madox Ford in 1923-24, and in 1947, she married Max Hamer. Though she issued stories and novels in the 1930s and 1940s, she didn't achieve real fame until the publication of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. She died in England on May 14, 1979, having visited her native Dominica only once in her adult life. Her uncompleted AUTOBIOGRAPHY was published after her death.

While living in Vienna, Rhys published her first short story, “Vienne” (1924), in the Transatlantic Review, and then a collection, The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927), in which she layers glimpses of West Indian negritude excluded from belonging in French cafes and parks.

Like the Indian journalist SANTHA RAMA RAU and the Trinidadian-British author V. S. NAIPAUL, Rhys had discovered a colonial vibrance within uprooted cultures that survived vicariously through transportable institutions and beliefs. Unlike Naipaul, however, she outlined the minority islander in bold relief against a white cosmopolitan background. In “Trio,” she generates a flash of island nostalgia with her description of meeting a woman from the Antilles. The Afro-Caribbean style of a white chemise and Martinique turban complement thick lips and “fuzzy, negress' hair” (Rhys 1992, 34), a combination the author finds intriguingly lively and life-affirming. The speaker muses, “From the Antilles, too. You cannot think what home-sickness descended over me” (34). Like JAMAICA KINCAID'S essays for the New Yorker, Rhys's stories “Again the Antilles” and “Mixing Cocktails” repeat themes of creole displacement against a white milieu. In a racial overlay, black character and behavior contrast the enervation and degeneracy of “old money” colonials, who enrich themselves off the toil of slaves.

When she was in her mid-50s, Rhys wrote a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847). Wide Sargasso Sea is a psychological novel that details the victimization of Antoinette Cosway, a sensual Jamaican Creole heiress. The arranged marriage and rejection of Antoinette precipitates her departure from her island home and her incarceration by her husband Edward in rural England under the name Bertha Mason Rochester. Her vulnerability to patriarchy derives from naivete. On her wedding day, she protects herself with a feminine gesture: “I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don't wish to get it soiled” (Rhys 1967, 59-60), a foreshadowing of their doomed wedlock. Antoinette's diminution by a self-centered white Englishman seems inevitable, the result of colonialism and male-dominated society. Displaced on England's moors, she feels a pervasive chill, a symbol of the British disdain for nonwhite people and for her Afro-Caribbean culture. The social quandary limits her to escapism through mad scenes in which she dresses in red and relives a childhood exuberance. Like a moth in a bell jar, she turns manic, beating her wings against her impersonal confines. Film versions made in 1993 and 2006 contrast the lush freedoms of the West Indies with the frigid realities of English society.


Rhys, Jean. The Collected Short Stories. Edited by Diana Athill. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

------- . Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, 1967.

Savory, Elaine. Jean Rhys. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1998.

Thomas, Sue. The Worlding of Jean Rhys. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999.