Issue 76, Fall 1979
Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, in the Windward Islands, in 1894, of a Welsh doctor and a native-born Creole. She was sixteen when she was sent to school in England. Her first stories, collected in The Left Bank, were published in 1927. Four novels in the twelve years before World War II (Quartet; After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie; Good Morning, Midnight; and Voyage in the Dark) established a fragile literary reputation, which eroded when she dropped out of the publishing world for thirty years only to emerge from her retreat in the west of England when the BBC did a radio adaptation of her novel, Good Morning, Midnight. The obscurity had been such that in October, 1956, the New Statesman carried an advertisement to find her: “Would Jean Rhys or anyone who knows her whereabouts please get in touch with Sasha Moorsom, Features Department, BBC, in connection with future Third Programme broadcast of ‘Good Morning, Midnight’.” The renaissance of Jean Rhys brought with it the publication of two collections of short stories, Tigers Are Better Looking and Sleep It Off, Lady, and her most famous novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea, an invented biography of Bertha, the mad wife in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
She has been married three times—first, after World War I, to a Dutch chansonnier who wrote songs and sang them in such Paris spots as Le Lapin Agile. He deserted her after ten years of traveling about Europe, mostly to Vienna and Paris, and she divorced him. Her second husband, an editor at the publishing firm of Hamish Hamilton, died at the end of the last war. Her third husband, a retired naval officer, died just after the couple moved to the small cottage in Devon where she now lives.
The chief character in almost all her work is a woman who seems to follow in her creator's path step by step: from a West Indian childhood, through the ordeal of life in the provincial theater in pre-World War I England, to an elderly solitude in the English countryside.
Miss Rhys's eyes are sapphire, wide set, and long lashed against a pale English skin; one cannot help thinking that had she stayed in Dominica she would not have that skin, even with the daily hour and a half attention she says she gives to her face and makeup. She was wearing a white silk blouse hidden by an opalescent pink lamé jacket, made to seem somewhat coquettish with ribbons and puffed sleeves.
On the table stood a vase of huge yellow purple-hued cabbage roses, so voluptuous that they looked artificial, as if made of silk for an Edwardian hat.
Outside, the sun sparkled on the giant hedgerows that seclude Jean Rhys's cottage from a quiet Devon village. Here, she has continued at her writer's work, insisting on privacy that secluded her even from her fellow villagers.
You once wrote in The Lotus that people live much longer than they should, especially women.
I’d planned to die at thirty, and then I’d push it on ten years, forty, and then fifty. You always push it on. And then you go on and on and on. It’s difficult. Too much trouble. I’ve thought about death a great deal. One day in the snow I felt so tired. I thought, “Damn it, I’ll sit down. I can’t go on. I’m tired of living here in the snow and ice.” So I sat down on the ground. But it was so cold I got up. Oh yes, I used to try to imagine death, but I always come up against a wall.
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