Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys

Born on Dominica, Jean Rhys is considered by many to be one of the best novelists from this Caribbean island. Her literary work is a neat reflection of the sociopolitical context of her homeland and of the difficult life it created for women during the first half of the 20th century, especially for a woman who chose a literary career as a profession. She published her first books in the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until 1966, with the appearance of her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, that she belatedly gained notice.

Rhys was born in Roseau on August 24, 1890, when Dominica was still a British colony. She was the daughter of a French father and an island-born mother of Scottish descent. Her mother, along with her maternal grandmother and various aunts, was the main influence in the direction of Rhys’ life. At age 17, she traveled to Britain and never again lived in the West Indies. She began to write seriously at age 33 and from that moment on she ever stopped writing until the final days of her life.

As Rhys herself described it, she had a love-hate relationship with Britain. On one hand, she was a victim of rejection as a human being because she was a second-class citizen, a Caribbean immigrant. As a writer, she faced rejection for writing stories that were too autobiographical and appeared to be insignificant.

Her life was marked by highs and lows that even included a period of time in prison in Holloway. In middle age, in the 1920s, Rhys traveled through much of Europe and stayed temporarily in Paris, where she lived in near poverty. It was during this stage of life, however, that she was surrounded by and absorbed all of the literary influences of the era. It was in that decade also that she began to fall into alcoholism, an addiction she would suffer throughout her life.

The range of Rhys’s novels mostly reflects the momentous events that marked her life in Britain and her childhood in Dominica. There is a constant and marked sense of not fitting in. This is due in part to the diametrically opposite cultural differences between the two places, as well as the political tension that ruled the relationship between Dominica and Britain. In London, she was considered a light-skinned black, while on Dominica nobody ever forgot that she was the granddaughter of a slave owner.

While her first book, The Left Bank and Other Stories, did not bring Rhys the recognition she deserved, she stayed true to writing the stories that she believed, deep down, that she should tell. The protagonists of her novels, in general, are women displaced from their native settings and set down in hostile cities, with poor family values.

With Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gained fame and won the W.H. Smith Literary Award. The novel is a prequel to the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Good Morning Midnight, as well as the autobiographical books It Began to Grow Cold and Smile, Please, make up the main part of her most important works. Rhys died in Exeter on May 14, 1979.

Works

  • The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927)
  • Postures, 1928 (published in 1929 as Quartet)
  • After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931)
  • Voyage in the Dark (1934)
  • Good Morning, Midnight (1939)
  • Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
  • Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968)
  • My Day: Three Pieces (1975)
  • Sleep It Off Lady (1976)
  • Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (1979)
  • Jean Rhys Letters 1931-1966 (1984)
  • Early Novels (1984)
  • The Complete Novels (1985)
  • Tales of the Wide Caribbean (1985)
  • The Collected Short Stories (1987)

Author: Christian Ibarra
Published: April 13, 2012.

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