The Romantic life of the writer Jean Rhys?

It’s such a romantic story. A novelist forgotten, rediscovered and a career reanimated and crowned with the publication of a masterpiece. Jean Rhys’s story is one of suffering, depression and penury. Proof perhaps that creativity arises from suffering.

Except, Jean Rhys’s story teaches us quite the opposite. Her suffering inhibited her creativity. This is my contribution to #ReadingRhys week from 12th-18th September.

282 #RRhys

Seeking information on ‘the late Jean Rhys’

Born in 1890 on the island of Dominica, Jean Rhys came to Europe at the age of 16, spending time in Paris and London. She led the life of a demi-mondaine, as a rich man’s mistress, a model and volunteering in a soldiers’ canteen during the First World War. After the war Ford Maddox Ford encouraged her writing and even established a temporary maison a trois to supervise.

The young Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

She wrote many short stories and three successful novels before the Second World War.

  • 1927 Left Bank and other stories
  • 1928 Postures/Quartet
  • 1930 After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
  • 1934 Voyage in the Dark
  • 1939 Good Morning, Midnight [the link is to my review]

And then, as far as readers were concerned, she disappeared. I expect most people, if they thought about her at all, assumed she was dead.

What kept her from writing?

Several factors combined to work against her.

War: in England during the war she worried about the lack of news of her former husband and their daughter Maryvonne. They were both safe, but she was not able to receive news of them from Holland. The stories she did write were unsuccessful and not published. She and her second husband could not settle and moved out of London.

282 Rhys at window

Poverty: Jean Rhys seems to have had no money at any time in her life. And when her husband, Leslie, died in the late ‘40s and she married Max Hamar nothing improved. And then it got worse because Max was imprisoned for fraud. Don’t imagine romantic attics, rather see her living on the edge in almost uninhabitable bungalows in Devon.

Ineptness: ‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. Jean was quite unable to deal with the practicalities of life. When she arrived from Domenica she had no experience of trains or hot water. Later, in a drunken state she agreed to a contract that gave away far too many rights to any adaptations of her work.

Drink and depression: her inability to cope with practical matters was compounded by her paranoia, depression and tendency to drink. She ate too little and drank too much.

Bad luck seems to follow hopeless people, perhaps explaining the idea that people creating their own luck.

Rediscovery

Jean Rhys was finally rediscovered in the ‘50s through an advertisement from the BBC asking for information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. They planned to broadcast an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight.

Francis Wyndham was an admirer and an editor with Andre Deutsch and heard about her rediscovery. He helped her get some stories published, and sent her some money. Diana Athill, also an editor for Andre Deutsch, learned that she had nearly completed a new book. That was in 1957.

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Wide Sargasso Sea was not completed for another seven years, until 1964. Her editors provided all kinds of help, but this was difficult to do when she always put a brave face on her difficulties. And at the moment when the manuscript was to be handed over to the publisher, with a few lines left to dictate to the typist, Jean Rhys had a heart attack. She had made Diana Athill promise not to publish without this final amendment. For a while her survival was in doubt, and there was a real risk that we might never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea. She did not complete the novel for another two years.

The struggles were not over even when she recovered, although alleviated. But she did complete a memoir called Smile Please.

What we learn

This is not a story of a troubled romantic artist, her troubles somehow enriching the creativity. Jean Rhys’s story reveals that talent is easily negated by poverty, drink and depression. There were times when she felt her brain was empty, like an automatic dispenser she had see on a tube station: This machine is EMPTY till further notice.

Creativity requires encouragement, money, good health, freedom from anxiety and time to write a novel.

Acknowledgements

Two sources were essential for this post:

Jean Rhys (Lives of Modern Women) by Carole Angier, Penguin Books 1985

282 Stet cover
Stet: an editor’s life
by Diana Athill, Granta Books 2000

This post is part of the blog reading week called #ReadingRhys co-hosted on the blogs of Jacquiwine and Solitary Reader

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5 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Writing

5 Responses to The Romantic life of the writer Jean Rhys?

  1. Than you for this thoughtful post, Caroline. You may well have heard it, but The Paris Review circulated a brief recording of Jean Rhys speaking about her life. At one point she says:

    “But then altogether, I think, well, I think if I had to choose I’d rather be happy than write. If I had my life all over again and could choose.” It must have been part of recording from 1979 when Rhys was interviewed for the journal. There’s a link here, such a poignant recording.

    http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/08/24/jean-rhys-speaks/

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this. I wish I had known of the Paris Review recording when I was researching the post! The quote is very apposite.
      Caroline

  2. Really interesting post Caroline – that quote Jacqui mentions above is quite devastating and gives a lie to the joy of being a struggling, tortured artist.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment. Yes it’s almost a heretical thought isn’t it, for a writer?
      Jean Rhys really suffered. I’m so glad she managed to get it together to write what she did.
      Caroline

  3. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

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