The life of Dominican-born writer Jean Rhys is at once well-known and mysterious. Her career dipped and soared across both halves of the last century, across changes of name (Ella Gwendoline “Gwen” Rees Williams, Ella Lenglet, Jean Rhys) and changes of location (West Indies, England, Europe).
Her early adult years were full. There had been a career on the stage as a chorus dancer, liaisons with wealthy men, and marriage to a charming Dutch bigamist and fraudster, which took her to The Hague, Paris, Vienna and Budapest. She experienced a flurry of literary fame in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when she was shepherded into print by Ford Madox Ford – their vexed relationship was used by both in their later writing.
Then came oblivion, when her bleak urban tales seemed to chime too cruelly with pre-war and wartime darkness, years when publishers rejected her work and readers thought she must have died.
A brilliant reversal of fortune came with the publication of her best-known work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966): a reimagining – re-dreaming, even – of Jane Eyre as the life of the first Mrs Rochester, a white creole. A raging old age followed. Rhys drank (but also charmed) her way through years of privation, surviving on the tenacious, courageous bounty of friends.
Each reappearance seemed to be as a different writer: a woman, a modernist, and finally a West Indian.
Crossing the water
The details of Rhys’s life were known through two biographies: Carole Angier’s massive and acclaimed Jean Rhys: Life and Work (1985), and Lilian Pizzichini’s breezier portrait in The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys (2009). But its outlines were also familiar through its echoing of the false or late starts, or forced haltings, in the literary careers of so many women writers of the century, cases where literary renown became a casualty of the vagaries of literary taste and domestic obligation.
In 2018, the St Kitts-born writer Caryl Phillips published a novel based on the first 46 years of Rhys’ life. A View of the Empire at Sunset follows Gwen Williams’ return to Dominica in 1936 with her spiritless English husband. It then leaps back to her childhood, her passage from the island to grey England, skips over her Paris years, and ends as she departs a second time. On the boat, she turns away from her husband: “Her island had both arranged and rearranged her, and she had no words.”
The novel turns Rhys’ journey inward, turns it into a chronicle of loss, decline and return. As she drifts through the creaking remnants of her family’s colonial past, the young Gwen is figured by those around her as a far from English child: “It look to me like Miss Gwendolen catch somewhere between coloured and white.”
In a 2018 interview, given as his novel was being published, Phillips spoke at some length about the motivation of his book, the pull Rhys’ West Indian story held for him. He had described this in 2011 as the “umbilical cord [that] often connects the pain of exile to the pleasure of literature”: the shared experience of “crossing the water”.
Phillips had read Rhys’ work decades before. He had admired, though not unduly, Wide Sargasso Sea. But he was compelled by Voyage in the Dark (1934), which revealed “how England can launch a stealth attack on your identity”. The novel had been passed to him by the West Indian critic Kenneth Ramchand – “I think you should read this” – and with it began a “more intimate” relationship with Rhys’ work.
That intimacy is important. It ties Phillips’ novel into a legacy of Caribbean writing about and in response to Rhys. This includes work by writers such as Derek Walcott, Lorna Goodison and Jamaica Kincaid, who valued Rhys’ engagement with the particularities of loss and language and imagination, because they stood “on the periphery of the English-language tradition”.
They could not “presume that those in the middle [could] understand their work, so they [had] to batten down their sentences”. Rhys’ choices of, for instance, “verbs, adjectives and adverbs had to be very clear because publishers in Britain are outside their experience. She saw different sunsets, for example.”
Phillips believed that those different sunsets had not figured in the Rhys biographies. He felt that Angier’s had been written with no sense of “the first 16 years of [Rhys’] life”; she had failed to grasp that Rhys was “a person you have to understand through the Caribbean”.
For all her meticulous research, Angier had never travelled to Rhys’ homeland. So Phillips made the journey himself, immersed himself in the island’s “texture”:
What does Dominica smell like? Not like England. What is the first thing you notice when you go back? The heavy texture of the air. Caribbean nights do not sound like Parisian nights […] There is a different way of feeling the length of the day, the rhythm of your life is just different.
Jean Rhys (left) with Mollie Stoner in 1970s. Wikimedia Commons
A Dominican story
Miranda Seymour, the author of a new and highly praised biography of Jean Rhys, reviewed Phillips’ novel in June 2018. She described it as “sporadically brilliant” and “well-intentioned but mildly unsatisfactory”. She seemed to mistake it for a biography. She found its “use of Rhys’ life” to be “capricious”:
We learn little about her writing and nothing at all about her relationship with Ford Madox Ford.
The review ends with a sharp take on the novel’s imaginative identification with Rhys leaving Dominica that second time, crossing water again on her return to England in 1936:
Phillips tells us that Jean Rhys – a novelist whose work is known to be ferociously unsentimental – “broke off a piece of her heart and gently dropped it into the blue water”. Oh dear.
Her objections to Phillips’ style and approach notwithstanding, Seymour does seem to have been drawn to the Dominican story that the novel opened up. Just as Phillips’ novel had done four years before, her biography, I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys, turns its attention to the significance of Dominica and the first 16 years of Rhys’ life. In her foreword, she writes that she was drawn to the importance of these not by Rhys’ fiction, but by Smile Please (1979), a late autobiographical sketch, which evoked those years and places.
Like Phillips, Seymour travelled to Dominica, where she saw Rhys’ family homes overgrown with tropical foliage and spoke to some of the same people about the island, its past, and the Rees Williams family’s complex ties there. This feeds in to the story she tells of Rhys’ family life and early years, a lively account of a world where, as Rhys wrote in Voyage in the Dark:
everything is green, everywhere things are growing […] green, and the smell of green, and then the smell of water and dark earth and rotting leaves and damp.
Opening the biography with the words of the creole song that Jean Rhys sang for a recording in 1963 (a digital version is held with Rhys’ papers at the McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa) sets the scene of Rhys’ life and yearnings beyond the Europe and England with which she has been mostly associated.
It is a brilliant move. The words of the song charge the dark sexuality of Rhys’ writings with the irreducible trace of her early years, the threat of waywardness, the path to the devil.
Tout mama ki ti ni jen fi – All mothers with young daughters!
Pa lésé yo allé en plési yo, – Don’t let them go follow their own pleasures,
Pa lésé yo allé en jewté yo. – Don’t let them go follow their joy.
Si diab la vini yi kai anni mé yo. – If the devil comes, he will just take them away.
Elizé malewé – Poor Elizé
Elizé malewé – Poor Elizé
Elizé malewé. – Poor Elizé.
On pon innocen la ou van ba de demon la. – You took an innocent child and sold her to the two devils.
Seymour’s inclusion of this song (along with the translation provided by Sonia Magloire-Akba, an authority on the creole language, whom Seymour consulted in Dominica) provides a compelling ground and context for the markers of otherness that flicker through Rhys’ story. At boarding school in England, for example, she was nicknamed “West Indies”. Then there is her “libellous” characterisation as “Lola Porter, a tempestuous and highly sexed Creole writer” in Ford Madox Ford’s When the Wicked Man (1932).
But Rhys’ connection to Dominica is not really pursued in the depth it deserves, nor is the influence of her location between cultures and within the colonial violence of her family’s history. These are confined for the most part to the early pages of the book. Seymour chronicles the detail and difficulties of Rhys’ relations with Ford, but she does not note Ford’s use of racialised epithets that tied her to the island wherever she lived (he describes Lola as a “devil” and a “blackamoor”).
Seymour provides a detailed account of Rhys’ recording of the creole song in 1963. Her voice is “light and lilting”; it “quavers out into the dusty air” of the archive. She stops singing. “It’s not quite right,” she says, then begins again, and stops again. She sings another song, about a woman from Grenada being told to “take her gold earrings, pack her bags and go home”.
For Seymour, all this is about “performance”; Rhys is flirtatious, “a siren”. But it tells also, surely, of a writer not getting it quite right in her recollections, the long and difficult remembrance, the intractable past and its songs and stories.
These provided the matter of Rhys’ last two publications, the collection Sleep It Off, Lady (1976), and the memoir Smile Please. Rhys was, according to Carole Angier, unhappy with Sleep It Off, Lady, declaring most of the stories “no damned good” (she was wrong about this).
The collection was published with one story, The Imperial Road, removed. This was a story Rhys had rewritten many times over the previous three decades. There are several versions in her archives, and one is available to read in the online journal Jean Rhys Review, but it remained otherwise unpublished. It is a story of colonial return and rejection, and of colonial resentment: a road built to commemorate the British presence on the island disappears from view; its existence is then denied by the local people.
Rhys’s editor Diana Athill excised the story, troubled by its apparent endorsement of the colonial project. “Am I prejudiced?” Rhys wondered in a letter to her friend Francis Wyndham. “I don’t know. I certainly wasn’t …” Dominica is intractable for Rhys, but never straightforward.
For all its interest in Rhys’ Dominica, Seymour’s biography stops short of examining the colonial relations that are central to her story. She writes of Athill’s concerns about The Imperial Road, but not of Rhys’s reflections, which have been the subject of commentary by literary scholars. She also sidesteps the racial threads that are so strikingly evident in the creole song.
Her chapter describing Rhys’ 1936 return to Dominica is full of fascinating detail, but again there are omissions. She tells, as Angier did before her, of Rhys’ brother Owen Williams, who fathered two children to Dominican women. The children came to visit Rhys when she stayed on the island, but Seymour gives little detail of the meeting beyond noting that they asked for money.
More is, however, known about this family. The literary scholar Elaine Savory interviewed Ena Williams, one of the daughters. In 2003, Savory wrote that Ena
told a very moving story of how, as a child, she was dressed up by her godmother, with whom she lived, every Sunday, so that she sat on the veranda of the house when the Rees-Williams family passed on their way to church. They always ignored her. She had Owen’s name but no other acceptance by Rhys’s white family. In 1936, during Rhys’s visit to Dominica with her husband Leslie, Ena Williams found her kind and generous, but she was also aware of Rhys as a renegade from respectable white society.
How suggestive the story is. Such a knowing and necessary perspective on this writer, her family, and her Dominican connections. It offers a view from the island, a way of moving beyond the awkward fit of Jean Rhys’ years in England and Europe, the real matter of her deepest and most complex life.