Five Fascinating Facts about Jean Rhys

By Viola van de Sandt

1. Jean Rhys got the idea for her famous novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) after reading a copy of Jane Eyre that her second husband had given to her as a birthday present. The first version of the novel was called Le Revenant, and Rhys burnt its manuscript after a row with her husband. After that, she thought of calling it The First Mrs Rochester, ‘with profound apologies to Charlotte Brontë and a deep curtsey too.’

Rhys2. Rhys had a knack for disappearing into obscurity for long periods of time. In the media, she was referred to as dead several times before her actual passing in 1979. A literary adviser to the publishing house André Deutsch, having been told that the author had recently died in a sanatorium, in 1950 referred to her in an article as ‘the late Jean Rhys,’ while the BBC once declared that she had died during the war.

3. In the 1920s, while Rhys was staying in Paris, she had an amorous affair with the writer Ford Madox Ford. While the latter was already married to the painter Stella Bowen, he encouraged Rhys to keep writing. Their affair lasted for a year and a half, and possibly resulted in Rhys’ figuring as Lola Porter in Ford’s 1932 novel When the Wicked Man.

4. Rhys was born on August 24, 1890 in Roseau, Dominica, in the West Indies, where slavery was not abolished until 1834. After she openly advocated the rights of its black population and criticized its white ruling class, Rhys was popularly classed as ‘socialist Gwen’.

5. During her lifetime, Rhys had three husbands, two of whom eventually ended up in jail. In 1919, she married the journalist and songwriter Jean Lenglet, who was imprisoned in 1924 for illegal financial transactions. Her third husband, the solicitor Max Hamer, spent much of the time they were married in prison, probably for similar offences. In 1949, Rhys herself, who had by then become addicted to alcohol, was arrested for assaulting her neighbours.

Viola van de Sandt is a postgraduate student in English literature at King’s College, London. She loves writing about women in English and American novels, and does exactly that on her own blog, “Broken Glass”.

Image: Jean Rhys (left, in hat) with Mollie Stone, Velthams, 1970s, © 2009 G88keeper, share-alike licence.


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  2. Great post! I actually read “Wide Sargasso Sea” before reading “Jane Eyre,” which gave me a whole different take on the romance. Truly an excellent book with a great re-imagining/explanation of a side character that many people only viewed as a hindrance or a monster in “Jane Eyre.”

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  4. Great post. I loved Wide Sargasso Sea.

  5. Thanks Viola for another fascinating post about a wonderful writer (despite grammatical blips!) Wasn’t she ‘rediscovered’ (as one of the undead!) by someone on BBC’s Woman’s Hour, sometime I think in the 1970s, or it might be a bit later,which led to the re-issue of Wide Sargasso Sea/ (i can feel the need for a re-read a-surfacing fast)

    I always enjoy your posts and look forward to them, on this wonderful site, and your own

  6. It’s been many years since I read “Wide Sargasso Sea,” but I remember being at once struck and inspired by the raw, visceral quality of the work. It left an indelible impression. Thanks for the post.

  7. Some fascinating stuff here – I love that about her disappearing and being presumed dead – but spoilt by item (4) which reads as though 1894 preceded 1830 (that “would” and the wording of “advocated the freedom of the black population”) and by the use of “which” in item (5). Men are people, too, Viola, and that should be “two of whom”. Would you consider the following sentence correct? “My husband, which is a lot older and possibly wiser than me, tells me I am wasting my time writing this comment.” If post-graduate students in English Literature don’t set a good example, what hope is there for poor reviewers like me who occasionally draw attention to a total disregard for editing – or gross incompetence on the part of editors – in books they review? (And those books not all self-published ones by any means.)

    • Thank you very much for pointing out those grammatical errors, Kanti. I corrected them, and hope that the post is more to your satisfaction now. Many thanks, too, for letting me know that men are people too; indeed, I had not realised this before, and am sure that my relations with my family and friends will much improve as a consequence. I’ll do my very best to set a better example in the future, so you can be assured that your comment has not been a waste of time, as your husband suggested.

  8. Why isn’t The Wide Sargasso Sea available in e-book?