Literature

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.