Jean Rhys: an Insight

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  • Topic: Ford Madox Ford, Jean Rhys, Novel
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Jean Rhys: An Insight
Jean Rhys (1890-1979) is best known for her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was published in 1966 when she was 76. Rhys's life was profoundly marked by a sense of exile, loss, and alienation-dominant themes in her novels and short stories. Despite critical acclaim at the end of her life, Rhys died in 1979 still doubting the merit of her work. Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rhys (sometimes spelled Rees) Williams on August 24, 1890 in Roseau, on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Her father, Rhys Williams, was a Welshman who had been trained in London as a doctor and emigrated to the colonies. Her mother, Minna Lockhart, was a third-generation Dominican Creole. According to her biographer, Carole Angier, Rhys associated her mother with conformity and the "civilizing" mission of the English in the colonies at the end of the Victorian period. Her mother, Rhys claimed, was cold, disapproving, and distant. In one of the notebooks she kept during her life, Rhys recorded a time when her mother, after an attempt to discipline her daughter, gave her "a long, sad look," and said, "'I've done my best, it's no use. You'll never learn to be like other people.'" Rhys writes, "There you are, there it was. I had always suspected it, but now I knew. That went straight as an arrow to the heart, straight as the truth. I saw the long road of isolation and loneliness stretching in front of me as far as the eye could see, and further. I collapsed and cried as heartbrokenly as my worst enemy could wish." As a child and adolescent, Rhys was, according to her own account, "alone except for books" and voices that "had nothing to do with me. I sometimes didn't even know the words. But they wanted to be written down, so I wrote them down." Finding little comfort at home, Rhys explored other worlds available to her. At a convent school that she attended, Rhys, an Anglican Protestant, was drawn to the ritual of Catholic worship. In addition to being fascinated by the sheer sensual component of the service, Rhys noted that "instead of the black people sitting in a different part of the church, they were all mixed up with the white and this pleased me very much." For Rhys, the black women who worked in her house as servants offered her access to a secret world and a secret language, both far different from the disinterestedness of her mother. In her writing, Rhys would explore the tension between the ordered world of colonial life and the seductive world of island sensuality. But in her life, her sense of abandonment remained acute. "Gradually," she wrote, "I came to wonder about my mother less and less until at last she was almost a stranger and I stopped imagining what she felt or what she thought."

A Life of Exile

In 1907, Rhys left Dominica for England, where she enrolled in the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge. The departure was typical for young colonial women of her station who were encouraged to finish their educations abroad. Although Rhys embraced the journey with a sense of adventure, the contrast between the cold and damp English climate and the lush surroundings of her island home would haunt Rhys throughout her life. At the Perse School, according to Angier, she was tormented by classmates who disapproved of her Creole background and her quick mind. Rhys spent two years at the Perse School before enrolling in the Academy of Dramatic Art in 1909, intending to become an actress. Her stay was brief, but before she left, Rhys signed a contract to become a chorus girl. When her father died and money became scarce, she began touring England with a theater troupe. Neither the life of the theater nor the drab towns in which she performed held much charm for Rhys, but she did find a sort of camaraderie among the chorus girls. According to Angier, "the girls spoke a secret language, like the ones at home-the servants' patois, or the Carib women's language, which the men didn't know." Rhys, writes Angier, "shared their...
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