lunes, 18 de abril de 2016

Jean Rhys / A life tortured

Jean Rhys ( August 1890 – 14 May 1979) born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, was a mid-20th-century novelist who was born and grew up in the Caribbean island of Dominica, though she was mainly resident in England from the age of 16. She is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Early life
Rhys was born in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, an island in the British West Indies. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scots ancestry. ("Creole" was broadly used in those times to refer to people born on the island, whether they were of white or mixed blood.)
Rhys was educated in Dominica until the age of 16, when she was sent to England to live with an aunt. She attended the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, where she was mocked as an outsider and for her accent. She attended two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London by 1909. Her instructors despaired of her ever learning to speak "proper English" and advised her father to take her away. Now unable to train as an actress and refusing to return to the Caribbean as her parents wished, she worked with varied success as a chorus girl, adopting the names Vivienne, Emma or Ella Gray.
After her father died, in 1910, Rhys appeared to have experimented with the prospect of living as a demimondaine. She became the mistress of a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith. Though he was a bachelor, Smith did not offer to marry Rhys and their affair soon ended. However, he continued to be an occasional source of financial help. Distraught by events, including a near-fatal abortion (not Smith's child), Rhys began writing and produced an early version of her novel Voyage In The Dark. In 1913 she worked for a time as a nude model in Britain.
During the First World War Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918 she worked in a pension office.

Marriage and family
In 1919 Rhys married Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, spy and songwriter. He was the first of her three husbands. She and Lenglet wandered through Europe, living mainly in London, Paris and Vienna. They had two children, a son who died young and a daughter. They divorced in 1933.
The next year she married Leslie Tilden-Smith, an English editor. In 1937 she began a friendship in 1937 with the novelist Eliot Bliss, who shared her Caribbean background. The correspondence between them survives.
In 1939 Rhys and Tilden-Smith moved to Devon, where they lived for several years. He died in 1945. In 1947 Rhys married Max Hamer, a solicitor who was a cousin of Tilden-Smith. He was convicted of fraud and imprisoned after their marriage. He died in 1966.

Writing career
In 1924 Rhys came under the influence of the English writer Ford Madox Ford. After they met in Paris Rhys wrote short stories under his patronage. Ford recognized that her experience as an exile gave Rhys a unique viewpoint and he praised her "singular instinct for form". "Coming from the West Indies, he declared, 'with a terrifying insight and ... passion for stating the case of the underdog, she has let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World'." It was Ford who suggested that she change her name to Jean Rhys (from Ella Williams). At the time her husband was in jail for what Rhys described as currency irregularities.
Rhys moved in with Ford and his longtime partner, Stella Bowen. An affair with Ford ensued, which, in fictionalized form, she portrayed in her novel Quartet.
With Voyage in the Dark (1934) Rhys continued to portray the mistreated, rootless woman. In this novel her protagonist is a young chorus girl who grew up in the West Indies and is living in England, feeling alienated. In Good Morning, Midnight published in 1939, Rhys uses modified stream of consciousness to voice the experiences of an ageing woman.
In the 1940s Rhys all but disappeared from public view.From 1955 to 1960 she lived in Bude in Cornwall, where she was unhappy, calling it "Bude the Obscure", before moving to Cheriton Fitzpaine in Devon.
After a long absence from the public eye she published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, having spent years drafting and perfecting it. She intended it as the account of the woman whom Rochester married and kept in his attic in Jane Eyre. Begun well before she settled in Bude, the book won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967.In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys returned to themes of dominance and dependence, especially in marriage, depicting the mutually painful relationship between a privileged English man and a Creole woman from Dominica made powerless on being duped and coerced by him and others. Both the man and woman enter into marriage under mistaken assumptions about the other. Her female lead marries Mr Rochester and deteriorates in England as the "madwoman in the attic". Rhys portrays this woman from quite a different perspective than that drawn in Jane EyreDiana Athill of the publishing house André Deutsch gambled on publishing Wide Sargasso Sea, and she and the writer Francis Wyndham helped to revive interest in Rhys's work.

Later years
From 1960, and for the rest of her life, Rhys lived in Cheriton Fitzpaine, a small village in Devon that she once described as "a dull spot which even drink can't enliven much". Characteristically she remained unimpressed by her belated ascent to literary fame, commenting, "It has come too late." In an interview shortly before her death she questioned whether any novelist, not least herself, could ever be happy for any length of time. She said: "If I could choose I would rather be happy than write ... if I could live my life all over again, and choose ...". She died in Exeter on 14 May 1979, at the age of 88, before completing her autobiography, which she had begun dictating only months earlier. In 1979 the incomplete text was published posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Legacy and honours
In 2012 English Heritage marked Rhys's Chelsea flat at Paulton House in Paultons Square with a blue plaque.

Selected bibliography
  • The Left Bank and Other Stories, 1927
  • Postures, novel, 1928 (published in the U.S. as Quartet, 1929)
  • After Leavign Mr. Mackenzie, novel, 1931
  • Voyage in the Dark, novel, 1934
  • Good Morning, Midnight, novel, 1939
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, novel, 1966
  • Tigers Are Better-Looking: With a Selection from 'The Left Bank' , stories, 1968
  • Penguin Modern Stories 1, 1969 (with Bernard MalamudDavid Plante and William Sansom)
  • My Day: Three Pieces, stories, 1975
  • Sleep It Off Lady, stories, 1976
  • Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, 1979
  • Jean Rhys Letters 1931–1966, 1984
  • Early Novels, 1984
  • The Complete Novels, 1985
  • Tales of the Wide Caribbean, stories, 1985
  • The Collected Short Stories, 1987
  • Let Them Call It Jazz, stories,1995

Rhys's collected papers and ephemera are housed in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library.


I’d planned to die at thirty, and then I’d push it on ten years, forty, and then fifty. You always push it on. And then you go on and on and on. It’s difficult. Too much trouble. I’ve thought about death a great deal. One day in the snow I felt so tired. I thought, “Damn it, I’ll sit down. I can’t go on. I’m tired of living here in the snow and ice.” So I sat down on the ground. But it was so cold I got up. Oh yes, I used to try to imagine death, but I always come up against a wall.

Jean Rhys
The Paris Review

Jean Rhys: Prostitution, alcoholism and the mad woman in the attic

Alcoholic, often destitute, and abandoned by a series of men, Jean Rhys led a tortured life, according to a new biography. Yet it was these very hardships, says Lesley McDowell, which made her the writer she was
    Lesley McDowell
    Saturday 2 May 2009

It was in old age that Jean Rhys said, "It seems to me now that the whole business of money and sex is mixed up with something very primitive and deep." If anyone should have discovered that, she should have. Because Jean Rhys was a woman who took money from men for sex, at one very low point in her life; she allowed past lovers to carry on financing her, long after they had left her. Something primitive, and something deep, allowed her to need men and what they could offer, regardless of social taboos or her own autonomy.
The narrative of Jean Rhys's life – her "showgirl" career, her brief stint as a prostitute, her abortion paid for by an ex-lover, her three disastrous marriages, her alcoholism, her stay in Holloway prison for assault, her short sojourns in asylums – makes for unsettling reading. She turned to men to prop her up and pay for her, and it is the kind of narrative we don't really want to read in a post-feminist age.
Yet there's a fascinating truth at the heart of Jean Rhys, a truth that she herself often covered up. Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams on the island of Dominica in 1890, to a Welsh father and white Creole mother, she was, her latest biographer Lilian Pizzichini writes in her sympathetic but clear-eyed account, forever searching for a mother to love her. Her elder sister died nine months before Ella was born: the sense of being a replacement for a lost child was palpable to her from an early age. And so she played the girl all her life: a passive, yearning-for-love little girl, powerless but charming, pretty without being intimidatingly beautiful.
When she was 17, she came to England for the first time, and her shock at the cold was never to leave her. After a short time at boarding school, she decided to become an actress and was accepted into the Academy of Dramatic Art. She couldn't complete her degree there, alas, because the principal wrote to her father complaining that her West Indies accent would never allow her to win the best roles, and her father subsequently took her out of school. Ella refused to give up, and joined chorus lines, travelling companies, took bit parts to stay in the acting world. An aristocratic financier, Lancelot Hugh Grey Smith, fell for her. He was the first of the men she came to depend upon.
When Smith finally cast her off, Ella was left to fend for herself, and, in a deep depression and without any acting work, she sank into prostitution and alcoholism. She soon became pregnant. Smith, who wasn't the father, paid for an abortion. He subsequently sent her a cheque every month to keep her off the streets, but it wasn't until she roused herself from this awful period that she took up a habit she'd had in her childhood: she began writing.
Writing about her life in notebooks didn't bring in money either, but at the start of the First World War, two more abortive love affairs later, she met the Belgian refugee Jean Lenglet. He was an exciting but untrustworthy type, working at that time for the French government, but when he proposed marriage, she said yes. She worked on in London, alone, for a year, until she could join him in Paris. Here, she gave birth to her first child, William, who soon died. Lenglet got work in Vienna, and they moved on. Ella became pregnant a second time and gave birth to a girl called Maryvonne. By this time, though, Lenglet was in trouble with the authorities and they scampered back to Paris, where he went into hiding. Eventually, he was arrested and imprisoned.
She was alone and abandoned again, but not for long. It was at this point that the writer Ford Madox Ford entered her life. Ford was in Paris with his partner, Stella Bowen, running The Transatlantic Review, which was publishing the likes of Hemingway, Joyce and Stein. But Ford was past his best and he knew it – his greatest work, The Good Soldier, had been published in 1915. It was now 1923, and riches and accolades weren't his. Taking up with the vivacious, sparkling, stylish Ella Lenglet revivified him.
It was Ford who gave her the name Jean Rhys, and it was Ford who taught her how to channel her experiences into publishable prose. Feminism doesn't like to think of women writers owing their success to a male partner. It's been a feminist project, quite rightly, to see them as autonomous subjects who forged their own paths through a male-dominated world. Patriarchal oppression made it necessary to ignore the contributions the men in those women's lives had made; never should we voice the suggestion that, without that male partner, a woman writer might never have been published. Yet, in Rhys's case, it's substantially true. Without Ford's help, it's possible that she would never have been published at all. Her dependence on men, her pose in Paris as the helpless ingénue, when she was actually a 34-year-old wife and mother, came naturally to Rhys, and however uncomfortable that is for feminism, it's what helped to make her a literary success so many years later.
That contradiction between the ingénue and the experienced woman proved too much for Ford. Their affair came to a sticky end: Rhys resented being cast off, and struck him across the face at a café. Then she did what she'd been taught to do: she wrote, and wrote about the affair, in a 1928 novel called Quartet. She returned to England, alone, and married her second husband, the literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith, who had, ironically enough, been recommended to her by Ford.
More books followed: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), which wove in her abandonments by both Lancelot Grey Smith and Ford, Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). She was ahead of her time, though – critics abhorred the underworld of her novels, the twilight of the demi-monde, and didn't appreciate the sparseness of her writing style. She carried on, in a third unhappy marriage and drinking ever more heavily, until 1949, when a writer and actress called Selma Vaz Dias placed an ad in a newspaper looking for her. She wanted to adapt some of Rhys's work for the BBC; an editor, Francis Wyndham, wanted more work from Rhys. She had, she told him, a novel under way. It was Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
It's perhaps not surprising that Rhys's greatest work was about a woman who is rejected by the man she loves and goes on to destroy herself. Rhys constantly felt abandoned, yet was constantly searching for the man who could take care of her and, finally, make it all right. Yet, as Pizzichini rightly says, her writing was her true partner. It is possible that Rhys never fully realised this, or didn't want to realise it, perhaps: the path of the artist is often by necessity a lonely one, and Rhys drank not to feel lonely.
And so, her response to the sudden fame and fortune that Wide Sargasso Sea brought was classically self-pitying and the lament of the ingénue: "It has come too late." Rhys, ever the contradiction, wouldn't let it happen for her, however much she wanted it to. The truth of Jean Rhys's genius is contained within that contradiction, however: the little girl who wouldn't grow up, yet whose work depended, ultimately, upon the maturity of experience. I believe that she understood that contradiction. She knew what lay "deep and primitive" in her own soul. In her writing she was able to use it, and it was a relationship with a male writer that taught her how.
The extract
The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, By Lilian Pizzichini (Bloomsbury £18.99)
"She returned her gaze to her pens and notebooks and then it started. Her palms and fingertips were tingling. She opened an exercise book, and wrote down everything that had happened to her in the last year and a half: 'what he'd said, what I felt'... The feeling was one of torture: knowing the feeling but not the words to describe it"
Lesley McDowell is currently writing a book about literary partnerships, to be published by Overlook Press next year 

A happy twist in the tale of literature's great outsider

A blue plaque will honour Jean Rhys, whose life was marked by alcoholism, prostitution and doomed affairs
Simon Usborne
Monday 5 March 2012

Jean Rhys is best known as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, the "prequel" to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. She is less well known as a perennial outsider who was ostracised for her West Indian upbringing, and then shunned by the literary establishment after a descent into alcoholism and prostitution.
Today, the author will receive some recognition for her contribution to post-colonial literature when English Heritage unveils a blue plaque at the London home she shared with the second of her three husbands. Rhys's champions, who remain few nearly 33 years after her death, believe the small honour is long overdue, and will go some way to restore the reputation of one of English literature's more complex writers.
"Rhys was one of those authors who challenges readers and as a result is easier to forget," says Lilian Pizzichini, whose biography of the author, The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, was published in 2009. "A lot of the reviews of my book said I'd been seduced by her, that I should have taken a moral position. I found that astonishing. Why should I take a moral position?"
Rhys was always an outsider. "She falls between so many camps," Pizzichini explains. "She's not white, she's not black. She's classless. So it's hard for people to get a handle on her. She was an elusive, a solitary figure, who was never part of a set."
She was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in Dominica in 1890. The daughter of a Welsh physician and a white Creole of Scottish descent, she moved to Britain in her late teens and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Mocked for her Caribbean accent, she left for a life of bit parts, chorus lines and travelling companies under her stage name, Jean Rhys.
Pretty and needy, Rhys attracted a string of men upon whom she would come to depend. In 1919, she married a Dutch journalist and moved to Paris. They split after she began an affair with the writer Ford Madox Ford. Abandonment by Ford sent her into a deep depression and she developed a dependence on alcohol and men, some of whom paid her for sex, and she had an abortion. She was only helped out of the hole – and into writing – by Ford's earlier recognition in her of a powerful combination of her colonial perspective with a distinctive "stream of consciousness" technique. Their doomed relationship inspired her first novel, Quartet, published in 1928.
Rhys returned to London in the same year and later married her literary agent, Leslie Tilden Smith. More books followed and the couple lived for two years at Paultons House, on the square of the same name in Chelsea. It was here that Rhys flourished as a writer and where she completed Good Morning, Midnight. Like much of her writing, it portrayed a mistreated, vulnerable woman. "She really interrogated the position of the female urban outsider," Pizzichini says. "She was so far ahead of her time."
But critics hated the gritty urban underworld she depicted, as well as her sparse style. "People were affronted by her unladylike behaviour," Pizzichini says. "She wrote graphically about prostitution and abortion and how easy it is to slip into a world of predatory men."
At Paultons Square, Rhys's plaque will be one of only a dozen or so English Heritage unveils each year. But residents offered mainly blank looks when asked about their former neighbour. "Isn't she a scientist?" asked one woman yesterday. "I didn't know she lived here."
After Tilden Smith's death in 1945, Rhys married for a third time, and in 1960 moved to Devon, where she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, and died in 1979. It was this novel, which portrays the first Mrs Rochester's Caribbean childhood, that brought her fame, earning greater recognition than herself.
Additional reporting by Charlie Cooper


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