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Jean Rhys | Biography

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Jean Rhys, whose given name was Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was born on August 24, 1890, in the West Indies islands of the Caribbean Sea. Her mother was Creole, and her father was Welsh; therefore, Rhys grew up feeling disconnected both socially and intellectually because she was of mixed background in a predominantly black community.

By 1907 Rhys went to England for schooling and returned only one time to her birthplace. Although it shaped her views, ambivalence toward the Caribbean can be seen in Rhys's writing, which explores the tension between the ordered world of colonial life and the seductive world of island sensuality.

After being educated and working as an actress in London, Rhys moved a number of times with her husband, Jean Lenglet, before settling in Paris. It was there that she began writing professionally, after being encouraged by novelist Ford Madox Ford, with whom she had an affair. She eventually separated from her husband and left their daughter with him. Rhys was involved with a number of men in her life and felt a certain dependence on them due to her lifelong alcoholism. She also suffered from depression and drank to excess; these challenges led to confinement in mental institutions on a few occasions.

Rhys wrote a collection of short stories followed by four novels; these five books were published over a span of 12 years (1927–39). Her next and most critically acclaimed novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, was not published until 1966 and tells the story of Bertha Mason, the mad Creole wife of Rochester from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Jean Rhys was very familiar with Jane Eyre, which she read as a child, and she resented the way in which Creole women are presented in it. Brontë's rendering of Bertha paints her as one clearly belonging to the "other" category of a supposedly lesser ethnic minority, not to mention how white Creole women were still associated with the native population by European settlers and typically viewed as immoral.

Rhys's own background played an important role in all of her novels, evident in this one by the similarities between her background and her heroine's: both, for example, were from the island of Dominica and educated at convent schools. Both had siblings who died as children, and as a result, both felt distanced from and alienated by their mothers and forever searched for love. Rhys's mother's relatives were slaveholders, whose house, like Coulibri, was burned down by former slaves after the emancipation. Moreover, both Rhys and Antoinette were "given" names by men: Rochester dubs Antoinette "Bertha," and Rhys's lover and fellow author, Ford Madox Ford, gave her the name Jean Rhys, which she adopted as her pen name. Like her heroine, Rhys throughout her life was dependent on men for financial support, validation, and a sense of purpose. When she lost that support she was left depressed and devastated. These themes from her life—exile, loss, and alienation—fill Rhys's novels, especially Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jean Rhys died on May 14, 1979.

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