1. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
Rhys’ most celebrated novel tells the forgotten story of Mr Rochester’s first wife, ‘the madwoman in the attic’ from Jane Eyre. Antoinette (or Bertha) is humanised and written with heartbreaking empathy, making this book a landmark in postmodern, postcolonial and feminist literature. Reading it today, the words are so fresh and the ideas so modern, it’s hard to believe Wide Sargasso Sea is coming up to its 50th anniversary.
2. Her novels and short stories of the 1920s and ‘30s
Though Wide Sargasso Sea entered Rhys firmly into the canon, and garnered her numerous awards, her earlier work is no less breathtaking. Though less formally experimental than Wide Sargasso Sea, they all share a theme of forgotten women, used by men then forced to survive alone in a world unsympathetic to older, unmarried, complicated women. If you’re not sure where to begin, start with 1939’s Good Morning Midnight.
3. She found her literary fame later in life
Wide Sargasso Sea was published when Rhys was in her 70s, giving hope to any of us wannabe literary superstars who worry our best years might be behind us!
4. She was an outsider
Born and raised in Dominica, Rhys never felt like she fitted in as a white woman there, nor as a Creole woman in London when she moved there aged 17. These feelings of alienation make her writing more human and sympathetic than, say, Virginia Woolf (to whom she is often compared), who was firmly ensconced in the literary establishment Rhys never felt a part of.
“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care” she wrote in her autobiography.
5. Her interesting lovelife
Rhys married three times, her husbands including a fraudster who was in prison for much of their marriage. She also had affairs with the celebrated Modernist pioneer Ford Madox Ford, who recognised Rhys’ talent and encouraged her to write.
6. She was a flawed woman, who wrote flawed women
Suffering much of her life with alcoholism and suicidal thoughts, Jean Rhys is a relatable icon for anyone struggling with the same demons, as are many of her characters.
No virginal ingénues here, Rhys wrote complicated and realistic female characters that read as a breath of fresh air.No virginal ingénues here, Rhys wrote complicated and realistic female characters that read as a breath of fresh air. It’s depressing to realise how even nowadays many female characters are two-dimensional and tokenistic in comparison to these women who take centre stage and let us into their complex thoughts and motivations.
7. She was a feminist icon – or was she?
Though her work puts women’s experiences to the forefront, some feminists feel uncomfortable with how dependent her characters are on men to survive.
They often go from man to man, ex-lover to ex-lover, to scrounge any cash they can off them to get by. Is this inherently unfeminist, or just a reflection of the times, when women simply had no choice but to be dependent on men?
Either way, her books challenge your assumptions and make you look at these difficult questions.
8. She didn’t grow old gracefully
In the lost years between publication of Good Morning Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea, pretty much the only attention she garnered was for her 1949 arrest for assault of her neighbour and the police! Little did anyone know that in this time she was revising and reworking her future masterpiece.
9. She was a total babe…
Rhys’ photos show us a stunning 1920s beauty and an elegant older lady with the wisest, saddest eyes. Anyone who thinks cosmetic beauty is incompatible with intelligence and literary talent can get lost, frankly.
10. …but she didn’t buy into the myth of the glamorous tortured artist
Towards the end of her life, Rhys said “When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write.” The two were mutually exclusive for her, as her writing was a way of “get[ting] rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down.”
Pretty heartbreaking, but the literary canon is undoubtedly richer for her experiences.
What’s your favourite reason for loving Jean Rhys?