Classic Author Focus: Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys is, of course, best known for Wide Sargasso Sea, her imagining of the life of Mrs. Rochester, the “madwoman in the attic” in Jane Eyre. She was born on the island of Dominica in the British West Indies, and it was not until she wrote a book set in the Caribbean that she gained renown as a writer.

Because of problems with her mother, Jean was sent to England when she was 16 to live with an aunt. In a girls school there, she faced bullying because she was such an outsider. She wanted to become an actress and joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but was unable to get parts because of her accent and ended up as a chorus girl. For a while she adopted a bohemian life, becoming the mistress of a wealthy man and working as a nude model. Distraught after an abortion, she wrote her first book, Voyage in the Dark.

Rhys’s writing career gained traction after she met the writer Ford Madox Ford, who recognized that she had an unusual viewpoint. She wrote mostly works about mistreated women using a modified stream of consciousness technique.

In the 1940’s Rhys disappeared from public life for some years, taking up residence in Cornwall and writing nothing. She finally published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. This book earned a prestigious literary award and much acclaim. In 1978, she received the Order of the British Empire.

Dates: 1890-1979

Most popular work: Wide Sargasso Sea

Other works: The Left Bank and Other Stories; After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie; Good Morning , Midnight; Voyage in the Dark; Sleep It Off, Lady


20 thoughts on “Classic Author Focus: Jean Rhys

  1. I love Jean Rhys’ books. I have just come back from Dominica, where she is from. Wonderful island. I have read two of her books; The Wild Sargasso Sea ( and Voyage in the Dark ( I was not aware that The Wild Sargasso Sea was written so late in her life. I can see the story and the environs more clearly now when I have been there.

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  2. I was impressed by WSS, and it proved enlightening to read before I got to Jane Eyre by giving voice to someone who has no voice inn’s Brontë’s novel. l

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  3. I liked Rhys’ “Good Morning, Midnight” a lot, but “Wide Sargasso Sea” was a big letdown for me too. I thought the idea behind it was absolutely brilliant, but the execution just seemed a little messy to me, as though Rhys lost control of her narrative somewhere along the way. I was most puzzled by the way in which Antoinette/Bertha comes across as mentally unstable almost from the very beginning, which makes her increasingly erratic behaviour in the novel seem inevitable as opposed to something induced solely or mainly by Rochester’s rejection of her. I wasn’t sure I completely bought into Rhys’ characterization of Rochester, either — he seemed a little underdeveloped to me.

    Still, Rhys is a fascinating writer, and I intend to read the rest of her novels at some point anyway!

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