Jean Rhys

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Jean Rhys (August 24, 1890 – May 14, 1979), born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was a mid 20th century novelist from Dominica. She is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, written as a "prequel" to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.[1]


Early life

Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scottish ancestry.

Rhys was educated at the Convent School and moved to England when she was sixteen, sent there to live with her aunt Clarice. She attended the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge[2] where she was mocked because of her accent and outsider status. She also spent two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1909. The instructors at RADA despaired of Rhys ever being able to speak what they considered "proper English" and advised her father to take her away. 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.[3]

After her father died in 1910 Rhys drifted into the demimonde. Having fallen in love with a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith (1870–1941), she became his mistress. Although Smith was a bachelor he did not offer to marry Rhys and their affair ended within two years, though he continued to be an occasional source of financial help. Distraught both by the end of the affair and by the experience of a near-fatal abortion (not Smith's child), Rhys began writing an account which later became the basis of her novel Voyage In The Dark.[3] In need of money, she posed nude for an artist in Britain, probably Dublin-born William Orpen, in 1913.

During World War I, Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918 she worked in a pension office.

In 1919 Rhys married the French-Dutch journalist, spy and songwriter Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, the first of her three husbands.[3] She lived with him from 1920 wandering through Europe, mainly in London, Paris and Vienna. They had two children, a son who died young and a daughter. They divorced in 1933. She then married an editor, Leslie Tilden-Smith, in 1934. They moved to Devon in 1939, where she lived for many years. He died in 1945, and two years later, in 1947 she married Tilden-Smith's cousin Max Hamer, a solicitor, who spent much of their marriage in jail. He died in 1966.[4]

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