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Rhys, Jean

Jean Rhys was born on 24th August 1890 as Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Roseau, the capital of Dominica in the Caribbean, then a British colony. Her mother was from a Creole (part native Caribbean, part French) family, and her father was a Welsh doctor. She had a tremendously difficult life, starting from her time in the Caribbean, where she didn’t fit in with either the richer whites or with the blacks, and she was known as the ‘white cockroach’. No wonder she didn’t want to return to Dominica from England, where she was sent to study, aged 16, even though she hated it in England too. She spiralled into promiscuity and depression, but she was able to write fiction that some might say reflects her own life, and she maintained integrity and perfectionism in her work. Even her literary patron, Ford Madox Ford, took a sexual interest in her, which some say turned into a ménage à trois with him and his partner, Stella, and the affair ended bitterly, which could account for her growing pessimism. Rhys never seemed to settle anywhere and remained rootless. She called Cornwall ‘Bude the Obscure’ and Devon ‘a dull spot which even drink cannot enliven much’. She claims only to have written about herself; her writing is renowned for its presentation of the underdog or the outsider, and this vulnerability and sense of struggle is what makes her work appealing to many.

Image: Jean Rhys the writer
Source: G88keeper; Licence: Creative Commons
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Jean Rhys born

Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams was born on 24th August 1890 in Dominica in the Caribbean. Her mother’s family owned a plantation, where they lived.

See photos of Dominica


Sent to England

Rhys was sent to England aged 16 for her education and because her relationship with her mother was difficult. She was mocked by her teachers and her peers for her accent. This made it difficult for her to study drama and she only lasted two terms. After this, she worked as a chorus girl, making a frugal living.


Around this time, Rhys was known for her hedonistic lifestyle. She had affairs with rich men and spent time as a nude model. She is said to have endured an abortion which almost killed her. She was an alcoholic, some say a prostitute and she spent a short spell in Holloway prison for assault.


Rhys worked in a soldiers’ canteen and in a pension office during the war.

First marriage

Rhys married Willem Johan Marie Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist, songwriter and possibly spy. They lived a hedonistic lifestyle. They had two children, a daughter, who lived mostly with her father, and a son, who died young. Rhys and Lenglet divorced in 1933.


Rhys met writer Ford Madox Ford, who supported her writing and gave her the pseudonym Jean Rhys. He appreciated her narrative position as the underdog, since she had lived as an exile and a Creole. She had a disastrous affair with him, living with him and his partner in Paris.

Second marriage

A year after divorcing Lenglet, Rhys married Leslie Tilden-Smith, an editor. They returned to Dominica only to find the family estate in disrepair having being burnt down after the slaves were emancipated.

Voyage in the Dark

Rhys published her semi-autobiographical story of a Caribbean chorus girl unable to settle in England.


Rhys and her husband moved to Devon, and Rhys disappeared from the public eye.

Good Morning, Midnight

Rhys published her story about an ageing woman. This was her first major foray into the stream of consciousness style.

Death of Tilden-Smith

Rhys’s second husband died.

Third marriage

Rhys married the solicitor Max Hamer, a cousin of her second husband. Unfortunately, not long after their marriage, he went to prison for fraud.


Rhys moved to Bude, Cornwall, but was unhappy there.

See a picture of Bude


Returned to Devon

Rhys moved back to Devon, which she also disliked.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Rhys published her first novel for 26 years, which was critically acclaimed. Her third husband died the same year.

Read a review of Wide Sargasso Sea


W H Smith Award

Rhys received this prestigious award for Wide Sargasso Sea.


Rhys published ‘Quartet’, a short story about a lonely woman finding love. It is suggested the story is based on an affair between Rhys and Ford Madox Ford.


Rhys received a CBE for her services to writing.


Rhys died on 14th May 1979 in a nursing home in Exeter, aged 88. Her life story was published posthumously, called Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Blue plaque

Her former flat in Chelsea was marked with a blue plaque from English Heritage.

See a picture of the flat where Rhys lived from 1936 to 1938