Jean Rhys was one of the most distinctive and pioneering writers of the Twentieth century; her engagement with feminist issues within her novels of the 1920s and 30s was far ahead of its time and prefigured much of the feminist theory of the latter Twentieth Century. The powerfully autobiographical works she wrote in those years, such as Good Morning, Midnight and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie reflected her experiences on the fringes of European metropolitan society. They record the lives of women living in the demi-monde of Paris and London, reflecting Rhys’ own experiences in this sphere and suggest the ways in which patriarchal society both delimits their movements and constructs their public identity.
The deeply autobiographical nature of these works also means that they reflect Rhys’ upbringing in Dominica, where she was born and where she lived until she was sixteen. Her Dominican upbringing is evident in all her works as an implied absence, rather than as an explicit part of the narrative. Her characters suffer from acute rootlessness and long for some prelapsarian paradise from which they have strayed, but which they cannot quite locate. The most explicit evocations of Dominica are in what is perhaps Rhys’ most autobiographical work, Voyage in the Dark, in which the young heroine, working as a chorus girl in London and straying into prostitution, longs for her childhood in the West Indies. But even in this work her childhood is evoked as a dream world, a peaceful yet surreal place to which she has no chance of returning. Rhys’ representation of Dominica in her work is thus both an evocation of the loss of innocence that naturally occurs in the passage to adulthood and an expression of the rootlessness of modern existence.
Rhys’ profoundly bleak view of her lost Dominica found final expression in Wide Sargasso Sea, her ‘prequel’ to Jane Eyre, which was written almost thirty years after her earlier works, when she was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s. In this novel a young Creole girl finds herself swept away from her West Indian home, in this case Jamaica, and transported to a cold, unwelcoming and deeply patriarchal England where her sanity crumbles and she is transformed into the notorious ‘mad woman in the attic’ of the Brontë tale. Unlike Brontë’s tale however, Rhys’ sympathies remain with the girl from the West Indies, who like all of Rhys’ heroines, and perhaps like Rhys herself, finds herself cruelly cut adrift from her homeland, and from her sense of self.
Rhys has been awarded a Blue Plaque in recognition of her literary and cultural importance at Flat 22, Paultons Square, Chelsea in London, where she lived from 1936 to 1938.
by Thomas Storey