Jean Rhys, the novelist who found literary fame and success at 76 with her one masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, died in London on May 14, 1979 at the age of 88.
She had a sad and tortured life, plagued by poverty, alcoholism, sexual abuse, prostitution, a stint in jail, stays in mental hospitals, the death of a week-old son, and three troubled marriages.
Rhys was born in 1890 on a colonial plantation on the Caribbean island of Dominica as Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. She and her family were among the few white people in the area and she was fascinated by the seeming “naturalness” of the black natives.
From an early age she was sexually abused by an older family friend. As a teenager she began an affair with a mixed race man, which her parents brought to an end by sending her to school in England in 1907, when she was 16 years old.
She fared poorly in her studies and felt isolated in London. When her father died in 1910 she was left without an income and forced to find ways, not always pleasant, to survive.
She became a “showgirl,” trading sexual favours with men for meals and gifts. She met a “sugar daddy” who set her up in an apartment and who continued to help support her long after the affair ended. He even paid for her to have a dangerous late-term abortion (years later while she was working as a prostitute) during which she nearly died.
Her first husband was a Dutch con artist with whom she lived in various cities across Europe, always one step ahead of the law, before he was eventually arrested and imprisoned.
Her second husband was also prone to shady financial dealings that kept the couple in prolonged poverty.
By the time he died in 1945 Rhys was already heavily addicted to alcohol. Her third husband was her second husband’s best friend and a fellow alcoholic.
Rhys published several novels early in her life, but to little notice. She began her writing career in Paris in the 1930s where she met Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and other “lost generation” expats.
In Paris she also met the American expat novelist Ford Madox Ford, who encouraged her in her writing. (He also installed her in his house while her first husband was in prison. She became Ford’s mistress with the full complicity of his common-law wife.)
Rhys was all but forgotten and hadn’t written anything for 25 years when she published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. It is a sort of “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, in which Rhys imagines Mr. Rochester’s first wife (the “madwoman in the attic”) as a Jamaican Creole heiress.
The success of the novel brought her financial security in her old age, but little happiness. Rhys often lamented that her success had come “too late” in life for her to have enjoyed it. She wistfully told a BBC interviewer shortly before her death that “If I could choose I would rather be happy than write… if I could live my life all over again, and choose…”