Jean Rhys Biography

Compiled by Lennox Honychurch

August 24, 1890 Birth of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams at Roseau, Dominica.
1907 Sails away from Dominica to England.
1907-8 Attends the Perse School, Cambridge.
1909 Attends Academy of Dramatic Art.
1909-10 Tours England as a chorus girl.
1910 Her father Dr Rees Williams dies at Roseau.
1919 Marries Jean Lenglet and moves to Paris. 29 Dec., birth of a son who dies three weeks later.
1922 Meets the American writer Ford Madox Ford in Paris. Begins to write short stories. Birth of her daughter Maryvonne.
1923-4 Husband in jail, has an affair with Ford.
1932 Divorce.
1934 Marriage to Leslie Tilden Smith (Died 1945).
1936 Returns to Dominica. Visits Geneva, meets her brother’s children, stays at Hampstead Estate, visits the Carib Reserve, walks across the island.
1947 Marriage to Max Hamer.
1957-66 Works on Wide Sargasso Sea after public interest following a radio broadcast of her work tracks her down to a house in Devon.
1966 Wide Sargasso Sea published.
1979 May 14. Death of Jean Rhys.

The following has been compiled with the input of literary analysis from the site:

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, in Roseau, to a Creole mother of the Dominican Lockhart family, and a Welsh-born doctor William Potts Rees Williams. As a white girl in a predominantly black community, Rhys felt socially and intellectually isolated; in 1907 she left the island for schooling in England, returning only once, in 1936. Although Rhys's attitude to her birthplace remained ambivalent throughout her life, the Caribbean shaped her sensibility. She remained nostalgic for the emotional vitality of its black peoples, and the conflict between its beauty and its violent history became enmeshed in the tensions of her own often-fraught personality.

Jean Rhys's great-grandfather, John Potter Lockhart, acquired Geneva plantation in 1824. After his death in 1837 his widow was left to run the estate. The “Census Riots” at Grand Bay, also called “La Guerre Negre”, in 1844 following Emancipation, led to the destruction of the estate and the burning of all the Lockhart possessions in the yard after rioters raided the house. In 1930 the Geneva Estate house was completely burned by arsonists. Rhys visited the plantation during her trip to Dominica in 1936 and was affected by the experience. An awareness of this may help to explain some of the more ambiguous attitudes in Wide Sargasso Sea, such as Antoinette's caustic remarks to Christophine and Tia about their blackness. Rhys's own background, as well as Antoinette's, was that of the former slave-owning Creole community. The attacks on Geneva became the scene of the burning of Coulibri in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Rhys's Dominican background is important to her works, playing a part in both her longer fictions like Voyage in the Dark and Sargasso, and in short stories such as The Day they Burned the Books. Dominica is the most rugged of the Caribbean islands. Its peaks rise to almost 5000 feet despite being only 29 miles long. The violent contrasts between dense vegetation, deep gorges, waterfalls and stretches of arid wasteland are totally unlike the atmosphere that Rhys was presented with upon her arrival in Britain. The irreconcilability of the landscapes is evoked in Wide Sargasso Sea when Rochester's attitude to the beauty is to mistrust its lushness – “too much blue, too much green”.

Rhys identified with the black community in her childhood, and indeed throughout her life, although she came to realise that her world could never align itself with that of her nursemaid, Meta, and other black mentors. She envied the black community its vitality and often contrasts the sterility of the white world with the richness and splendour of black life. Themes of attempted friendship with black girls recur in her work, an obvious example being the figures of Tia and Christophine in Wide Sargasso Sea, but Anna Morgan in Voyage in the Dark also attempts to find a friend among the black community.

Rhys's early life paralleled that of other postcolonial writers who have felt themselves betrayed by the reality of Britain; it was only when she was in her seventies that she found a social niche in England. Shaped by her instinctive drives and created out of the struggle to comprehend her own isolated predicament; her writing was obstinately unconventional. In part, this prevented her work from receiving due recognition for much of her lifetime.

Rhys's short fiction shows a remarkable variety of themes. A significant number of stories recall her childhood in the Caribbean and range from a girl's cruel sexual awakening ("Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose") to incisive sketches of the narrowness of small-island life ("The Day They Burned the Books"). Others, such as "Vienne," reflect Rhys's restless bohemian life in Europe. In "Let Them Call it Jazz," she assumes the personality of Selina, a black West Indian in London, whose struggles parallel her own. However, although Rhys declared, "I have only ever written about myself," it is important that her life and her writing not be confused. Her first published novel was Postures (1928, American title Quartet: A Novel, 1929). While it lacks the confidence of her later work, in the character of Marya Zelli it introduced what was to become the recognisably Rhys heroine -- sensitive, sexually attractive, and vulnerable, with a tendency to self-defeat. It also shows Rhys's stylistic control in moving within characters and in observing them objectively, without irony.

In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), the heroine is Julia Martin, who is recovering from the experience of sexual betrayal and attempting a futile liaison with the decent but inadequate Mr. Horsfield. The moral descent is completed in Good Morning Midnight (1939), a brilliant evocation of psychic disorientation and despair. The heroine, Sasha Jensen, remembers a life of love and defeat and faces the ultimate darkness suggested by the novel's title. Told in first person narrative, alternating between the past tense and the continuous present, Good Morning, Midnight is a technical tour de force.

Voyage in the Dark (1934), Rhys's third published but first-written novel, is her most autobiographical work of fiction. Its heroine, Anna Morgan, aged nineteen, has come to England from Dominica. The novel opens with a compelling evocation of the Caribbean, its colours, sights, smells, and warmth. As the novel recounts Anna's attempt to come to terms with her new life the inner narrative traces a remembered life in the Caribbean.

Rhys disappeared from public view until 1958, when the BBC dramatised her Good Morning, Midnight. The publication of Wide Sargasso Sea followed in 1966.

Rhys's final years brought fame and freedom from financial anxiety, but no work of similar importance. She published a collection of new short stories, Sleep it off Lady, and worked on her autobiography, unfinished at death, published posthumously as Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (1979). Her letters were published in 1984 in England as Jean Rhys's Letters: 1931-1966, edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly.

Places on Dominica Associated with Jean Rhys

Click on images to see a larger version; press Back to return to this page.

Jean Rhys lived at this house on the corner of Independence Street (then Granby Street) and Cork Street. She was born elsewhere in Roseau, but there are many descriptions of it in her autobiography and short stories


St. Ives on Turkey Lane is the site of the Convent School that Jean attended. It appears in her autobiography Smile Please and in Wide Sargasso Sea.

The St.George's Anglican Church where Jean was christened and where her family worshipped. In 1902 it was enlarged in response to the sudden rise in British investors in Dominica who soon declined again. In her unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, Jean describes the church and attending services there.

Dr Rees William’s grave near to the entrance of the Anglican Cemetery has a headstone topped with a Celtic cross of Welsh granite, a reference to his Welsh origins. It had fallen over, perhaps in the 1930 hurricane, but was restored thanks to donations from Jean’s biographer Carole Angier and her publisher/editor Diana Athill.

The ruins of Geneva House at Grand Bay upon which a modern building is now being constructed. Around it are the remains of the garden that looked over the estate and down to the river, all of which is described in Wide Sargasso Sea as ‘Coulibri’. In 1844 it was raided during the Census Riots and all the family’s possessions were burned. The present ruins date from a fire in 1930 set by politically motivated arsonists.

Geneva was an important Kalinago/ Carib settlement site (in the foreground) and was first taken over by Jesuit missionaries in about 1700. A French Huguenot family, the Bertrands, based in Geneva, Switzerland, bought it in the 1760s and named it after their hometown. The Lockharts bought it in 1824 and owned it until 1949, when Elias Nassief bought it. There were troubles in 1974, when the estate houses and old factory were burned and the government took it over in 1976 and divided it up as it is now. After Rosalie, Geneva was the largest estate on the island, being 1,550 acres in extent.


When the young Dr Rees Williams was the medical officer for the Grand Bay district he lived at Stowe Estate. There he courted Jean Rhys’ mother, Minna Lockhart, and they spent their honeymoon there. A drawing done at the time showing the Rees Williams’ honeymoon house appears in Smile Please. Stowe was named after a stately home in England, and it was also a military site, incorporating a small fort for the defence of southern Dominica. The low walls of the battery still exist and old iron cannons still lie near the sea.


Return to Jean Rhys home page.