White Devils

Her gift as a writer was to get you to see the survivor in seemingly self-destructive women.

Jean Rhys: 1890–1979

Do you recognize this elderly woman? What if I told you that she was one of the greatest novelists who has ever lived; admired for the economy in her writing about sexual exploitation of women. And that she had been notorious for the frank accounts of her own sordid life in four short, indelible books — Quartet (1928); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939) — but they were set in Paris and London in the 1920s and 30s, a long time before this picture was taken. Since then, she’d been deemed unpublishable and lived in poverty, neglect and bad temper for three long decades.

Here, she is seventy-six, in her last house in a small village in Devon in the south of England, and she’s making a comeback. You see the shy smile and the fierce look in her dark eyes? This is the 1960s, the era of the Beatles, Mary Quant and Julie Christie, and it is the time of Jean Rhys’s last and most celebrated novel about an insecure girl struggling to find herself in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Perhaps you do remember her now.

There is a new biography I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour. It is the third biography so far.[1] But as Dwight Garner reminded us in his review, Rhys “did not want to be the subject of a biography and took steps to muddy her trail.” Not the least of which was her own vague Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (1979) that came out just after her death. She didn’t make it easy to celebrate her. In this picture she is looking a little crazy, maybe drunk — she often was — and then violent.

“Hate gives you courage,” the girl, Antoinette, tells us in Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette Cosway is Rhys’s creation who will turn into Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Antoinetta Mason, and then the wife of Mr. Rochester, the woman who goes crazy and he shuts away in his attic in Jane Eyre. Rhys’s story is a prequel to the classic. There were reasons why she chose Bertha like the fact that Bronte wrote her as Creole — mixed race — from the West Indies, like Rhys herself. Also, Rhys made Antoinette’s mother despise her daughter, as Rhys felt her mother did her. Her whole life she’d been “aching with the difference between what you want to be and what you are”[2] and in Wide Sargasso Sea she finally explored that insecurity in a character haunted by ghosts and her destiny.

Charles W. Blackburne, Dr. Doty and friends in Old Market Street, Roseau, Dominica between 1897–1912

Jean Rhys was born in 1890 in Roseau, Dominica. It was a port town on a small Caribbean island that had been fought over by France and England for centuries after they’d taken it from Spain. Sugar was its biggest industry and export, and it was created on the backs of slaves brought from various countries in Africa. After slavery was abolished in 1833 the “white Creole planter class” lost power and wealth, and were often “disdained by angry Black people.”

Jean’s mother’s family were Creole and the Blacks called them “white n — -s”[1] which Jean said were worse than “black n — — s,” at least they were not mixed. But what Dominican was not mixed by then?

In her Jean Rhys: Life and Work (1985), Carole Angier tells us: “She felt singled out from her brothers and sisters, for they were all dark and sturdy, while she was pale and thin and fair.” She always felt attacked and like she “would never fit in anywhere”[2] but claimed she “didn’t care.” Her gift as a writer was to get you to see the survivor in seemingly self-destructive women.

Her mother’s family had come from Scotland three generations before, and they had been part of the sugar boom. Jean’s mother, Minna Lockhart, inherited land. She was wealthy when she met William Potts Reece Williams a white doctor from Wales.

He was the younger son of two whose father had cut him out of the family inheritance. His mother paid for his college so he could become a doctor and he then became a naval officer and sailed around the world. Soon after he arrived in Dominica he fell ill and Minna and her twin sister Brenda nursed him back to health, but it took a year, at the end of which he married the one he said was “the gentler of the two.”[5]

Of the five children William had with Minna, the one he named Ella Gwendoline Reece Williams, who would later change her name to Jean Rhys, was his favorite. Gwen was born exactly a year after her older sister had died and sent her mother into terrible mourning. And every Sunday of Gwen’s childhood her mother took the children to the Anglican church for white English people and stopped at the grave of her dead child: two lost causes.

When Gwen was five her mother had another daughter and Gwen felt spurned, as if she were now the ghost of the dead one, haunting her mother. The same thing happens to Antoinette when her brother dies in Wide Sargasso Sea. Her mother can’t look at her.

Rhys opens Smile Please with a photograph of herself in a white dress, taken when she was five. She’s eight now, she tells us, looking back at that golden girl and she laments that “I wasn’t like [the young me] any longer.” This wasn’t nostalgia, it was grief. Between five, when her sister was born, and eight, when she was sent to school, Gwen had a nanny, Meta, “the terror of my life.”[6]

Angier explains that “Meta wasn’t allowed to hit her, but she would put her hard hands on her shoulders and shake her violently. Then Gwen would scream at her ‘Black Devil! Black Devil! Black Devil!’ And Meta would threaten her with ‘tears of blood.’ It was her favorite phrase.”

Jean remembered that “[Meta] also taught me to fear cockroaches hysterically. She said that when I was asleep at night they would fly in and bite my mouth and that bite would never heal.”

Cockroaches were vampires. Blood sucking was what your nanny, your mother, your father, your lover, your guilt did to you. “It didn’t help that my mother, who tackled centipedes with great spirit, would go out of the room if a cockroach flew in and refuse to come back until it had been caught.” Your mother wouldn’t protect you.

The cruelest taunt children had for Gwen was calling her “white cockroach.” Rhys would become a vivid describer of rooms in her stories and often there was a cockroach, two inches long and smelling terribly: West Indian cockroaches, Jean Rhys cockroaches living in London.

Gwen’s father wasn’t home much — there was talk that he had affairs all over the island — but when he was with his family he took Gwen’s side against her mother. He fired a math tutor because his daughter was bad at it but good at reading. Gwen learned from her father that running away could be a strategy in life. The first means to that end were the books sent by her Irish Granny, William’s mother. Gwen’s mother Minna “disliked books, hated cleverness in a woman and saw no merit in giving her daughters an education”[7]

She thought her husband and Gwen were both wild, but Minna could only try and tame one of them. She used a whip to beat Gwen. Only Gwen, none of the other children. Her family thought she was indolent. They’d hear the ropes creaking on the hammock she lay in reading, and they’d call her to come inside the house. She delighted in ignoring them. She wrote later that she “felt very vividly the satisfaction of being wicked. The guilt that was half triumph.”[8] When your blood is sucked it hurts and it feels good, too.

Jean Rhys in Convent uniform with ? Pinterest

After Meta, Gwen was sent to the Catholic school for girls. She didn’t want to go because the students and even the nuns were mostly of mixed heritage. And Gwen said her mother hit her more. Later, people thought Jean exaggerated the frequency and severity of these punishments. Perhaps she did blow them up in her mind and connect them to becoming sexual. Along with the punishments, Miranda Seymour’s biography reports discovering diary entries of Gwen masturbating.

Seymour and Angier both write that there was a white Englishman in his 70s, Mr. Howard, who, while visiting Roseau, initiated her into sex, even violent sex, when she was fourteen. This went on until the man’s wife realized what was happening and they left the island. Gwen wrote about this in her diaries — Black Exercise Books — but claimed it was only verbal abuse.

I believe it actually happened. When she was fourteen her parents went away for the only time in her childhood. They went to England, and when they returned it was with renewed feeling for Dominica. But for Gwen her relationship with her mother changed dramatically. Something occurred that caused their relationship to be “over” as Angier describes it. Her mother stops the beatings!

In Smile Please Rhys writes that when they returned, she stood up to her mother — but there is no evidence she ever did and there is plenty to the contrary. What if her mother discovered that striking her daughter was useless; that a child grows up no matter how you try and stop her.

Is it so far-fetched to imagine that while her parents were in England the old Mr. Howard raped the child and got her pregnant? In her Black Exercise Book, Jean wrote, “I never liked being kissed. All or nothing had been driven deep in.” She started reading books about prostitutes in England. In her novel Voyage in the Dark, that was based on diary entries, the central character has an abortion and remembers a grey hairy chested man pushing himself on her hard.

Rhys’s first lover in London, supposedly the love of her life, treated her similarly sexually. Apparently, she did become pregnant in 1913, when she was twenty-three, and had a dangerous late term abortion in England, but that doesn’t mean it had to be her first. We tend to think terrible things happen only once when we know they often repeat themselves.

I read all of Jean Rhys’ novels twice, in two summers thirty years apart, and they showed me, among many things, that her subject was hiding, a way of protecting her faults and holding onto them, a sure way of repeating them. Listen to the way the narrator, Anna, thinks in Voyage in the Dark. Her lover has just said he’s ending their affair.

“I got up. I meant to say, ‘What are you doing?’ But when I went up to him, instead of, ‘Don’t do that,’ I said, ‘Alright, if you like — anything you like, anyway you like. And I kissed his head.”

“’Don’t,’ he said. ‘It’s I who ought to kiss your hand, not you mine.’

I felt miserable suddenly and utterly lost, ‘Why did I do that?’ I thought.

But as soon as we were out in the street I felt happy again, and calm and peaceful.”

No need to forgive when you can forget. The character is taking the high road, moving on. But can she? Will she? After Jean’s first affair in London, she went back repeatedly trying to rekindle his interest and taking his guilt money. She got pregnant and told herself the baby was his, knowing it couldn’t have been. Can you blame her? Lonely, lost, no country to call her own, no family to lean on, she didn’t yet know she had talent. Haven’t we all lived that scene, and isn’t it a little easier reading about the shame someone else feels?

The frankness with which her characters reveal their inner thoughts was something Rhys didn’t do in life. She wrote diaries she never showed to anyone until nearly fifteen years after her father was dead. He would have read her books, but her mother never did, Jean could count on that. She didn’t even tell her mother she was a writer, knowing the profession “would have seemed to her family an embarrassment, a public proof of depravity.”[9]

When Gwen was seventeen, her father, recognizing her abilities, arranged for her to attend the Perse School in Cambridge. She couldn’t wait to go until she got to England and found a cold and damp place where the other girls made fun of her as much as her mother had. Gwen’s first term there, the students read Jane Eyre, supposedly a classic for girls seeking fulfilment. Her classmates laughed at Gwen’s Dominican singsong English and teased her that she was Creole like Bertha, crazy like Bertha.

When the girls were reading the part of Jane Eyre where Bertha, in a fit of fury, sets her red dress alight, a fire happened to break out in the classroom grate which to sensitive Gwen must’ve seemed intentional. She decided that year that she’d like to become an actress. She convinced her father to let her audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). She got in two terms there before he died in 1910. After that, her mother would not pay for the acting school.

Jean Rhys c.1930s, the writing decade. She always looked ten or fifteen years younger than her age. University of Tulsa

Gwen found the idea of going home to Roseau humiliating. She would not return a failed actress. Calling herself by her first name, Ella, she applied for a job as a chorus girl. She hid her “nasty n — -’s voice”[10] and for the rest of her life spoke in a whisper. Not surprisingly, she was no good as a showgirl. She became the mistress of a succession of men — in “the uneasy grey space between sex worker and wife”[11]. She’d found a way to make indolence a profession. Waiting around in hotel rooms she started writing in her Black Exercise Books about laying in bed, hoping this man or that one would show up.

Finally, around thirty, Ella married Jean Lenglet, a journalist, a poet, a songwriter and a spy come confidence trickster. Oh, yes, and he was a bigamist. And another of the men she said was the love of her life. She and Lenglet had a child who died and a year later, one more, a girl — just like her mother — but Ella had to put hers in foster care. She must have wanted Maryvonne Lenglet though because there are no other children after her, Ella learned how to prevent pregnancy.

The couple went to Paris and Lenglet got arrested. While he was in jail, out of financial desperation, Ella worked on some of his stories and then took them to an editor at a newspaper who had been their landlord before they couldn’t pay the rent anymore. The editor turned down publishing Lenglet but asked if Ella had anything of her own. Maybe the editor knew about Ella’s Black Exercise Books. The next day Ella left her diaries at the front desk and ran.

The editor shaped the stories into chapters, gave each one the title of a man and then another and another, and took the manuscript to Ford Madox Ford who was looking for new material from unknown promising writers to publish in his quarterly. This was 1924. In April the first of the four parts of Ford’s defining Parades End hit bookstores and then he turned his efforts to “the atlantic review” in which he published a dozen unknown writers who make up our 20th century European literary canon.

Ella was thirty-four and stranded. And this titan in the world of literature picks her up, makes her change her name (another refuge), and puts her first story in print alongside work by Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce — Jean Rhys started at the top. She and Ford had an affair without being in love. He was convincing her she was a writer. She was trying to become one. The other writers made fun of her for sleeping with Ford, as Seymour writes:

“Publicly nothing was said by anybody. It was Stella herself [Ford’s partner Stella Bowen] who later coined the phrase ‘Ford’s girl’ to suggest how scornfully the gifted intruder was regarded by their friends. Hemingway, who attended the same parties, and worked on editing “the atlantic review”…never mentioned Rhys once. James Joyce, indebted to Ford for his unfaltering support in publishing the Irish novelist’s most experimental work, recalled only having been asked to zip up Miss Rhys’s dress while sharing a lift. A lift? An unzipped dress? Clearly, Joyce was flagging an assignation at a hotel, but Ford is not named, only the vulnerable young outsider from whom a slightly malicious Joyce had nothing to fear.”

Ford Madox Ford and James Joyce, 1924

But then, men have always been jealous of women and called them sluts. There just hasn’t been a writer so adroit at capturing her squeeze as Rhys did in this scene in Quartet when the character named Marya, based on her, meets the Heidlers, based on Ford and Bowen:

“Heidler emerged, puffing slightly, and announced…’We’ll sit on the terrace and wait…’

“The terrace was empty and cold, but without argument they all sat down and ordered coffee and liqueur brandies.

“Marya, who was beginning to shiver, drank her brandy and found herself staring eagerly and curiously at Mrs. Heidler.

“A strong, dark woman, her body would be duskily solid like her face. There was something of the earth about her, something of the peasant. Her mouth was large and thick lipped, but not insensitive, and she had an odd habit of wincing when Heidler spoke to her sharply. A tremor would screw up one side of her face so that for an instant she looked like a hurt animal.

“‘I bet the man is a bit of a brute sometimes,’ thought Marya. And as she thought it, she felt his hand lying heavily on her knee.”

Makes you shiver. Everyone does what Heidler wants on the terrace which is the foreshadowing of Marya going to his bed whatever her trepidations. Even if she has imagined she had some power over this couple when she observed Mrs. Heidler so well. We can only pity her for it. She is doomed. As a writer is doomed for imagining her powers of observation might protect her from poverty and the need to bed a brute.

And, yet, when Marya perks up it is to decry a life without risk or danger. That’s what keeps her passion alive for her husband even after he’s sent to jail in the story. This is a cri de coeur in all of Rhys’s characters as she proclaimed it was for her in life.

After Rhys wrote Quartet, there were three more novels set in London between the wars when even if you had a job like typist, or in retail, or chorus girl it didn’t pay well enough to make room and board, not to mention silk stockings. It was expected that you would marry so jobs and rooms for women in their late thirties were harder and harder to get, despite there being more women than men: “fifty percent of women who were single in their late twenties in 1921…stubbornly remained so a decade later. ”[12]

Rhys was thirty-eight when Quartet came out and nearly fifty for Good Morning, Midnight — 1928 to 1939 — and suddenly she was old, the books were depressing and no one would publish her, not even a short story. Jean rarely visited her mother and then as her writing prospects withered, Minna died: Jean’s final rejection. And apparently she behaved terribly, screaming at the funeral about her siblings stealing her mother’s money. Public drunkenness became her thing. And it stayed like that for thirty years!

Jean Rhys, c.1940s

By 1966, all three of her husbands were dead, but her only child, Maryvonne (who Lenglet had raised in Holland) had forgiven her mother, and then Rhys published her biggest success: Wide Sargasso Sea.

After being stirred into imaginative hysteria as a child by Meta, then mocked and beaten by her mother, then teased unmercifully at the English school, and condescended to by the literati in Paris, and later ostracized by publishers, and sent to cool off in jails and even mad houses, Rhys chose to write a book that would rival a classic. It was a bold move, some might say reckless. And, yet, even for this last go, late in life, now or never for her self-discovery, she began at least by hiding inside the character Charlotte Bronte wrote.

Wide Sargasso Sea had the advantage of a century over Jane Eyre, that and being of Creole descent gave Rhys an edge over Bronte who simply set Bertha as having been born in Jamaica. All we know from Bronte is that the character’s mother went mad before her. Rhys’s story is set on Jamaica (but could be Dominica) where Bertha, as a girl called “Antoinette,” is smart but neglected. In the beginning her best friend is a Black girl named Tia who steals Antoinette’s dress and leaves hers behind for the mixed girl to wear. A tipoff that the Black people on the island are not happy. Indeed, there soon is an uprising that Rhys recreated from one she’d heard about at home as a child.

A picture postcard from c.1910, the “paradise” Jean Rhys left behind.

Later, when Antoinette is grown, Mr. Rochester comes from England, falls ill and then proposes marriage to her, it’s like what happened when Rhys’s father landed in Roseau. Mr. Rochester has come because Antoinette has property that will be his when they wed. She is wary of him and to be more convincing, he talks himself into the idea that he loves her. She gives in, not telling him that her mother is insane. This is her secret from Mr. Rochester, as it will be his from Jane Eyre in the next story.

Mr. Rochester and Antoinette have a period of sexual “magic” together. He can’t resist her. He must find a way to break her hold over him, her spell. So that when he hears about her mother and Antoinette not being pure white it is a convenient wedge for him to doubt their future together. He tells her that and says to himself with sorrow and relief, “I saw the hate go out of her eyes. I forced it out. And with the hate her beauty. She was only a ghost.”

Then, in his emotional turmoil, he betrays his wife by having sex with a Black servant. A stab at Antoinette being mixed. And when he wakes in the morning, he pays off the girl and sends her away. To Antoinette, who has heard everything, (observation is her curse) he claims it must’ve been the wine that made him behave badly; his wine was spiked by an “evil Black witch.” Women — mixed heritage, Black — they drag an Englishman down.

There is a long fight between Mr. Rochester and Antoinette during which she does most of the talking. We might think it’s Rhys getting a lot off her chest, as the young woman comes to grips with the idea that she isn’t loved and never will be. Then at the end she suddenly sees that he’s just a white colonial and they all look alike to her now:

“I thought you liked the black people so much,’ she said…‘but that’s just a lie like everything else…You abused the planters and made-up stories about them, but you do the same things. You send the girl away quicker, and with no money or less money, and that’s all the difference.”

“’Slavery was not a matter of liking or disliking,’ [he] said, trying to speak calmly. ‘It’s a question of justice.’”

“’Justice,’ she said…’It’s a damn cold lie to me.’”

In Jane Eyre, written over a hundred years earlier, submissive Jane will marry Mr. Rochester and the reader is meant to jump for joy because Bertha is dead and the governess, Jane, can dutifully live under the protection of the landowner, Mr. Rochester. But after Wide Sargasso Sea how can we ever read Jane Eyre again without seeing that she subjugates herself and if our hearts skip a beat, we want to be subjugated, too?

Mr. Rochester took the land from that woman in the attic, that woman he drove mad. All she ever wanted was to be loved and when first her mother, and then her friend/her country and finally her husband won’t/can’t give it to her she falls apart. Just look at the way Jean Rhys looks at you — at the camera. A little old lady, a gentle wreck, but can you take it?

Paul Joyce, Jean Rhys, July 1977, at 87

[1] Jean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier, Andres Deutsch, 1985; The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys By Lilian Pizzichini, Norton, 2009.

[2] Jean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier, Andres Deutsch, 1985

[3] My redaction. But in her books Rhys’ uses racial epithets that came from her experience to ground the spite in her characters. They are part of a whole set of ways of being from the last century that we shouldn’t forget, even as we outgrow them.

[4] I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys, Miranda Seymour, W.W. Norton & Co., 2022

[5] Jean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier, Andres Deutsch, 1985

[6] Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, Harper & Row, 1979.

[7] I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys, Miranda Seymour, W.W. Norton & Co., 2022

[8] Jean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier, Andres Deutsch, 1985

[9] Jean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier, Andres Deutsch, 1985

[10] Jean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier, Andres Deutsch, 1985

[11] Women Between the Wars, Sophie Atkinson, Hazlitt, June 15, 2019

[12] Women Between the Wars, Sophie Atkinson, Hazlitt, June 15, 2019

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Lucy Gray

Top Writer: Photography. I know you are looking. Have a look with me. I will say what I think is worth your time reading.