White Devil

Lucy Gray
20 min readAug 21, 2022

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 older lady? What if I told you that she was one of the greatest novelists who’d 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 often bad temper for thirty years.

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). A decade later she will be appointed with the CBE. 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 book about her 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. She was sent to jail once, after attacking her second of three husbands.

“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 as Ella Gwendoline Reece Williams in 1890 in Roseau, Dominica. It was a port town on a small Caribbean island that, after they’d taken it from Spain, France and England continued to fight over for centuries. Sugar was its biggest industry and export, and it was created on the backs of slaves brought from various countries in Africa. The Europeans and the Africans created a mixed-heritage society and abolished slavery in 1833 after which the “white Creole planter class” fought to hold onto their land, their wealth, their power, still clinging to their European ideals while being “disdained by Black people.”[3]

Gwen’s mother had an aunt who was probably Black but they said she was Spanish. Blacks called the family “white n — -s”[4] which Jean said was worse than “black n — — s,” at least they were not mixed. In her brilliant biography, 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.”[5] 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, Minna Lockhart’s family, had come from Scotland three generations ago, and they had been part of the sugar boom. Minna’s family owned a plantation and she tried to keep up an English appearance on the island. Meaning white. She served porridge for breakfast instead of the fabulous local mangoes that Gwen preferred. By loving the island and wanting to be of it, she was betraying her mother. Her father, William Williams, when he was home, sided with Gwen on this. He was an unreliable savior to his wife and his daughter.

William Potts Reece Williams, was 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. Minna and her twin sister Brenda nursed him back to health. It took a year. And then he married the one he said was “the gentler of the two.”[6]

Of the five children William had with Minna, the one he named Ella Gwendoline Reece Williams 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 early childhood her mother took the children to the Anglican church for white English people and stopped at the grave of her dead child: one lost cause creating another.

The same thing happens to Antoinette when her brother dies in Wide Sargasso Sea. After he’s gone, her mother can’t look at her. Minna had another daughter when Gwen was five and she felt spurned, as if she was a second ghost haunting her mother. Rhys opens Smile Please with a photograph of herself in a white dress, taken when she was five. She tells us she’s eight now, looking back at that golden girl, and she laments that “I wasn’t like [the young me] any longer.” A lesser writer would elicit nostalgia here, where Rhys gives us her grief. She has not only lost her mother’s interest, but Gwen is sent out to school, and when she is home she is given a nanny, Meta, “the terror of my life.”[7]

Angier explains that “Meta wasn’t allowed to hit Gwen, but the grown woman would put her hard hands on the child’s 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, in rooms paid for by men who’d land on her, bite her and fly out of sight.

Gwen’s father wasn’t home much — there was talk that he had affairs all over the island and that maybe he had a Black mistress — 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. She used the books sent by her paternal Irish Granny to hide in plain sight. Minna “disliked books, hated cleverness in a woman and saw no merit in giving her daughters an education.”[8]

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.”[9] When you get your blood 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. The students and even the nuns were mostly of mixed heritage. She didn’t want to go for fear it would label her mixed. She looked darker in this period. She had black hair, even on her arms. 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. Mixed in with entries of the whippings, Miranda Seymour wrote that she discovered diary entries about Gwen masturbating.

In an essential reading of her in 2018 in Harper’s Magazine, Elizabeth Lowry assessed that in life, and for her characters, “Sex was vital to Rhys: it was the arena of her liberation, and her undoing.”[10] In a diary in 1938, Rhys tried lamely to excuse her mother’s attacking her, saying she’d seen “something alien in me” that “would devour me and make me unhappy, and she was trying to root it out at all costs.” Surely this was about more than touching herself, more than dreaming with desire, or she wouldn’t still be, at nearly fifty, trying to find a way to take her mother’s side, that of the oppressor.

She’d written three novels that were full of “self-lacerating prose,” and she was working up to a new level of “regret” for the fourth, Good Morning, Midnight. In her diaries a Mr. Howard appears. She was probably fourteen. Crucially, he was white and from England. He was a friend of the family, “tall and imposing, with a soldier’s bearing, a white mustache, and a glass eye.” No matter that he was in his 70s. While visiting Roseau, both Seymour and Angier report that he initiated Gwen into sex, even violent sex. This went on until the man’s wife realized what was happening and they left the island.

In Rhys’s telling, he put his “cool masterful hand” inside her blouse and groped her breast once. She wrote that he made her “dreadfully attracted, dreadfully repelled.” And after that event “he didn’t lay a finger on her but seduced her verbally by spinning elaborate fantasies in which he abducted her, raped her, and kept her as slave.”[11] I do not believe that having been able to humiliate and subjugate her sexually that he didn’t do it again and go further.

It’s fascinating that she makes Mr. Howard a storyteller. The kidnapping and the rape and the slavery are what happened to Black people when they were brought to the island but he, the colonialist from England, teases her with it to seduce her with the people she had envied and feared as a younger girl. Maybe she told him about it, or he stumbled on the fantasy and saw how it excited her. Being a friend of the family, he may also have known about her father and the Black woman who was keeping him from being home with Gwen. All of that jumble in her mind, made her ready for Mr. Howard to take advantage of her.

I believe Mr. Howard actually raped Gwen. That he talked around the act, seducing her with the idea that she was, in effect, a Black girl. Unwittingly, perhaps, he was bestowing on her a power in her imagination that he connected with her sexually. As a woman, her response to men treating her badly was “rapturous, self-immolating capitulation.” Once, she thought about killing herself, but her nightmare was interrupted, and she began writing instead. In a twisted way, she became Mr. Howard’s equal. Her survival depended on her telling the story.

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 her parents 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 old Mr. Howard got Gwen pregnant? In her Black Exercise Book Jean wrote, “I never liked being kissed. All or nothing had been driven deep in.” When her parents returned, she started reading books about prostitutes in England. (For one brief period she even became one in London.) In her novel Voyage in the Dark (1934) that was based on her diary, the central character has an abortion during which she remembers a grey hairy chested man pushing himself on her severely.

Rhys’s first lover in London, supposedly the love of her life, treated her violently sexually. Apparently, she did become pregnant in 1913, when she was twenty-three, and had a dangerous late term abortion, 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 shame, and no matter how many ways she tried to face it and write her way out of it, she was addicted to subjugation. 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. Wouldn’t it be great, for any of us, feeling the shame was someone else’s?

The frankness with which her characters wrestled with “erotic passion, rage and madness” was something Rhys couldn’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.”[12] Luckily, when he was still alive, her father didn’t share her mother’s resistance to a girl’s education.

At seventeen her father, recognized his daughter’s intelligence and arranged for her to attend the Perse School in Cambridge. She couldn’t wait to go to England until she got there and found a cold, damp foreign country where the other girls made fun of her. They sounded like the girls at home. They sounded like her mother. Gwen’s first term the students read Jane Eyre, supposedly a classic for girls seeking fulfilment. Her classmates laughed at Gwen’s singsong English from Dominica and teased her that she was Creole like the character 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. Was Gwen being too sensitive when she believed it was 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.

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”[13] and for the rest of her life spoke in a whisper. Not the sign of a great showgirl. She went with a succession of men — in “the uneasy grey space between sex worker and wife”[14] — as their mistress. 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. She made indolence into a profession.

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, in 1922 one more girl — just like her mother — but Ella had to put hers in foster care. There was Ella having a baby she couldn’t afford, another time she disappeared. She must’ve wanted Maryvonne Lenglet though, because there are no other children after her, Ella knew how to prevent pregnancy.

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

The couple went to Paris where her husband was 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 wasn’t interested in Lenglet’s work but asked if Ella had anything of her own. Maybe the landlord/editor knew about Ella’s Black Exercise Books. The next day she dropped off her diaries at the front desk and ran out of the newspaper office.

The editor shaped the stories into chapters, gave each one the title of a man, 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 a fat swath of 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 penetratingly:

“Publicly nothing was said by anybody. It was Stella herself [Ford’s partner] 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” alongside one of Rhys’s new chums, the Midwestern poet, Ivan Beede, 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 so we know Marya will take that hand to bed. Even if she has imagined she had something over this couple when she observed Mrs. Heidler so piteously. We can only feel sorry for Marya. 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 wild 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. If you’re betting on being saved by a white man — your dad, Mr. Howard, rich and abusive lovers, a literary editor — and you keep on being dumped, well, you gotta believe in the dare to stay at the table; going for broke is a higher calling, ask any writer.

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 but “fifty percent of women who were single in their late twenties in 1921…stubbornly remained so a decade later. ”[15]

Jobs and rooms for women in their late thirties in 1931 were harder and harder to get, despite there being more women than men in the city.

Rhys was thirty-eight when Quartet came out in 1928, and nearly fifty for Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. Suddenly she was old, the books were depressing, and no one would publish her, not even a short story. As her writing prospects withered, Minna died. Jean had rarely visited her, but it still felt like her mother’s final rejection. Apparently, Jean behaved terribly at the funeral, screaming 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

So maybe she was destined to write the prequel to Jane Eyre because who else could know what Bertha meant when she set herself on fire? That’s a Jean Rhys kind of woman. After Wide Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre reads as predictably as a high tone romance novel. The hole Bertha leaves behind will be filled by Mr. Rochester marrying Jane Eyre. In the end the wimp gets the Imperialist. Whereas Rhys had written the “universal vision of alienation that is as hauntingly modern as anything by her contemporaries.”[16] It remains Rhys’s most popular book.

In the beginning a Black girl, Tia, takes her white friend, Antoinette, (Bertha’s childhood name) swimming. They are both naked in the water. Tia gets out first and steals Antoinette’s dress. Antoinette doesn’t seem to mind wearing Tia’s dress nearly as much as her mother does. This turns out to be a foreshadowing of a Black uprising. Rhys based this on one that occurred in Dominica when she was three, after which the Blacks ridiculed the Crown colony rule and the white planters class.

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

In the real uprising of 1893, the peasants threw rocks at the English soldiers who were stationed in Roseau. In the story, Tia throws a jagged stone at Antoinette who is concussed and wakes up in a strange bed six weeks later. Emotionally, she has been abducted. Her brother was killed in the mayhem and when she tries to see her mother she attacks the child. To save their plantation, Antoinette is made to marry. Even the narration is taken from her and given to her unnamed husband for the whole description of the sexual “magic” that occurs between them.

It turns him against her. He despises her for being so desirable. She has him under her spell. So that when he hears about her mother’s insanity 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.”

He must end it with her. The man we know will become Rochester betrays Antoinette and starts calling her Bertha. He has had sex with a Black servant in her antechamber and she has watched. He must’ve wanted her to. Observation is her curse. When Rochester wakes in the morning, he pays off the girl and sends her away. He claims it must’ve been the wine that made him behave badly; his wine he says was spiked by an “evil Black witch.” Women are all out to get him! No matter that he married Bertha because he needed her plantation.

There is a long fight between Rochester and Antoinette/Bertha during which she does most of the talking. We might think that’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 her thoughts become clear and she sees that he’s 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.’”

Paul Joyce, Jean Rhys, July 1977, at 87

Just look at the way Jean Rhys looks at you — at the camera. A little old lady, a gentle wreck, in her pretty clothes, but can you take it?

[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] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea and the Genesis of Secrecy, Post Colonial World Literature with Ato Quayson, 2021

[4] 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.

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

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

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

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

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

[10] [11]“Perfectly Respectable Lady” by Elizabeth Lowry, Harper’s Magazine, May 2018

[12] [13]Jean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier, Andres Deutsch, 1985

[14] [15] “Women Between the Wars,” Sophie Atkinson, Hazlitt, June 15, 2019

[16] “Perfectly Respectable Lady” by Elizabeth Lowry, Harper’s Magazine, May 2018



Lucy Gray

Writing about women artists in history from a photographers point of view. Trying to appreciate their enormous challenges and yet they blossom into geniuses.