Jean Rhys: Prostitution, alcoholism and the mad woman in the attic

Alcoholic, often destitute, and abandoned by a series of men, Jean Rhys led a tortured life, according to a new biography. Yet it was these very hardships, says Lesley McDowell, which made her the writer she was

It was in old age that Jean Rhys said, "It seems to me now that the whole business of money and sex is mixed up with something very primitive and deep." If anyone should have discovered that, she should have. Because Jean Rhys was a woman who took money from men for sex, at one very low point in her life; she allowed past lovers to carry on financing her, long after they had left her. Something primitive, and something deep, allowed her to need men and what they could offer, regardless of social taboos or her own autonomy.

The narrative of Jean Rhys's life – her "showgirl" career, her brief stint as a prostitute, her abortion paid for by an ex-lover, her three disastrous marriages, her alcoholism, her stay in Holloway prison for assault, her short sojourns in asylums – makes for unsettling reading. She turned to men to prop her up and pay for her, and it is the kind of narrative we don't really want to read in a post-feminist age.

Yet there's a fascinating truth at the heart of Jean Rhys, a truth that she herself often covered up. Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams on the island of Dominica in 1890, to a Welsh father and white Creole mother, she was, her latest biographer Lilian Pizzichini writes in her sympathetic but clear-eyed account, forever searching for a mother to love her. Her elder sister died nine months before Ella was born: the sense of being a replacement for a lost child was palpable to her from an early age. And so she played the girl all her life: a passive, yearning-for-love little girl, powerless but charming, pretty without being intimidatingly beautiful.

When she was 17, she came to England for the first time, and her shock at the cold was never to leave her. After a short time at boarding school, she decided to become an actress and was accepted into the Academy of Dramatic Art. She couldn't complete her degree there, alas, because the principal wrote to her father complaining that her West Indies accent would never allow her to win the best roles, and her father subsequently took her out of school. Ella refused to give up, and joined chorus lines, travelling companies, took bit parts to stay in the acting world. An aristocratic financier, Lancelot Hugh Grey Smith, fell for her. He was the first of the men she came to depend upon.

When Smith finally cast her off, Ella was left to fend for herself, and, in a deep depression and without any acting work, she sank into prostitution and alcoholism. She soon became pregnant. Smith, who wasn't the father, paid for an abortion. He subsequently sent her a cheque every month to keep her off the streets, but it wasn't until she roused herself from this awful period that she took up a habit she'd had in her childhood: she began writing.

Writing about her life in notebooks didn't bring in money either, but at the start of the First World War, two more abortive love affairs later, she met the Belgian refugee Jean Lenglet. He was an exciting but untrustworthy type, working at that time for the French government, but when he proposed marriage, she said yes. She worked on in London, alone, for a year, until she could join him in Paris. Here, she gave birth to her first child, William, who soon died. Lenglet got work in Vienna, and they moved on. Ella became pregnant a second time and gave birth to a girl called Maryvonne. By this time, though, Lenglet was in trouble with the authorities and they scampered back to Paris, where he went into hiding. Eventually, he was arrested and imprisoned.

She was alone and abandoned again, but not for long. It was at this point that the writer Ford Madox Ford entered her life. Ford was in Paris with his partner, Stella Bowen, running The Transatlantic Review, which was publishing the likes of Hemingway, Joyce and Stein. But Ford was past his best and he knew it – his greatest work, The Good Soldier, had been published in 1915. It was now 1923, and riches and accolades weren't his. Taking up with the vivacious, sparkling, stylish Ella Lenglet revivified him.

It was Ford who gave her the name Jean Rhys, and it was Ford who taught her how to channel her experiences into publishable prose. Feminism doesn't like to think of women writers owing their success to a male partner. It's been a feminist project, quite rightly, to see them as autonomous subjects who forged their own paths through a male-dominated world. Patriarchal oppression made it necessary to ignore the contributions the men in those women's lives had made; never should we voice the suggestion that, without that male partner, a woman writer might never have been published. Yet, in Rhys's case, it's substantially true. Without Ford's help, it's possible that she would never have been published at all. Her dependence on men, her pose in Paris as the helpless ingénue, when she was actually a 34-year-old wife and mother, came naturally to Rhys, and however uncomfortable that is for feminism, it's what helped to make her a literary success so many years later.

That contradiction between the ingénue and the experienced woman proved too much for Ford. Their affair came to a sticky end: Rhys resented being cast off, and struck him across the face at a café. Then she did what she'd been taught to do: she wrote, and wrote about the affair, in a 1928 novel called Quartet. She returned to England, alone, and married her second husband, the literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith, who had, ironically enough, been recommended to her by Ford.

More books followed: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), which wove in her abandonments by both Lancelot Grey Smith and Ford, Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). She was ahead of her time, though – critics abhorred the underworld of her novels, the twilight of the demi-monde, and didn't appreciate the sparseness of her writing style. She carried on, in a third unhappy marriage and drinking ever more heavily, until 1949, when a writer and actress called Selma Vaz Dias placed an ad in a newspaper looking for her. She wanted to adapt some of Rhys's work for the BBC; an editor, Francis Wyndham, wanted more work from Rhys. She had, she told him, a novel under way. It was Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

It's perhaps not surprising that Rhys's greatest work was about a woman who is rejected by the man she loves and goes on to destroy herself. Rhys constantly felt abandoned, yet was constantly searching for the man who could take care of her and, finally, make it all right. Yet, as Pizzichini rightly says, her writing was her true partner. It is possible that Rhys never fully realised this, or didn't want to realise it, perhaps: the path of the artist is often by necessity a lonely one, and Rhys drank not to feel lonely.

And so, her response to the sudden fame and fortune that Wide Sargasso Sea brought was classically self-pitying and the lament of the ingénue: "It has come too late." Rhys, ever the contradiction, wouldn't let it happen for her, however much she wanted it to. The truth of Jean Rhys's genius is contained within that contradiction, however: the little girl who wouldn't grow up, yet whose work depended, ultimately, upon the maturity of experience. I believe that she understood that contradiction. She knew what lay "deep and primitive" in her own soul. In her writing she was able to use it, and it was a relationship with a male writer that taught her how.

The extract

The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, By Lilian Pizzichini (Bloomsbury £18.99)

"She returned her gaze to her pens and notebooks and then it started. Her palms and fingertips were tingling. She opened an exercise book, and wrote down everything that had happened to her in the last year and a half: 'what he'd said, what I felt'... The feeling was one of torture: knowing the feeling but not the words to describe it"

Lesley McDowell is currently writing a book about literary partnerships, to be published by Overlook Press next year

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future