A happy twist in the tale of literature's great outsider

A blue plaque will honour Jean Rhys, whose life was marked by alcoholism, prostitution and doomed affairs

Jean Rhys is best known as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, the "prequel" to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. She is less well known as a perennial outsider who was ostracised for her West Indian upbringing, and then shunned by the literary establishment after a descent into alcoholism and prostitution.

Today, the author will receive some recognition for her contribution to post-colonial literature when English Heritage unveils a blue plaque at the London home she shared with the second of her three husbands. Rhys's champions, who remain few nearly 33 years after her death, believe the small honour is long overdue, and will go some way to restore the reputation of one of English literature's more complex writers.

"Rhys was one of those authors who challenges readers and as a result is easier to forget," says Lilian Pizzichini, whose biography of the author, The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, was published in 2009. "A lot of the reviews of my book said I'd been seduced by her, that I should have taken a moral position. I found that astonishing. Why should I take a moral position?"

Rhys was always an outsider. "She falls between so many camps," Pizzichini explains. "She's not white, she's not black. She's classless. So it's hard for people to get a handle on her. She was an elusive, a solitary figure, who was never part of a set."

She was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in Dominica in 1890. The daughter of a Welsh physician and a white Creole of Scottish descent, she moved to Britain in her late teens and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Mocked for her Caribbean accent, she left for a life of bit parts, chorus lines and travelling companies under her stage name, Jean Rhys.

Pretty and needy, Rhys attracted a string of men upon whom she would come to depend. In 1919, she married a Dutch journalist and moved to Paris. They split after she began an affair with the writer Ford Madox Ford. Abandonment by Ford sent her into a deep depression and she developed a dependence on alcohol and men, some of whom paid her for sex, and she had an abortion. She was only helped out of the hole – and into writing – by Ford's earlier recognition in her of a powerful combination of her colonial perspective with a distinctive "stream of consciousness" technique. Their doomed relationship inspired her first novel, Quartet, published in 1928.

Rhys returned to London in the same year and later married her literary agent, Leslie Tilden Smith. More books followed and the couple lived for two years at Paultons House, on the square of the same name in Chelsea. It was here that Rhys flourished as a writer and where she completed Good Morning, Midnight. Like much of her writing, it portrayed a mistreated, vulnerable woman. "She really interrogated the position of the female urban outsider," Pizzichini says. "She was so far ahead of her time."

But critics hated the gritty urban underworld she depicted, as well as her sparse style. "People were affronted by her unladylike behaviour," Pizzichini says. "She wrote graphically about prostitution and abortion and how easy it is to slip into a world of predatory men."

At Paultons Square, Rhys's plaque will be one of only a dozen or so English Heritage unveils each year. But residents offered mainly blank looks when asked about their former neighbour. "Isn't she a scientist?" asked one woman yesterday. "I didn't know she lived here."

After Tilden Smith's death in 1945, Rhys married for a third time, and in 1960 moved to Devon, where she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, and died in 1979. It was this novel, which portrays the first Mrs Rochester's Caribbean childhood, that brought her fame, earning greater recognition than herself.

Additional reporting by Charlie Cooper

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits