JEAN RHYS

HEROES & VILLAINS The writer Lucretia Stewart on her doom-laden heroine, the Dominican-born bohemian and novelist Jean Rhys

I heard of Jean Rhys for the first time in the early Seventies, when I was 20 and at Edinburgh University, where I shared an apartment opposite the Royal Infirmary with a woman called Lindsay who wrote short stories and poems and had a baby, a boy called Gabriel, and no husband or live-in boyfriend. I had an American boyfriend who belonged to a theatre group which had been formed in San Quentin prison, and the four of us lived together.

There was no central heating in the big, gloomy flat but there was an endless procession of visitors: actors, musicians, poets, aspirant novelists, deadbeats. I thought that I wanted to act and actually ended up playing Nell in Beckett's Endgame because the actress who had been playing the part got pregnant and became too fat to get into the barrel. Endgame was part of the group's repertoire, what they termed "the San Quentin Beckett cycle". Beckett was thought to have a particular appeal for prisoners.

When I think of Jean Rhys, the memories of that time come flooding back: Lindsay and I in that terribly cold flat, trying to lead glamorous lives. In the mornings we would sit in the kitchen in our dressing gowns, drinking coffee and discussing men and the trouble they brought.

Lindsay was very keen on Jean Rhys; she saw herself, in some ways, as a Rhys character - abandoned by the father of her child, eking out a bohemian existence, alone against the world - though she was more of a survivor and had a more robust sense of humour than any of Rhys's tragic heroines. She wanted to have carved on her tombstone the words: "She never had a future but, Lordy, what a past!"

Jean Rhys is an unlikely heroine. She is too sad. A Daily Telegraph review of her first novel, Quartet, said: "She is supremely the voice of the lonely woman crying out in pain," and, in an interview in 1974, she said that if she had to choose, she would rather be happy than write: "When I was excited about life, I didn't want to write at all and when I was happy, I had no wish to write. I've never written about being happy. Never. Besides I don't think you can describe being happy. I've never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anybody has?"

It is her painful awareness of life's difficulties that I find so moving and the fact that her problems - and those of her heroines - seemed to have much the same causes as mine: men, money and drink. At my worst, I feel a gloomy, almost fatalistic, sense of identification with her. When everything is going badly, it is a world created by Rhys that I inhabit. But it is a measure of the force of her writing that despite her slender output - just five novels and three collections of short stories - she manages to create a world with which one feels utterly, if miserably, familiar.

When I first went to the Caribbean I re-read Wide Sargasso Sea, her haunting evocation of the early life of the first Mrs Rochester. I wanted to see the island which had inspired that novel and from which Rhys had come (she was born in Dominica in 1894). Its spirit lingers in all her work. In Voyage in the Dark, the heroine describes an island "all crumpled into hills and mountains as you would crumple a piece of paper in your hand - rounded green hills and mountains and sharply cut mountains."

The house where Rhys was born in now Vena's Guesthouse, a rundown establishment attached to a restaurant called The World of Food; it was disappointing - shabby and cramped. And the Dominican landscape, for all its lushness, seemed bleak and forbidding. Places had doom-laden names: Massacre, the Boiling Lake, the Valley of Desolation, Morne au Diables, Morne Diablotin, Point des Fous. It rained all the time. When it rained, the ground would hiss and steam, making a noise like a wet saucepan on a hot stove. In the morning, sometimes, it came clear for a bit, then the rain would start again, the whole sky clouding over so you could no longer see the end of the island.

It was there that my view of Rhys crystallised into an enduring admiration both for her as a writer - there is not one wasted word - and for her courage. If she really found life as grim as she seems to have done, it is amazing that she could bear to get out of bed in the morning. It also went a long way to explaining why the 16-year-old Rhys had wanted to come to England, and also why she never could settle. Everywhere in the Caribbean I met people who had left, often for years, but had come back.

The combination of languor and beauty, the intensity of colour and smell and light, that are so characteristic of the Caribbean, had left an indelible imprint on Rhys. The fact that she didn't or couldn't go back (she returned to Dominica only once in 1936) was, I'm sure, a source of constant sadness to her.

As my heroine, she inspires resilience rather than self-pity (she died in England in 1979, aged 84 - for an unhappy life, it was a long one). When I get particularly depressed, I cheer myself up by recalling a conversation with an American woman friend. I had said, sobbing into my red wine: "None of my relationships ever work out."

"Oh," she answered brightly, "they do for a while."

Some such thought probably kept Jean Rhys going.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

    Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

    Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

    Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

    £50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices