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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

Simon Usborne
Tuesday 06 March 2012 01:00 GMT

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

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