Jean Rhys


Biography of Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys (24 August 1890 – 14 May 1979), born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was a mid 20th-century novelist from Dominica. Educated from the age of 16 in Great Britain, she is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a "prequel" to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scots ancestry.

Rhys was educated at the Convent School and moved to England when she was sixteen, sent there to live with her aunt Clarice. She attended the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, where she was mocked because of her accent and as an outsider. She also spent two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1909. The instructors at RADA despaired of Rhys being able to speak what they considered "proper English" and advised her father to take her away. Unable to train as an actress and refusing to return to the Caribbean as her parents wished, she worked with varied success as a chorus girl, adopting the names Vivienne, Emma or Ella Gray.

After her father died in 1910, Rhys drifted into the demimonde. Having fallen in love with a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith (1870–1941), she became his mistress. Although Smith was a bachelor, he did not offer to marry Rhys and their affair ended within two years. He continued to be an occasional source of financial help. Distraught both by the end of the affair and by the experience of a near-fatal abortion (not Smith's child), Rhys began writing an account which became the basis of her novel Voyage In The Dark. In need of money, in 1913 she posed nude for an artist in Britain, probably Dublin-born William Orpen.

During World War I, Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918 she worked in a pension office.

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