TAUNTED with the cruel nickname the “white cockroach” as a child, the author Jean Rhys grew up on the Caribbean island of Dominica. She was the daughter of a Creole mother and a Welsh father and always felt distant from both the black and white communities. Her complicated childhood was to continue to influence one of the most intriguing literary lives of the last century and inform all her writing.
Rhys’s exotic background and the violent mood swings of her adult life make her a figure who still mesmerises. At one time a chorus girl in London, she went on to wrestle with a depressive streak that saw her briefly locked up in Holloway women’s prison, north London. Her powerful books, while rated as among the most accomplished of her era, have rarely been adapted for television, but now her most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea, is to be brought to the screen in a lavish new BBC film shot in Jamaica. Adapted by Stephen Greenhorn, it has been made by the team behind the mainstream hits Spooks and Life On Mars
Attention will also be focused on Rhys by a biography due out early next year. Lilian Pizzichini’s The Blue Hour, to be published by Bloomsbury, will attempt to unravel her life and explain themes that haunted her. The biography will take its title from Rhys’s favourite French perfume, L’Heure Bleue, and will show for the first time how the novelist’s obsession with the female form and damaging relationships between mothers and daughters directed her writing and caused, in part, her terrible depressions. “Her own relationship with her mother had been harmful and I don’t think enough has been understood about her preoccupation with women and her fascination with the effect of a bad relationship with a mother,” said Pizzichini this weekend.
The book will also chronicle her relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford and his partner, Stella, and reveal the depths of Rhys’s pessimistic world view. “I wouldn’t say she was bipolar or borderline necessarily, but she had a very bleak vision and I think she was brave to express it because it doesn’t always make comfortable reading,” said Pizzichini.
Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, the fourth surviving child of a doctor, William Rees Williams and Minna Lockhart, the Creole (a person of mixed European and black descent) granddaughter of a colonial landowner. Rhys left her Caribbean island home in 1907 for schooling in England, her head full of the books of Dickens and the Brontes. But the London she found was unexpectedly grey and full of tired, poor people. After school in Cambridge she went to drama school in the capital, and enjoyed a period working as a chorus girl in musical comedies, calling herself Ella Gray, before she was rapidly absorbed into the half-lit world of the bohemians in Paris. She became the wife of a Belgian conman and adventurer. While in France, she met Ford, who took her on both as his creative protege and his girlfriend, changing her name to the modern-sounding Jean Rhys.
In the Seventies, Diana Athill, of Rhys’s publishers, Andre Deutsch, wrote of her regret that the company did not treat the impoverished Rhys better or pay her more. According to Athill, the author was remarkable for her incredible attention to detail in her books. In a foreword to Rhys’s unfinished and posthumously published autobiography Smile Please, she gives an example of this “perfectionism”: “Some five years after the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, she said to me out of the blue: `There is one thing I’ve always wanted to ask you. Why did you let me publish that book?’… I asked her what on earth she meant. `It was not finished,’ she said coldly.”
Even in later life, once she had become a celebrated talent and a London socialite, Rhys was dogged by self-loathing and depressive rages which alternated with phases of creative activity. These bouts of illness saw Rhys briefly imprisoned in Holloway but also drew her, most famously, to write about the best known madwoman in literature: the incarcerated Mrs Rochester