Adulthood: Making a living

An insecure occupation

All Jean Rhys’ heroines are, in some sense, adrift, unsupported and insecure. In her own life, by breaking away from the support of her family and taking work on the stage, she deliberately put herself into that situation. Theatre work was poorly paid unless you were a ‘star’. Also, for many respectable people at the time, the theatre was a disreputable place, particularly for a woman – an attitude that hadn’t really changed for centuries.

The stage was also a ‘hunting ground’ for men of the Edwardian middle and upper classes to find a mistress. For women who accepted this position, there was the remote possibility that they might marry their ‘protector’. However, as Jean Rhys’ stories show all too well, the reality for most was a short career dependent on their looks and for some a slide into prostitution.


Jean Rhys experienced this world in all its variety. She became the mistress of a wealthy man, Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, who was from a banking family and twice her age. He provided her with a comfortable life until their affair ended in 1912. He also supported her with an allowance for years afterwards.

Carole Angier, Jean Rhys` biographer, believes that there was a real affinity between them because both, at a deep level, felt cut off from the values of their family background. Angier sees something of Smith in Rhys’ characterisation of Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, who feels estranged from his English family but hides this from others.

After this love affair ended, Jean Rhys took work as a model, a film extra, a masseuse and had sex with men for money.

Avant-garde London

It would be a mistake to see Jean Rhys as a victim. She had a remarkable ability to position herself close to creative energy. In the years before the First World War, London was a cultural melting pot for the development of avant-garde ideas across the arts. Artists, writers and musicians met in the bohemian restaurants, bars and clubs around Soho and Bloomsbury, especially in one called the Crabtree Club, set up by the artist Augustus John. Here, Jean Rhys met writers and journalists as well as artists like William Orpen, Jacob Epstein and students from the Slade School of Art.

The First World War

When the First World War broke out in August 1914 the theatres were closed and Jean Rhys, like many other women, took up volunteer war work. The restrictions of war-time London also enforced periods of leisure in which, she recalled later, she returned to a habit lost since her adolescence, reading.

Jean Lenglet

Of more immediate impact on her life, however, was her meeting with a young Dutch journalist, Jean Lenglet. They fell in love and, when travelling restrictions were lifted after the Armistice in 1918, Jean Rhys travelled to Belgium and married Lenglet early in 1919.

Jean Lenglet was something of a mystery. There was a question mark over the exact nature of his war work, for example, and he may have been employed in Germany as a spy by the French.

However, there were strong affinities between Lenglet and Jean Rhys. Like her, he had changed his name and was inclined to make an imaginative story out of details of his life and origins. He was a writer and, as she was to do, drew heavily on his own personal experience for the plots and characters of his stories.

Creative, energetic and attractive, he shared with Jean Rhys a love of foreign cities, especially Paris. He also introduced her to a life of rare excitement and luxury on the one hand and personal and financial disaster on the other.

Paris, Vienna, Budapest

From 1919, Jean Rhys and Lenglet moved constantly around Europe from Belgium to Paris, from Paris to Vienna and Budapest.

Lenglet worked as a translator and interpreter for the Inter-Allied Commission overseeing disarmament in defeated Austro-Hungary. When things went well, they lived in smart hotels, mixed with diplomats, bought good clothes and luxuries.

But there were instabilities in this life in post war Europe. Lenglet dealt illegally in foreign currencies and, since he was officially a stateless person, could only move around Europe by evading the authorities.

Periods of affluence alternated with periods of poverty when they had no work. Their life was rootless, uncertain and tragic. Their first child, William, died of pneumonia at only 3 weeks old; their second, their daughter Maryvonne, born in 1922, was looked after by others for much of her early life.

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