Jean Rhys' early life in Dominica

Jean RhysJean Rhys had a long life but it was the experiences of her childhood on the Caribbean island of Dominica that shaped her most profoundly as a woman and as a writer.

Family background

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendoline Rees in 1890, the fourth of five children born to William Rees and his wife Minna:

  • William Rees was a Welshman from an intellectual, middle class background. He qualified as a doctor in 1880 and came out to Dominica, becoming Medical Officer to the Port of Roseau, the capital of the island
  • Minna came from a family who had lived in Dominica for four generations. Originally, the family came from Scotland but Jean’s great grandfather came out to manage a sugar estate, Geneva Plantation, at Grand Bay. In 1824, he bought it, becoming the owner of 1,200 acres and 258 slaves.

A divided community

Rhys’ mother’s family were Creoles, born and naturalised in the West Indies. Yet, like others of British descent, they also felt the continuing pull of the colonial ‘centre’, England. Such families created a version of English life in the values and atmosphere of their homes, sent their children to England to school and went back to England to retire.

     More on: Creole Identity and language     

However, Creoles were not English. They were born and bred on an island in the Caribbean noted for its vivid tropical beauty, mountains and dense rain forest but also for violent hurricanes, heat and poverty. They were a small group; even in Jean Rhys’ childhood the ratio was around 300 whites to a total population of 30,000, most of whom were black. White people spoke English, black people spoke patois, a dialect with connections to French.

The effects of this divided society on cultural identity and a sense of belonging is one of the themes of Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys explores it in relation to Antoinette, her native-born Creole heroine and the newly arrived English planter, bent on the economic exploitation of his new estates, who becomes her husband.

Jean Rhys’ childhood in her novel

In her story of Antoinette’s childhood, Jean Rhys used many of the people, experiences and locations familiar to her from her own childhood:

  • Her great grandfather with his slaves, mistresses and illegitimate children provided material for old Cosway
  • The experiences of his widow, Jean, feed into Rhys’ portrait of Antoinette’s mother, Annette.

Jean Rhys’ own complex feelings about black people also inform her representation of black characters in her novel:

  • The mixture of love and fear surrounding Christophine, for example, draws on Jean Rhys’ own black nurse Meta, who told her stories of zombies and those who return from the dead. See Religious / philosophical context > Religion > Zombies
  • As a little girl she also felt envy for black people. She wanted to be black because:
‘they used to go to dances every night and they had lovely dresses, high waisted with a belt to tuck the train through. They used to line the train with paper so it rustled and wear gorgeous turbans. When they went to Mass we used to peer through the windows to see them’

(Jean Rhys in an interview with Marcella Bernstein, ‘The Inscrutable Miss Rhys’ in Observer Colour Magazine, June 1, 1969)     

The impact of the landscape

Dominica’s natural beauty and profusion around Rhys as she grew up also made a great impression. When, in later life, she wrote about the Dominicaisland, her language is infused with nostalgia and loss but also with an insider’s understanding of its dangers and violence. Early in Wide Sargasso Sea, for example, she has the young Antoinette describe the garden at Coulibri as a dangerous and hostile Garden of Eden. Her description intertwines images of decay and danger with those of vibrancy and life.

Self and identity

This background provided material for Rhys’ writings but also a legacy of a disrupted sense of her own identity as a woman and a writer:

  • White but not European or English
  • West Indian but not black
  • Taught the language and customs of a place she had never seen (England) while living and being shaped by the reality of the West Indies
  • A sense of belonging to the West Indies, charged with an awareness of being part of another (English) culture
  • The ambiguity of being both insider and outsider.

All these shaped the way in which she perceived and understood the world.

Transition to England

In 1907, Jean Rhys was sent to England to finish her education. She sailed from Barbados to attend the Perse School in Cambridge, thinking that she would return to Dominica after a year or so. In the rest of her long life, she went back only once, for a short holiday.

Full of romantic expectations about England, Jean Rhys was deeply disappointed when she arrived. She felt that England was cold, dingy and unwelcoming. However, the next few years would provide her with formative experiences that, as a writer, she would return to and exploit throughout her life.

School and drama

At school, she felt very lonely and isolated. Only drama lessons and her success in school plays made her feel happier. At the end of 1908, she persuaded her father to support her move to a drama school. This was Tree’s School named after the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Later on, after Jean had left, this school became the Academy of Dramatic Art and, after that, RADA when ‘Royal’ was added to its name.

Despite her love of drama, her experience at Tree’s School was not what she had hoped:

  • She was not very talented as an actress, dancer or singer and she quickly came to realise this
  • It increased her sense of difference from English people. Some students and tutors were snobbish and racist, passing comments on her colonial ‘accent’ or style of speech.

Chorus line

Jean Rhys left the drama school after two terms, when her father died and the finance dried up. Foiling her family’s plans to send her home, she got herself a job in the chorus of a musical comedy.

This began her short-lived career on the lower rungs of touring theatre companies. They went around the provinces performing musicals and comedies that had been popular in the London theatres. It was not a glamorous life but it was a rich source of experience for a writer.

Early life and fiction

In the 1920s and 30s, Jean Rhys began work on a series of stories about women alone and unsupported, drawing directly on her own life at this time.

For example, Anna Morgan, the heroine of her novel Voyage in the Dark (1934):

  • Shares a Welsh name and Caribbean origins with her creator
  • Is an unsuccessful actress
  • Works in a dismal round of work in second-rate productions
  • Lives in dingy lodgings run by unpleasant landladies
  • Constantly travels from one grimy provincial city to another.

Anna voices Jean Rhys’ feelings about this life and England generally:

  • She expresses her creator’s nostalgia for the West Indies
  • She remembers its warmth and colour
  • She recalls its evocative scents of spices, fish, lime juice and frangipani
  • She describes the same sense of disruption between her Caribbean and English identities. Anna says that she cannot fit together her English and Caribbean experiences. She cannot tell which is real and which is a dream.

Early life and Wide Sargasso Sea

Writing Wide Sargasso Sea years later, Jean Rhys evoked Antoinette’s nostalgia for her home, by the recollection of the same scents of spices, fish, lime juice and frangipani while she is imprisoned in the attic at Thornfield Hall. Like Anna, Antoinette also blurs the distinction between dream and reality when she asks her new husband on their honeymoon about whether there is truth in the idea that England is an illusion.

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