How Jean Rhys became a writer

The influence of Ford Madox Ford

Although there are few solid facts about Jean Rhys’ writing in the early 1920s, she does seem to have kept a Ford Madox Forddiary and some notebooks in which she recorded her experiences in the earlier years, possibly from 1913. Some of these she showed to a journalist, who, in turn sent this work to Ford Madox Ford.

Ford was a well-known writer and editor, in touch with avant-garde, Modernist developments in Paris in the 1920s. He edited a journal, the transatlantic review, in which he published work by some of the most experimental writers of the day, including James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Ezra Pound.


Ford was a very important figure in her life at this time. They had an affair which, perhaps inevitably, became the subject matter of their fiction once it ended:

  • Jean Rhys put Ford into her novel Quartet (1928)
  • He fictionalised her unfavourably in his novel When the Wicked Man as the Creole heiress with a drink problem, Lola Porter
  • However, neither of them ever stuck to facts in their writing; invention and exaggeration were part of their fictional process.

The affair with Ford was made easier by the absence of Rhys’ husband Lenglet, who was arrested and extradited to Holland on fraud charges in 1923. The marriage to Lenglet finally ended in divorce in 1932, Lenglet retaining custody of their daughter, Maryvonne.


Ford’s significance extended much further than a love affair because he, more than anyone else, encouraged and directed her writing. He

  • Taught her valuable lessons in technique
  • Instilled in her the importance of a disciplined approach to writing, of constant rewriting and careful editing
  • Showed her how to condense her writing so that she achieved maximum effect from the minimum of words. Jean Rhys’ characteristic economy of style is the product of this early advice
  • Introduced her to key figures in artistic and literary Paris, including the American writers Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.


Ford was also the first person to publish Rhys’ work. Jean Rhys had been working on drafts of a novel which, like all her writing, was based on her own experiences. Vienne, a short story, seems to have originated in these drafts and was based on her life in Vienna with Jean Lenglet:

  • Six pages of the story were published in the last issue of Ford’s the transatlantic review
  • This was Jean’s first venture into print and the first time that she used her writing name ‘Jean Rhys’, instead of her usual name at this time, Ella Lenglet.

Ford used his experience of the publishing industry to promote Rhys’ work in England. He sent her stories to an agent in London and recommended her work to Edward Garnett. Garnett was a publisher’s reader of great influence and skill; he had, for example, worked with D. H .Lawrence on his drafts for Sons and Lovers. Through these contacts, her collection of short stories set in Paris, called The Left Bank, was published in 1927.

Writings from the 1920s and 30s

With the publication of The Left Bank, Jean Rhys’ career as a writer was launched. Through the next decade, she worked obsessively on a series of novels and short stories that not only established her central preoccupations as an author but were also, later, to place her in the front rank of twentieth century writers.

The four novels from this period comprise:

  • Quartet (first published as Postures in 1928)
  • After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930)
  • Voyage in the Dark (1934)
  • Good Morning, Midnight (1939)

Critics at the time were in two minds about her writing because, although they recognised and praised its formal qualities, they usually objected to the subject matter as ‘sordid’.

Key themes in Rhys’ early work

All four novels are variations on a set of key themes:

  1. The economic and emotional survival as a single woman in a hostile culture. This is part of a wider sympathy for marginalized groups – those without power or money, who are casually exploited by the rich and then dropped. They also find themselves alienated from the respectable society around them.
  2. The problem of gender relationships. All the women in these novels experience unhappy relationships with men. They submit to their economic and sexual power but are damaged in the process. Yet Jean Rhys also writes with insight into the problems faced by men in a situation where distorted relationships are the only ones possible. She discloses the pressures which force them, like Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, into repression of their true feelings.
  3. The problem of identity. For many of her characters, the pressures of modern life contribute to a sense that their past self is divided off from the present one. They feel they are losing control of their sense of identity.

The origins of Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea has a clear relationship to these earlier novels, despite its differences in location and time. It may be that initial ideas for her last published novel were already in her head in the 1930s.

The origins of Wide Sargasso Sea are mysterious, largely because Jean Rhys told different versions of how she began to write it. The later years of the 1930s were productive ones for her writing; she wrote Good Morning, Midnight relatively quickly and then turned again to her Caribbean memories.

A visit to Dominica

Rhys may have had some ideas for her masterpiece when she went back to the Caribbean for a visit. In 1936 Jean Rhys spent a small inheritance on a trip back home to Dominica, an island she had not seen for over 30 years. She was accompanied by her second husband, Leslie Tilden-Smith, a publisher’s reader. This Roseau, photo by Riba, available through Creative Commonssea trip took them through the Sargasso Sea and to Martinique and St Lucia. See Social / political context > Caribbean culture and history.

On arriving in Dominica, her impression was that Roseau was smaller and shabbier than she remembered. The effects of time on a tropical island had obliterated much that she remembered from her childhood. In the autobiographical piece ‘Geneva’ in Smile Please, (1979) she recalled her visit to her grandfather’s estate, the model for Coulibri in Wide Sargasso Sea. She recorded that all that was left of the house and garden she had known was an empty space. Even the heavy stone block used for mounting horses had been removed.

The progression of ideas

According to one version of Rhys’ story about Wide Sargasso Sea, this was also the time when Leslie gave her a copy of Jane Eyre to reread. Clearly, forces were in some sense coming together for the creation of the novel.

Biographer Carole Angier’s opinion is that Jean Rhys began a version of Wide Sargasso Sea at this time and gave it the title Le Revenant which means ‘one who comes back’. The typescript of this story was lost or burnt, but two surviving chapters may have found their way later into Wide Sargasso Sea.

There also seems to have been another Caribbean novel planned at this time and to have been called Wedding in the Carib Quarter, but this was not developed beyond an outline of the chapters. These ideas, however, were to remain as seeds for some time while Jean Rhys passed through the bleakest, least productive period of her life in wartime and post-war England.

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