Jean Rhys' lost years

The impact of war

Good Morning, MidnightJean Rhys’ fourth novel, Good Morning, Midnight, was published in 1939, the year that the Second World War broke out in Europe. Although many critics now think that this is the finest of her early novels, it was not widely reviewed and praise was very muted. It may be that, with an impending war, readers looked for less melancholy subject matter. Certainly, Jean Rhys herself believed that ‘the war killed it.’

Personal developments

After the divorce from her first husband, Jean Lenglet, in 1932, Rhys had moved in with her literary agent, Leslie Tilden-Smith, whom she married in 1934. She left her daughter in the care of Lenglet.

The war years were bleak ones for Jean Rhys. Her husband joined the RAF, leaving her lonely and isolated for several years. She was also very worried about the fate of her daughter Maryvonne and Jean Lenglet. They lived in occupied Holland and took part in anti-Nazi activities. Lenglet was arrested and sent to a concentration camp.

Jean Rhys’ tendency to drink when depressed increased and there were several drunken incidents in public. Short stories written at this time express her feelings of paranoia and alienation from English life.

The heaviest blow, however, came at the end of 1945 when Leslie died of a heart attack. This was the worst time in these ‘blank, terrible years’. She not only struggled with his loss but with the loss of his connections to the world of publishing and with her own increasing inability to write.

Post war Rhys

There was a gap of twenty years between the end of the Second World War and the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. During this time Jean Rhys produced only two new pieces of fiction and those were both short stories. She seems to have worked intermittently on writing her memories of the Caribbean, on her diaries and on articles and radio scripts but nothing else was published in these years.

She also lost all contact with the literary world, with writers, publishers, critics, to the extent that it was widely believed that she had died. These years were eventful, however.


Rhys married for the third time in 1947. Her third husband, George ‘Max’ Hamer, was a solicitor and related to her late husband, Leslie. They were initially happy together and he took care of her but, as so often in Jean Rhys’ life, events spiralled downwards.

The decline began with money problems and was made worse by too much alcohol. Hamer became involved in fraud and was arrested, tried and imprisoned. Jean Rhys was also arrested several times for being drunk and disorderly. A succession of court appearances culminated in a short spell in Holloway Prison where she was investigated for psychiatric problems.

Where is Jean Rhys?

By 1949, Jean Rhys was living in Maidstone in order to be near Max who was in prison there. Late in the year, she read an advert in the New Statesman asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of the author ‘Jean Rhys (Mrs Tilden Smith)’. The advert had been placed by an actress, Selma Vaz Dias. She had adapted Good Morning, Midnight into a dramatic monologue for radio and needed Jean Rhys’ permission to perform it.

The BBC turned down Good Morning, Midnight on this occasion but this brief contact with the literary world seems to have stimulated Jean Rhys’ creativity. She returned to reading intensively and began to work on an autobiographical piece. She called this ‘The Ropemakers’ Diary’ (named after The Ropemakers’ Arms, a friendly pub in Maidstone where she lodged for a while).

No fixed abode

In May 1952, Max was released from prison and they began a wandering life in considerable poverty. For an urban woman such as Jean Rhys, the choice of locations was extraordinary; lodgings in London were abandoned for a boat in Wales and then a series of out of season holiday lets in Cornwall where the winter conditions were appalling.

Jean Rhys and her husband were living in Bude when, in October, 1956, the BBC got in touch, reviving the idea of broadcasting Good Morning Midnight. Again, renewed contact with literary circles energised her creatively.

Renewed creativity

Rhys re-read Jane Eyre and told Selma Vaz Dias that ‘the story of the first Mrs Rochester’ came to her at this time. This wasn’t really true because she’d had ideas about Bertha Mason for many years and had drafted early versions of a story about her. However, this new reference to the character may signal a renewed engagement with Brontë’s text. The Radio Times edition for 3rd May 1957 carried an article about Jean Rhys by Selma and this ended with a teasing reference to a novel she was writing ‘on a most exciting subject’.

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