Prostitution, abortion, failed marriages and alcoholism: accounts of Jean Rhys’s story tend to paint her as a tragic femme fatale. But these facets make up only part of the colourful life that she’d weave so hauntingly into her fiction.
Of white Creole heritage, Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams was born in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Dominica. After emigrating to Europe in her late teens, she attended a girls’ boarding school in Britain, and later spent years living a financially precarious existence in bohemian Paris and London. This included periods as a chorus girl and artist’s model – experiences she’d later draw on in her lyrical early novels.
But works like Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight – which takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson – initially met with only limited success.
In middle age, Rhys retreated from the gritty glamour of her earlier existence. Now living in a remote country cottage, she upped her alcohol intake to a bottle of whisky a day and all but disappeared from the public’s consciousness.
Literature lovers owe a great debt to the editor Diana Athill for the part she played in putting Rhys back on the literary map. When Athill’s publishing house, André Deutsch, committed itself to Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’s daring prequel to Jane Eyre, the author let the firm know that they could have the completed manuscript within six to nine months.
Six to nine months turned into a year. A year turned into five, six, and then seven… Throughout this period, Athill, along with her fellow editor Francis Wyndham, encouraged Rhys by letter, and neither of them ever lost their belief in her phenomenal talent.
Athill was already a published writer herself, of short stories and a first volume of memoir by that stage. Born close to two decades after Rhys, Athill, who’d grown up on a thousand-acre estate in the British county of Norfolk, came from a very different social background. But she too flouted convention: by going to Oxford University and then into a career in publishing, rather than settling down to married life as so many of her female friends had done.
The two, who’d been corresponding for seven years, had still never met when Rhys agreed to bring her almost-finished manuscript to London. They’d arranged to have lunch together, but, the day before, Athill received a panicked phone call from the manager of the hotel where the author was staying. Rhys had suffered a heart attack.
Instead of the planned champagne celebrations, she was rushed into hospital, and so the pair first really got to know each other during the following weeks of Rhys’s convalescence. Later, Athill would recall that the experience ‘with all the usual intimacies of nightdress washing, toothpaste buying and so on, plunged us into the deepest end of friendship’.
Although there had only been a few lines missing from Rhys’s manuscript at the time of her heart attack, it took her a further two years to complete it. But nine years after taking on the book as an editor, Athill travelled from London to Devon to collect Wide Sargasso Sea in person.
Its great success would bring Rhys the celebrated literary status that had always eluded her in her youth.
Athill, too, would go on to enjoy a hugely successful old age, with the release of several more books, including Stet, the memoir of her days as an editor, and the award-winning Somewhere Towards the End.
Diana Athill has said that she learned much about concision and clarity from Jean Rhys – lessons that she was able to draw on in her own writing. This month, we’ll let each other know the lessons we’ve learned from many years spent reading and commenting on each other’s work.