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  • Writer's pictureAlice Godwin

Muse & Booze - Jean Rhys

Updated: Feb 11, 2019

“I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled ‘Dum vivimus, vivamus … Drink, drink, drink’ … As soon as I sober up I start again.” Good Morning, Midnight. 

Of white Creole heritage, Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams was born in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Dominica. After moving to England in her late teens, she was accepted into the Academy of Dramatic arts, her aspirations of becoming an actress were cruelly dashed when the principal wrote to her father, that despite the academy’s strident attempts to get rid of her West Indies accent, they had failed and she was never likely to succeed.

She refused to give up, and joined chorus lines, travelling companies, took bit parts to stay in the acting world. In 1919, she met the Belgian refugee Jean Lenglet, journalist, spy and songwriter. He was the first of her three husbands and they lived in London, Paris and Vienna.

In 1924 the writer Ford Madox Ford entered her life. Ford was in Paris running The Transatlantic Review, which was publishing the likes of Hemingway, Joyce and Stein. Taking up with the vivacious, sparkling Ella Lenglet energised him. It was Ford who gave her the name Jean Rhys, and it was Ford who taught her how to channel her experiences into publishable prose.

Their affair came to a sticky end: Rhys struck him across the face at a café.

Then she did what he had told her to do: she wrote about the affair, in a novel called Quartet. More books followed: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie(1930) Voyage in the Dark(1934) and Good Morning, Midnight(1939).

She was ahead of her time, many disliked the dark underworld of her novels, the twilight of the demi-monde, saying the subject matter was too depressing. The novelist Rebecca West wrote of Rhys's work: “If one is not entirely free from misery when one opens the book one will be at the suicide point long before one closes it ... she is enamoured of gloom to an incredible degree.”

Rhys was devastated and she stopped writing, destroyed her own reputation, and vanished. She moved to 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.

It was the editor Diana Athill who searched for Rhys and committed to her book – Wide Sargasso Sea. A year turned into five, six, and then seven… Throughout this period, Athill, encouraged Rhys and in 1966 this wonderful novel was published.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the prelude to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

The bitter romance between the white Creole heiress Antionette Cosway, and the Englishman Mr Rochester, their relationship is intense with his arrogant European prejudices and his desires. Antoinette’s psychological disintegration and descent into madness is a journey that becomes the mirror reflecting back the history of cruelty and suffering that lies behind the Aristocracy’s accumulated wealth.

This book gives voice to neglected, silenced and unacknowledged peoples, – gender, class, race and madness.

Rochester confesses: ‘I did not love her… I was thirsty for her, but that is not love.’

His coldness is chilling, as is the reason for marrying her, this union has made Rochester financially independent of his father and it has rendered Antoinette his dependent.

He cynically ruminates, ‘I have not bought her, she has bought me, or so she thinks…’

This haunting beautiful novel will probably make you look at Jane Eyre in a different light, finally giving a voice to that mad first wife in the attic.

And will remind you where all that vast wealth came from that allowed the Aristocracy to live in those beautiful mansions.

“But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can't it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.” Good Morning, Midnight.

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