Jean Rhys Had to Leave Her Home to Truly See It
Gabrielle Bellot on Exile, Otherness, and the Isolation of
a Great 20th-Century Writer
On some mornings in the capital, thick with heat and a silence punctuated only by the insomnia whine of mosquitoes, Jean Rhys would wake up, briefly smiling, for she was convinced she had gone to bed white and woken up black. “Dear God, let me be black,” she prayed.
She was young, then, but that dream—which was more an archetype of fitting in—would scarcely age, following her, if with ever smokier footsteps, through her life. At the time she lived in Roseau, the small labyrinthine capital of Dominica, where she had been born in 1890 to a Welsh immigrant father and a white Creole mother of Scottish ancestry. In those days near the dawn of a new century the island still had few roads and some people rode boats from one town to the next to bypass the chaos of the jungle, and so cut off were some distant villages that they existed more as rumor, ghost-flicker, than map point, but despite living in such an important town, Rhys—a woman containing multitudes—often felt alone, visible as the sands steeped black-gray in volcano far across the island, yet alone, all the same. This mixed sense of self and cultural identity came to inform all of her novels but none more so than her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea.
She felt isolated, always, even as she held privileges, because there was often a veil of separation between her and nonwhite Dominicans. In those days the Anglican church her family attended was segregated and the black and white Dominicans entered and exited on separate sides; during Carnival, her family watched from a distance, while she looked at the black Dominicans who jumped up. “I used to long so fiercely to be black and dance, too, in the sun, to that music,” she recorded. In a convent with few white girls, she tried to smile at a multiracial student, who turned to her, Rhys wrote in her aptly titled autobiography, Smile, Please, with a deep, pure hatred she never forgot. “They hate us. We are hated,” she wrote of the incident.
She would die almost a century later, now across the Atlantic in a series of English hotels where she drank vermouth or rum, body faded like a dress returned to its hanger, memory mottled like an old photograph, scarcely able to believe she would be hailed in death as one of the Caribbean’s great writers. Anyone can become the Other, if there is enough shadow and susurrus. Rhys romanticized and even at times fetishized blackness in her autobiography, partly out of ignorant racialized stereotyping as a young girl, partly out of her deep longing to feel like she could fit in better, live less behind a barrier, in her homeland. When she could not, she fled to England, where she ironically came to understand both her own identity and her view of Dominica better, in the way those of us who leave our homes sometimes see them more clearly than if we had stayed.
I understood some of this well, even as a multiracial trans woman. We both found our reflections in other countries’ mirrors. Both learned how, despite this, we could never really leave our homes, even an ocean away. Learned that we are all living stories, and no story can fully disappear, unless we do, unless we sail across that ancient sea of Sargassum, and find the legend of it tangling, devouring ships is true.
In Rhys’s day, the island had both little and a lot. There was no central road; shortly before she left, Rhys would briefly fall for Hesketh Bell, the man who would go on to build the Imperial Road, that fabled pathway connecting the towns and villages. Andrew Carnegie ordered a library built in Roseau. Most walked or rode horses; in the remotest parts of some islands automobiles seemed so foreign that the first car in Saba—amongst the latest islands to receive such a contraption—in 1947 was chased around by children who declared it a “donkey on wheels.”
In those hazy days it was still common to slurp the eggs of the giant sea turtles born in previous centuries which men would wait for with crocus bags under the sleeping coconuts on the least inhabited of blue midnights so they could capture this white delicacy sometimes only moments after the turtle had laid them, and then it would be the turtle’s turn so that someone could hang its shell in their home like a sad trophy of who-knows-what, and on nights that were too quiet some of the villagers would line the edges of their windows and doors with salt to distract the blood-sucking women who flew as fireballs at night across the nacreous moon, for, like the more traditionalist of their European counterparts, the soucouyants could not resist counting each grain in their path, and before the night could shut her pinkblue curtains to sleep the cocks would already be crowing and there would already be women sweeping with cocoyea brooms and men with cutlasses walking to gardens and vast fields of sugarcane and those who had missed the cocks’ crowing might be stunned awake by a torrent of curses about mothers from the Sisserou and Jaco parrots some people still kept in cages. Growing up there myself at the end of the 20th century, the island had both changed and stayed the same in a particularly Caribbean way, beautiful and sometimes frustrating; in the era of cell phones and PS4s, some of us still talk, with a vague wonderful seriousness, about women who might be soucouyants or infernal men who revealed themselves at night as loogaroos, a derivation of loup-garou, by transmogrifying into dogs or wolves.
Even as racial demarcations existed in the islands—Moreau de Saint-Méry was able to serenely assert that no less than 128 racial combinations existed in St. Domingue prior to the Haitian Revolution—racial categories in the Caribbean were, and remain, generally more porous and permeable than in the United States, which, comparatively, was fanatically fixated on miscegenation. “Miscegenation is not an idea that we would have in the Caribbean,” Derek Walcott told Bill Moyers in 1988. “It wouldn’t come up because anybody could marry anybody, you know. I’m not saying that there aren’t prejudices in the Caribbean, but the idea of the word ‘miscegenation’ is not something that we think of. You know, if you see a black and white couple you say, ‘Oh.’ Of course, it will strike you, but it is not like it is an offense.”
Casual racism and color-based hierarchies have long histories in Dominica and elsewhere, whereby having lighter skin often suggested wealth and power and “good hair” unfortunately meant straight hair or mixed-race corkscrewing tresses—anything but kinky curls. If you were very dark-skinned, someone might jokingly say you were “black like an African”; girls who were “too” black were often silently deemed less desirable than the shabines, the light-skinned people—we sometimes said mango-colored—who were usually multiracial, like me. Rhys, however, was white; there was a distinction between shabine and white, with the latter usually indicating a less desirable foreign-ness, unless the person was well-known as a local, in which case these divisions at least partly broke down. While a stereotype, we really did have a more easygoing attitude, in general, to race where I grew up. At the same time, it was Dominica, in 1974, that passed the notorious Dread Act, which authorized the arrest and even murder on sight of people wearing dreadlocks—the “Dreads,” a not-insignificant word—due to violence by certain members of the Rastafarian community in parts of the island; this oft-forgotten period, which lasted until 1985 and saw over 20 killed, is a chilling paragon of Othering.
America is more explicitly, intensely divided by color-lines, explicit or psychic. In Dominica, a white local who decided to grow dreads would rarely cause controversy; in America, they might be accused of cultural appropriation. Being black or white in America is both similar to and distinct from being black or white anywhere else—as are all experiences—even as anti-blackness exists with a particular, bloody tendency around the globe. Still, Rhys, a Creole like Dominica’s other best-known female writer, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, grew up with a complicated relationship to her identities: racial, class-based, cultural. Her home was both haunt and haunted.
Rhys did not see the world in black and white, saw it rather in a mix of swampy night and wintry twilight, yet black and white, unsurprisingly, appeared frequently in her writing, including her unfinished autobiography, dictated partly to David Plante, shortly before her death. In its opening memory, Rhys is wearing a white dress and black shoes; later, she describes having two dolls, one white, one dark, and desiring the swarthier doll with a tenacious ferocity—“wanted her as I had never wanted anything in my life.” When forced to give her sister the dark doll, Rhys took the fair one outside, found “a big stone, brought it down with all my force on her face and heard the smashing sound with delight.”
As a child, she describes ominous sounds of a distant riot one night, which was black Dominicans protesting an incendiary article by an editor; her father, like Mr. Mason in Wide Sargasso Sea, says placidly that there is nothing to worry about, and, unlike in her novel—where their house is set ablaze—no violence reaches them, though the atmosphere in their home is tense, electric. In Wide Sargasso Sea, too, Rhys’ multiracial narrator, Antoinette, is often described early on as a “white nigger,” due to the societal borderlands in which her family exists.
Despite being white, Rhys often felt like the Other in England because of her colonial origins and accent. She was booted from the Royal Academy of Art because she sounded too West-Indian—unacceptable, apparently, for the English stage, as W. Rees Williams informed her father in a 1909 letter lamenting her inability to “improve with her accent”—and the humiliated Rhys, who was also called a “coon” by classmates for her accent and mocked by her brief lover Adrian’s friends for a voice that “offended our musical ears beyond endurance,” began a practice she would continue to the end of her life: speaking softly, even in a whisper. Such Othering echoed the experience of many Caribbean migrants to England in the 1950s, though Rhys was insulated from the virulent anti-black racism that writers like Samuel Selvon, C.L.R. James, and George Lamming described abroad. After meeting Ford Maddox Ford—who proposed the name “Jean Rhys” and encouraged her to publish—in 1924, she flitted between socialite and specter in England and Paris. She revisited Dominica just once, in 1936. Her writing constantly drew from Dominica, despite most of her life being in Europe.
I traveled to England with my best friend to do research for my novel. Only my bestie and a trusted few knew my secret then: I was trans. I had lived in the closet for two decades; I knew the smell of the wood, the cramped musty space, so well that I was afraid to leave it.
I had never, at the time, presented as female in public. My bestie encouraged me to do so one afternoon in the British Library’s café. Before I knew it, I had even gone to see a dramatization of Walcott’s Omeros wearing makeup and tight slacks. My makeup was an abomination, as I had been told more literally in endless church sermons that people like me were due to our “sexual deviancy,” but I was happy, suddenly. I had taken a step, superficial as it was, towards affirming myself.
I knew, of course, that if I took a bigger step and came out to everyone, that I, like Rhys, wouldn’t return to the island anymore. Someone openly queer couldn’t easily exist there; it would be too lonely, too dangerous, too heavy with a blue gravity. I felt unable to fit in, were I to be myself. When I came out, finally, I knew I might lose the world all my writing drew from, that so many dreams conjured up. A moon without planet.
In a way, I learned to love my home better by saying goodbye to it. I finally saw, in the clearest way, what I had had there. For so long I had alternated between hating and cherishing it; now, finally, I saw it more fully, if through mist and dream, through the quiet-booming gramarye of how past always brims over the edge of present. I left my home, yet couldn’t leave it.
Love requires distance, sometimes, to deepen and grow, even if that is also how it fades, like seafoam on sand, and dies.
Between the 1939 release of Good Morning, Midnight, which garnered poor sales and middling reviews, and Wide Sargasso Sea’s seminal publication in 1966, both Rhys and her career appeared to have vanished. The media went so far as to claim that she was deceased. In 1956, Francis Wyndham wrote an article that referenced “the late Jean Rhys” because he had been told she had died in a sanatorium; her own publisher, Constable, told inquirers she was dead. “I feel rather tactless at being alive,” she said upon learning of her early demise, though she made little effort to correct the mistake. Even Rhys’s next-door neighbor disbelieved in her presence, informing others that Rhys was merely “impersonating a dead writer called Jean Rhys.” (Despite her later fame, a Dominican student was still able to describe asking a school librarian, many years ago, about a famous national who had supposedly written a novel, to which the librarian replied that, as far as she knew, no Dominican had ever written a book; for the unfortunate librarian, Rhys had simply never existed to begin with.)
In other cases, Rhys’s seeming lack of overt lunacy confounded audiences. “‘Dear Miss Rhys—You’re so gentle and quiet—Not at all what I expected!’” the actress Selma Vaz Dias informed the nebulous author. “I gathered afterwards,” Rhys wrote in a 1949 letter of Vaz Dias’s surprise, “that she expected a raving and not too clean maniac with straws in gruesome unwashed hair.” She expected the Rhys who burnt her first manuscript of Wide Sargasso Sea, then titled Le Revanant, to punish the ex-husband she was feuding with; she expected the incoherent, stumbling, dipsomaniacal Rhys David Plante would, decades later, infamously portray in Difficult Women shortly before Rhys’s death, an image of mania that had, in some form, always haunted her, even as that child who had smashed the fair doll with glee and who dragged around a loud rusted anchor of solitude.
With its vast thick jungles, billowing white rain-mists perfumed in petrichor, and towering verdant mountains, Dominica had the outward aspect of a tropical Garden of Eden. So Edenic seemed the island that it may have literally influenced a translation of the Book of Genesis, as John Layfield—one of the King James Bible’s 54 translators, tasked with the opening chapters of Genesis—voyaged to Dominica in 1593. One of the few biblical translators to travel across the Atlantic, Layfield described Dominica in his journal in terms reminiscent of the legendary Garden. In contemporaneous illustrations, Eden was imagined as a pristine, primordial paradise, brimming with the kind of oversized abundance Henri Rousseau would invest his painted vegetation with centuries later; Eden’s beauty reflected how much Adam and Eve were supposed to lose by their excommunication. “The trees doe continually maintane themselves in a greene-good liking,” Layfield portrayed Dominica, conjuring an almost magical world of eternal verdure. It is tempting to conjecture that his experience of the Nature Isle, as well as the “New World” at large, influenced his translation. In the beginning, it seemed, Mr. Layfield had been thinking of wide Sargasso seas.
Just as Rousseau’s visions of nature emphasized enormity, Rhys understood the way the wild could overwhelm, the way Nature was omnivorous, masticating Queen: the ants taking over floors and counters, the rust devouring roofs, the rain battering roads into muddy pieces, the rivers, churned to spumescent fury by the invasion of rain and mud, lashing out at bridges and surging into homes with startled crabs and boa constrictors in their writhing grasp. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette describes the estate at Coulibri—the name of a real part of Dominica—in terms both Edenesque and overwhelming: “Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible—the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell…All Coulibri Estate had gone wild like the garden, gone to bush.” While partly describing the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation on the estate’s upkeep, it also echoes a primal wildness, what Walcott would later describe in “Air” as “[t]he unheard, omnivorous / jaws of this rain forest / not merely devour[ing] all / but allow[ing] nothing vain.”
England lacked that same inescapable creep of red-toothed nature, but Rhys took the unsettling, fuliginous memories with her, and wrote.
“All of writing is a huge lake,” Rhys informed Plante unceremoniously one day, according to Difficult Women. “There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake. It is very important. Nothing else is important.”
If only she had known—as is hard for truer, less arrogant artists—she was no trickle, but a lovely river, like her first home was known for, and that her struggles over where in the rumbustious world she might, briefly, fit in would resonate, so much, with readers around the globe, but perhaps most of all for us in the home she left, yet never was able to leave.