• Birth—August 24, 1890
• Where—Dominica (Caribbean)
• Death—May 14, 1979
• Where—Exeter, Devonshire, England
• Education—Perse School for Girls, England, UK
Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scottish ancestry.
Rhys was educated at the Convent School and moved to England when she was sixteen, sent there to live with her aunt Clarice. She attended the Perse School for girls where she was mocked because of her accent and outsider status. She also attended Cambridge from 1907–08 and spent two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1909.
The instructors at RADA despaired of Rhys ever being able to speak what they considered "proper English" and advised her father to take her away. Unable to train as an actress and refusing to return to the Caribbean, as her parents wished, she worked with varied success as a chorus girl, adopting the names Vivienne, Emma or Ella Gray.
After her father died in 1910 Rhys drifted into the demimonde. Having fallen in love with a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith (1870–1941), she became his mistress. Although Smith was a bachelor he never offered to marry Rhys and their affair ended within two years, though he continued to be an occasional source of financial help.
Distraught both by the end of the affair and by the experience of a near-fatal abortion (not Smith's child), Rhys began writing an account which later became the basis of her novel Voyage In The Dark. In need of money, she posed nude for an artist in Britain, probably Dublin-born William Orpen, in 1913.
During World War I, Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918 she worked in a pension office.
In 1919 Rhys married the French-Dutch journalist, spy and songwriter Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, the first of her three husbands. She lived with him from 1920 wandering through Europe, mainly in London, Paris and Vienna. They had two children a son who died young and a daughter. They divorced in 1933. She married an editor, Leslie Tilden-Smith in 1934. They moved to Devon in 1939, where she lived for many years. He died in 1945, and two years later, in 1947 she married Tilden-Smith's cousin Max Hamer, a solicitor, who spent much of their marriage in jail. He died in 1966.
In 1924 Rhys' work was introduced to English writer Ford Madox Ford and they met in Paris, Rhys thereafter writing short stories under his patronage. Ford praised her "singular instinct for form" and recognized that her outsider status gave her a unique viewpoint. "Coming from the Antilles, he declared, with a terrifying insight and...passion for stating the case of the underdog, she has let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World." At that time her husband was in jail for eight months for what Rhys described as currency irregularities: Rhys moved in with Ford and his longtime partner, Stella Bowen and an affair with Ford quickly ensued.
In Voyage in the Dark, published in 1934, the portrayal of the mistreated, rootless woman continued. In Good Morning, Midnight, published in 1939, Rhys used a modified stream-of-consciousness technique to portray the consciousness of an aging woman.
In the 1940s, Rhys all but disappeared from public view, eventually being traced to Cheriton Fitzpaine, in Devon. After her absence from writing and the public eye she published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, which won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys returned again to the theme of dominance and dependence, through the relationship between a self-assured European man and a powerless woman. Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch's publishing house helped return Rhys' work to a wider audience and was responsible for choosing to publish Wide Sargasso Sea.
In a brief interview shortly before her death, Rhys questioned whether any novelist, not least herself, could ever be happy for any length of time. She said that: "If I could choose I would rather be happy than write.... If I could live my life all over again, and choose ...."
Rhys died in Exeter on May 14, 1979 before completing her autobiography. In 1979, the incomplete text appeared posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography. (From Wikipedia.)
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