Today marks the 41st anniversary of the death of internationally acclaimed British author of Dominican origin, Jean Rhys. The celebrated author was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams on August 24, 1890 in Roseau, Dominica. She passed away in a caring home in Exeter, United Kingdom on May 14, 1979 at the age of 88. She has left behind a legacy that has earned her a place in history as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.
Martin Chilton, writing in an intensely personal, piece in the May 14 edition of the Independent titled, How literary giant Jean Rhys became a jazz songwriter in honour of the 40th anniversary of her death in 2019 said of Rhys, “Jean Rhys is regarded as one of the great writers of the 20th century. ” among her many accolades he mentioned that Time magazine had selected Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea in its list of “100 best English-language novels since 1923.
A simple search of the Internet will return a copious amount of works published in her lifetime and post, Rhys’ death that dissect, analyse and laud the works of Jean Rhys. Her books are the subject of numerous theses and academic papers. During her life time, Jean Rhys wrote :The Left Bank and Other Stories, 1927; Postures, novel, 1928; Quartet, 1929); After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, novel, 1931; Voyage in the Dark, novel, 1934; Good Morning, Midnight, novel, 1939; Wide Sargasso Sea, novel, 1966; Tigers Are Better-Looking: With a Selection from ‘The Left Bank’ , stories, 1968; Penguin Modern Stories 1, 1969 (with Bernard Malamud, David Plante and William Sansom); My Day: Three Pieces, stories, 1975 and Sleep It Off Lady. The following titles were published posthumously:
- Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography, 1979
- Jean Rhys: Letters 1931–1966, 1984
- Early Novels, 1984
- The Complete Novels, 1985
- Tales of the Wide Caribbean, stories, 1985
- The Collected Short Stories, 1987
- Let Them Call It Jazz, stories,1995
Reintroduction to Jean Rhys
My own familiarity with the writings of this fascinating woman was in the 1980s, 1990s up to 2004 when, like Rhys I travelled to England to further my education. During those heady, heydays of performance poetry shows, publishing poetry books, and writing columns in the local papers, as well as being one of the pioneering members of the now defunct Dominica Writers Guild, and the decommissioned Frontline Cooperative bookstore, I, Gerald La Touch, Ian Jackson, Harry Sealey and Vilna Pinard hosted a literary program in the 90s for the DWG, called Review. The show’s format included critiquing, reviewing and reading the works of local, regional and international authors and speaking with guests was aired on the newly-founded radio station, Kairi Fm every Tuesday and Thursday 7- 8pm, The works of Jean Rhys was a frequent feature.
I can remember, in 2002, after many years as a free-lance, I completed a journalism and short story writing Diploma with International Correspondence School, now Harcourt Learning Direct and was invited to join the editorial team as a reporter with Dominica’s oldest newspaper, The Chronicle which was founded in 1909.
Irving Andre, an exceptional Dominican Author of many books on the island’s culture, through his Pond Case Press imprint in 1999, in his second edition of Distance Voices, in 1999, which left out its previous subtitle, The genesis of an indigenous Literature in Dominica, Andre treats the Jean Rhys legacy with the seriousness it deserves. Chapter three of the book, The Reconstruction of Social Reality from the Writings of Jean Rhys provides a very well researched overview of the social constructs of the later 19 century-Dominica into which Rhys was born. And provides the context in which the future fiction author would find ample food for thought that would later inform her writings and fire her creative imagination.
In chapter three, Andre also includes discussions of works from active poets of the day who had written odes to Rhys memories. Poems like, Smile Please to me by Christabel Laronde; The Extreme Island by Gerald La Touche and Broken Images by Ian Jackson. He also included My Poet’s Life by Albert Williams.
I used to live here once
For many years, in fact decades, my own writings were concentrated on promoting black consciousness. I was and still am a huge fan of the Caribbean’s most recognised cultural exponent, Bob Marley who together with his band, The Wailers carved out a niche for himself as a champion of the down-pressed, the marginalised and the third-world.
Polly Pattullo, a former British journalist and author of numerous books on Caribbean topics, and co-owner of Papillote Press, in her blog, Repeating Islands, provides a warm but sober, requiem for the famous building, in her post, JEAN RHYS HOUSE in Roseau Has Been Demolished she said, “those who treasure literary heritage will mourn its passing.”
Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest influence to trigger my renewed interest in the Wide Sargasso Sea author, was not the fact that the, albeit dilapidated landmark was soon to be totally obliterated, but that a living descendent of the great lady had contacted me on Facebook messenger bemoaning the destruction of a childhood home of his great, grand aunt, Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. Enters 59-year-old, Steven Owen Williams Sr.
The Jean Rhys Estate
Not much is known about the Jean Rhys estate. Whether she signed a last will and testament, or whether she died intestate. The Jean Rhys archive, 1920-1991 (15 Linear Feet ’30 boxes, 1 oversized folder’ held by the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, USA.(Utulsa.as.atlas-sys 2020). The collection of the ‘colonial writer’ says its website, comprises of manuscripts, drafts of stories, and personal letters and correspondence. The Jean Rhys archive also houses ‘sound recordings and reviews’ of her books; interviews with and articles about her.” According the university’s website, the copyrights of this precious resource material is owned by the University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections.
“I would like to see
that the last descendants
get some recognition be it in kind
or financially,”Cpl Steve Owen Williams Sr.
Further, it says that “Unpublished manuscripts, photographs, recordings, etc. are under copyright to the the original producers or their heirs”.
Steve Williams and his twin brother Steven are direct descendants of the family lineage of Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams who became known as the eccentric Jean Rhys and the author of note of the 20th century. In fact, as a heir to the legacy of Jean Rhys through direct blood association somewhat backs up a point.
Corporal Steve Williams, who is a 39-year-veteran of the Commonwealth of Dominica Police Force told this writer that it was Caribbean anthropologist scholar, and Dominican historian and author, Dr. Lennox Honychurch, who first made him, his parents and siblings aware that they are the last descendants of the internationally, acclaimed Jean Rhys. He remembers that in the early 70s while the young Honychurch, who had already published his first edition of the Dominica Story while pursuing further studies, Honychurch and Steve’s his father, Oscar would engage in great discussions about what they knew about this famous, Dominican author. This famous creole lady of whom they are the living heirs. While Honychurch was studying he would conduct a lot research with his father he remembers. “He had everything he needed in regard to Jean Rhys. I know she was born in 1890 and died 14 May 1979 and ever since I joined the police force we were always questioned about the house on the intersection of Fields Lane, Cock street and Queen Mary Street.
According to Steve, His father Oscar was born in 1915. His father, Steven’s grand father was brother to Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. “So she is my fathers grand aunt, and she became our great, grand aunt” he added.
“We grew up in 37 Cork street where our mother first lived and the house of Gwendolyn was owned by Sparrow Winston who used to live there. He lived there for quite a while, “he mused adding, “He was in charge of the house after it was sold when Rhys was taken to England. The house of Jean Rhys, he said is is [was] located at the intersection of Fields Lane, Queen Mary Street (Now Independence Street) and Cork Street.
“We know for a fact she later moved to Geneva Estate in Grand Bay and that is where she lived until she was taken to England at the age of 16 years,” he added.
The novel continues: the afterlife
Despite the fact that Dominica is mentioned in the same sentence in every bibliographical text you can find of Jean Rhys, whether on radio, television, or print (or the Internet), and her books are really autobiographical in nature and draw on anecdotes and reflections on her early childhood in Dominica and her consequent life in Europe, Jean Rhys continues to dodge the limelight in Dominica. Successive governments in Dominica as far the first ministership of deceased Franklin Baron, his successor, O E Leblanc who is attributed to introducing National Day observances and competitions, and advocated of downing the tie in favour of the shirt jack and every government since, have not found it necessary or on second thoughts, cannot make Jean Rhys a household name on the island.
Steve Williams and his brother and children are hoping that as last descendants that they will see some of her inheritance passed on to them.
“I would like to see that the last descendants get some recognition be it in kind or financially,” Steve said.
Steve is married and he and his wife Decima have 5 children: Steve Owen Jr, (36) , Sherry-Ann (33,) Dexter (30) Melissa (26 ) and (Shanika 25)
In closing I asked, “Well ! what do your children say about your great, grand aunt?
He replied, ” They ask questions about her every day. Even my wife. Daddy, you have a fortune in England they say,” he chuckled. Unfortunately, Steve could not offer any photos or memorabilia due to Hurricane Maria that devastated the island September 17, 2017
“I lost everything during maria. We had a lot of books Lennox Honychurch gave us. We had a case full of documents and I had a few that brothers of my uncle that died, ” he reminisced. ” Now all gone”
Not all tigers are better looking
So the unlikely consequence of the demolition of a famous author’s residence may be bizarre, it may be expedient. Maybe, that is how Jean Rhys wanted it. Her favorite place on earth, discreet. A place to retire away from prying journalists simply sipping a glass of wine watching the sunset. Albert Williams Reporting, understands that the new owners are members of another well-known Dominican heritage family. This is Steve Williams again, ” It was demolished on May 4 , and there is a big hole. That big hole is right on the intersection. The mango tree was supposed to cut down , they were warned not to cut it.”
For further reading
Operanews.com. (2020). You are being redirected…. [online] Available at: https://www.operanews.com/Opera_News_Magazine/2012/12/Departments/On_the_Beat.html [Accessed 13 May 2020].
Vreeland, I. (2020). <a href=’/authors/4235/jean-rhys’>Jean Rhys</a>, The Art of Fiction No. 64. [online] The Paris Review. Available at: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3380/the-art-of-fiction-no-64-jean-rhys [Accessed 13 May 2020].
Hmdb.org. (2020). Photo: The Jean Rhys House. [online] Available at: https://www.hmdb.org/PhotoFullSize.asp?PhotoID=479432 [Accessed 13 May 2020].
The Independent. (2019). How literary giant Jean Rhys became a jazz songwriter. [online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/jean-rhys-death-writer-jazz-wide-sargasso-sea-george-melly-the-feetwarmers-a8902871.html [Accessed 14 May 2020].
Repeating Islands. (2020). JEAN RHYS HOUSE in Roseau Has Been Demolished. [online] Available at: https://repeatingislands.com/2020/05/07/jean-rhys-house-in-roseau-has-been-demolished/?fbclid=IwAR37Hy4n4m9H1KfKF2e36ne3gXUMnPBTABxMRJXOTJRTA3-9hJ4IEF4-XNU [Accessed 14 May 2020].
Newdevonbookfindsaway.blogspot.com. (2017). C … Caribbean Seas at Cheriton Fitzpaine . [online] Available at: https://newdevonbookfindsaway.blogspot.com/2017/01/c-caribbean-seas-at-cheriton-fitzpaine.html [Accessed 14 May 2020].
Utulsa.as.atlas-sys.com. (2020). Collection: Jean Rhys archive, 1920-1991 | The University of Tulsa Archival Catalog. [online] Available at: https://utulsa.as.atlas-sys.com/repositories/2/resources/56 [Accessed 14 May 2020].
Operanews.com. (2020). [online] Available at: https://www.operanews.com/Opera_News_Magazine/2012/12/Departments/On_the_Beat.html [Accessed 14 May 2020].
En.wikipedia.org. (2020). Jean Rhys. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Rhys [Accessed 15 May 2020].
the Guardian. (2000). For the love of Jean. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/sep/16/classics [Accessed 15 May 2020].
Crossref-it.info. (2020). Jean Rhys’ early life in Dominica » Wide Sargasso Sea Study Guide from Crossref-it.info. [online] Available at: https://crossref-it.info/textguide/wide-sargasso-sea/29/rhys-jean/56 [Accessed 15 May 2020].
En.wikipedia.org. (2020). Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smile_Please:_An_Unfinished_Autobiography [Accessed 15 May 2020].
Open.uwi.edu. (2020). Jean Rhys Biography, compiled by Lennox Honychurch. [online] Available at: https://www.open.uwi.edu/sites/default/files/bnccde/dominica/centre/jrbio.html [Accessed 15 May 2020].
Pontcassepress.com. (2020). Distant Voices – The Genesis Of An Indigenous Literature In Dominica – pont casse press. [online] Available at: http://www.pontcassepress.com/?portfolio=distant-voices-the-genesis-of-an-indigenous-literature-in-dominica [Accessed 16 May 2020].
Open.uwi.edu. (2020). Jean Rhys Dominica. [online] Available at: https://www.open.uwi.edu/sites/default/files/bnccde/dominica/centre/jrindex.html [Accessed 16 May 2020].
Avirtualdominica.com. (2020). Dominica’s Cultural Icons | a virtual Dominica. [online] Available at: https://www.avirtualdominica.com/project/cultural-icons/ [Accessed 17 May 2020].
Brookes.ac.uk. (2020). Andre Deutsch Collection – Oxford Brookes University . [online] Available at: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/library/special-collections/publishing-and-literary-prizes/andre-deutsch-collection/ [Accessed 21 May 2020].