Jean Rhys: The Forgotten Novelist of 1920s Paris

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Jean Rhys: The Forgotten Novelist of 1920s Paris
The 30-something woman sits at the back of the Montparnasse café. She is neatly dressed but her coat and hat are shabby and were fashionable several seasons ago. She knows, by face and name, most of the noisy English and American expatriates on the terrace. But despite being English herself, she is not part of their coterie. And anyway, sitting indoors is cheaper. She ekes out a café crème and a cheap brandy chaser, and waits. Such is the kind of woman so poignantly portrayed by Jean Rhys in the handful of novels she wrote in the 1920s while living in Paris, and the 1930s. The novels are heavily autobiographical. Like her heroines, Rhys lived on the fringes of the glamorous expat and artistic circles of Montparnasse. While other books about the place and period concentrate on the glittering milieu of artists, novelists and poets, Rhys used her firsthand knowledge to write about the women on the margins: models, shopgirls, women with no regular income who relied on their looks to be kept afloat by wealthier men. Single women living in drab hotel rooms. No one captured that subculture better. Le Dôme Café Montparnasse in the 20th century. Public domain Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in Dominica, in the West Indies. Her date of birth is inexact: it was probably 1890, but Jean claimed it was 1894. At any rate, Ella was sent to school in England at the age of 16 and the pattern of being an outsider was set. She spoke with a heavy Creole accent and knew nothing about English customs or behavior, which immediately set her up to be bullied. After an unhappy two years she enrolled in drama school. Ella was pretty and averagely talented but although she worked regularly on the stage she never rose above the chorus line and during the First World War worked for a year in the Ministry of Pensions. During this time she met, and married, a dashing Dutch-Belgian called Jean Lenglet. Lenglet was the classic charmer-cum-conman; he was also a bigamist who led Ella on a decade of rackety life in Paris and Vienna. The first spell in Paris, between 1919-1920, was undistinguished apart from the birth of a baby son who died after a few weeks. But their return in 1922 (Lenglet was on the run for suspected embezzlement) proved to be a turning point for Ella. She was fortunate to meet the English author Ford Madox Ford, then at the height of his popularity. Ford took her under his wing, encouraged her to write, persuaded her to change her name to Jean Rhys, and started publishing her stories in his magazine Transatlantic Review. Through him she became acquainted, at a distance, with the Lost Generation of expat writers such as Ernest Hemingway and their hangers-on, who had colonized the café terraces of Montparnasse. Ford Madox Ford circa 1905. Wikimedia Commons
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Lead photo credit : Jean Rhys (left, in hat) with Mollie Stoner, Velthams, 1970s from Wikimedia Commons

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.