Jean Rhys: 'I'm a stranger and always will be'

Falling in love with the perennial outsider; Jean Rhys
I first came to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea when I was about 16. I was going through a phase (I say phase but I’m pretty sure it never ended) where trying to secure some form of a stable identity for myself seemed to be of the upmost importance. As most 16 year olds seem to do, I’d decided that the rest of my life’s happiness rested on my ability to define myself, and it was with that in mind that I delved into the pages of Wide Sargasso Sea. 

My preoccupation with ‘who am I?’ pretty much ruined my enjoyment of the story, which I blazed through without really taking the time to understand. It was only once I was at University, some five years later, that I feel Jean Rhys and I were properly introduced. I was in my second year, and was shocked to find that I was feeling the most ferocious sense of isolation I had as yet experienced in my life. 

This time, as I read, each moment and thought seeped through my mind and into my skin. And as is always the way for any student of the Digital Age, I headed to blessèd Wikipedia to learn more about the author whose words had made such an impact, and from there have continued to search for knowledge about the woman whose life was so isolating, her existence so far removed from other’s realities, that somewhat ironically, her otherness has created an identity universally relatable in its abnormality.

Rhys’ own story made my jaw drop and my heart break. It was one littered with the damage done by men, and the often debilitating moments that come with a perpetual awareness of not belonging. She was the daughter of a Welsh doctor and third generation Scottish Creole, and until the age of 16, she called the West Indian island of Dominica home. My imagination can only hint at the strangeness of such an upbringing and such an environment; parents obsessed with maintaining a life and character of ‘whiteness’, whatever that may be, and a child in love with the humidity and colours of the only place she has ever known as home. 

She’d formed relationships with the black women who worked in her house, offering her access to a world far removed from that of her disapproving mother, who’d told Jean with disappointment she’d “never learn to be like other people.” These servants showed her a world narrated by patois, wrapped in a blanket of seductive island sensuality, all of which jarred sharply with the colonial life she was expected to exist within. 

When she finally left Dominica for England, she left behind the sun and lushness of one island, for the cold and dampness of another, something she never fully got over. Rhys was impossible to place; neither black nor white, classless, never part of any particular set, she moved through her life dealing with the abandonment of her mother and finding no solace within the arms of men, many of whom, namely the writer Ford Madox Ford, were abusive, and always eventually left her to deal with her depression and alcoholism alone.  

Jean Rhys captured my heart and has held onto it with such a tight grip, not because I see any parallels within her story and my own, but because she was an abiding outsider; something every single one of us can identify with in some way. Despite all the shadows her displacement cast upon her, she seemed to have an astute awareness as to the importance of this alienation, in both her existence and in her writing. 

In my mind’s eye I picture her as some sort of patron saint of the Outsider. Radiating light, and with a knowing look in her tired eyes, she absorbs the pain of those she protects, and proclaims, “Ah hell, if I can put up with this bullshit you certainly can.” Naturally, Rhys puts it most perfectly herself:

“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.”

Illustration by Tamara Jade-Kaz