The Jean Rhys House stood on the corner of Cork Street and Independence Street (then known as Granby Street) until it was demolished by its new owners, along with the famous mango tree, in May 2020. The house had been in some disrepair and had been further damaged by the hurricane of 2017, but nevertheless an iconic landmark in the city was lost.
Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was a well-known author who spent the first sixteen years of her life at Roseau. She was born as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, though not at this house. Her father, William Rees Williams was a Welsh-born doctor and her mother a Creole. She left Dominica to live in England in 1907, married first in 1919, and after entering into a relationship with Ford Madox Ford, began to write short stories. After her first divorce, she married again in 1934. She only returned to Dominica once in later life – in 1936. She married her third husband in 1947. During 1956 and 1957 she worked on her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, much of which was inspired by her early life in Dominica. Her background also plays a part in her book, Voyage in the Dark (1934) and in short stories such as The Day They Burned the Books. Many of her finest stories were inspired by her memories of the island, such as Heat, and I used to Live Here Once. Smile Please was in her mind for thirty years before she finally succeeded in completing the key section about Dominica shortly before her death.
Whereas Phyllis Shand Allfrey is not so well known outside Dominica, Jean Rhys’s work is set for many curriculums. Phyllis kept Jean in touch with the island by sending copies of The Star, which she published.
She admired the vitality of the black community, in contrast to the sterile formality of the white world, though she never succeeded in forging equal friendships with the world of her nursemaid and others. In England she never felt properly accepted though, towards the end of her life, she was much promoted by Francis Wyndham and the editor, Diana Athill. Her book, Good Morning, Midnight (1939) is considered a masterpiece in describing a woman’s disorientation and despair. She was christened in St George’s Anglican Church.
From this house she watched the carnival bands pass: ‘I used to long so fiercely to be black and to dance too, in the sun, to that music.’