Looking for Jean Rhys

An unresolved fascination with the author of Wide Sargasso Sea leads to the remote island of Dominica, and, alas, to oneself

impressionist painting of woman on a cliff
Illustration by Shary Boyle

As a girl, I identified with the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: she was good, she was brave, she was intellectually and morally superior to everyone around her. Though not good-looking in a flashy way, and forced to toil as a lowly governess, she inevitably attracted the love of her master, Mr. Rochester. Unfortunately, he had a mad wife locked up in the attic, so Jane couldn’t marry him. But in the end, her goodness prevailed, winning her the man (after his wife conveniently perishes while burning down Thornfield Hall) and a respectable career as a wife and homemaker.

Later, I discovered Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, the 1966 novel that is the supposed prequel, and modern rebuttal, to Jane Eyre, and I briefly identified with its heroine: the impoverished, neglected Creole beauty, Antoinette, who is unappreciated by her dysfunctional family in Jamaica and callously married off to a broody, uptight Englishman. He (though unnamed, we know it’s Rochester) is soon appalled and repelled by his wife’s true, passionate nature—not to mention the madness that runs in her family—and starts calling her “Bertha.” Heartbroken, Antoinette soon begins to unravel. After a disastrous honeymoon, set on a decrepit estate in Rhys’s native Dominica, the poor girl is whisked off to dank, drizzly England, loses her mind altogether, and is locked up in the attic of Thornfield Hall. There, inexpertly guarded by the gin-soaked Grace Poole, Antoinette dreams of making a big, warm fire, like the one that destroyed her family home when she was a child.

But identifying with Antoinette was a bit of a stretch—she was too earthy, too extravagantly animated, too suntanned and gorgeous, really, for the brand of droopingly adolescent, pseudo-intellectual narcissism I favoured. Jean Rhys, however—there was a character worth obsessing about. Over-sensitive, monumentally talented, devoutly alcoholic, reviled by her uncaring, unimaginative relations, tragically misunderstood in a male-chauvinist world—how could any self-respecting late-twentieth-century feminist English grad with literary pretensions not identify with Jean Rhys? Her personal history was irresistibly sordid: the down-at-heels descendant of slave owners, Rhys left her home in Dominica at sixteen and briefly attended school in England before running off to become a chorus girl, then a kept woman, then a sort of prostitute, then the high-society wife of a Dutch writer/embezzler in Vienna, then a penniless protegé of Ford Madox Ford in Paris while her husband was in jail, then the unhappy player in a ménage à trois with Ford and his mistress. Long story short, Rhys went through a couple more husbands, severe poverty, debilitating depression, and several arrests for drunk-and-disorderly behaviour before achieving fame and financial stability at age seventy-six with Wide Sargasso Sea. She died in 1979.

I suppose most female English grads eventually get over their Jean Rhys obsession. I, however—at this point well into middle age—booked a flight to Dominica, ostensibly to write a travel story, but really to satisfy my unresolved fascination with the writer who began life in 1890 as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams on that mysterious island.

One reason Dominica remains mysterious: it’s hard to get to. Note that it is not the Dominican Republic. It’s Dom-i-neek-a, one of the Lesser Antilles, the little islands that curve furthest east into the Atlantic. Its airport has a short runway surrounded by jungle, which means no big planes allowed. I had to fly from Toronto to Barbados, then catch a prop plane to Dominica. I was the only white person among thirty or so passengers, which gave me pause, having grown up in a white Winnipeg neighbourhood and assuming that I was and always would be in the dominant cultural group. So even before landing, I was reassessing my place in the world and feeling on guard—against my own unconscious racism, against potential racist assumptions about me, against focusing too much on skin colour when everyone around me seemed oblivious. Or maybe they were intensely conscious of the colour difference, but in a way I couldn’t imagine. Or possibly they were merely thinking it was strange for a white, middle-aged woman to be travelling alone. Or, outlandish as it seemed, perhaps they weren’t thinking of me at all.

In Dominica, the terminal was strangely deserted, the other passengers having evaporated into the cars of friends or family. I strode outside the small terminal building, saw half a dozen shiny new cars with drivers lounging about, turned around, and strode back in. I felt shy, stupid, self-conscious—a familiar sensation to an over-sensitive freelance writer anywhere, but one that would be elevated to the level of a chronic condition in Dominica. I decided to drive across the island myself; at least if I drove off the road and got lost I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. But one of the drivers had followed me back inside to the car-rental counter. “No, no, you shouldn’t rent a car,” he said. “Too dangerous.” The woman behind the counter nodded in agreement. One hour and $60 (US) later, after a harrowing but scenic rollercoaster ride through the thickly forested mountains that cover this 47-by-26-kilometre island, the driver dropped me at my hotel, just south of the capital, Roseau, where I checked into my ocean-view room.

Though grateful to be alive, I was momentarily discouraged by the accommodations: a TV on a metal arm jutted out into the room and the remote control didn’t work; in the shower the plastic curtain flew inward due to a convection current created by the hot water spray; the plug for the kettle didn’t fit into the outlet. At dinner, the menu was tailored to presumed North American tastes: chicken fingers, frozen french fries. And the hotel was filled with hardcore sun ‘n’ fun tourists: scuba-diving tour groups, snorkelling honeymooners, families lining up on the dock like sheep to go whale-watching.

But what did I care? I didn’t come to watch TV and eat junk food or sign up for pitiful excursions to tourist traps. I didn’t even come for the sun, which makes my skin blotchy and gives me migraine headaches. I was here to explore the real Dominica behind the enigmatic character of Jean Rhys, and I would begin the very next morning with a brisk two-kilometre walk to visit her famous childhood home.

It was too hot, even at 8 a.m., to walk into Roseau. The desk clerk told me the bus ride in was a couple of Eastern Caribbean dollars (about $1 Canadian). After standing in the blood-boiling heat for twenty minutes, I staggered back into the lobby and learned that taking a bus meant waving down a minivan with the right combo of letters on its licence plate. I wondered why she thought I would have known that. No matter. Minutes later, I was dropped off at the tourist office on the waterfront. Though surrounded by recently constructed suburbs, the town itself is tiny—a few dozen streets of low, rundown wooden buildings. Jean Rhys’s home was at Independence and Cork streets, and, with one of the tourist brochures, I easily found it.

I just couldn’t believe it when I saw it. I knew the two-storey rectangular wooden box of a house had been converted into a guest house, but now it wasn’t even that. The wooden jalousies of her youth had been replaced with cheap plastic shutters. A sign said “Closed for renovations,” but there was no work going on. Another sign read “Vena’s Guesthouse Restaurant & Bar,” and below, “The House of Famous Dominican Novelist the Late Jean rhys.” A back door was ajar, but it revealed only an empty drywalled hallway inside.

The next day, I visited the 40-acre Botanical Gardens where Rhys had played as a child. Now it was scorched and empty. No sign of staff; no tourists either. I visited an endangered Sisserou parrot in the aviary and took pictures of a flattened school bus, still pinned beneath a giant African baobab tree felled by Hurricane David in 1979. “Fortunately, the bus was empty at the time,” read a sign.

I wandered around Roseau, looking for evidence of my idol. I visited the Carnegie Library where Jean went as a teenager, brand-new in 1907, now underfunded and drably renovated. Elsewhere, I found a couple of dusty, hole-in-the-wall bookstores containing very few books. Now and then, I asked people about Rhys. A policeman shrugged apologetically. A woman selling souvenirs said, “I don’t read. I don’t like to read.” Others didn’t know or didn’t care who she was—possibly the same reaction tourists would get in Canada if they asked about Mavis Gallant.

On days when a cruise ship was in port to pick up fresh spring water (Dominica famously claims to have 365 rivers and dozens of waterfalls) and drop off thousands of day trippers, I’d blend in with the crowd. Other days, I was often the only white person in view, and my casual shorts and T-shirts made me stand out even more. Dominican society is a conservative mix of English rectitude (the country gained independence in 1978, but uniforms and the Queen’s English are still de rigueur in schools) and relics of French rule in the 1700s (the island’s 69,000 inhabitants are 77 percent Catholic and speak a French Creole to each other). The women don’t wear shorts or halter tops or miniskirts. They wear long pants, skirts, and a lot of carefully buttoned suits, while the men, in loose trousers and neatly pressed shirts, look like Nat King Cole. T-shirts with logos are a recent phenomenon; much of what’s on sale here is from China, a country that has lately been sinking millions into Dominica—a bribe, my cab driver had told me, to encourage the island to vote with China against recognizing Taiwan at the UN.

Four days into my two-week trip, I gave up on the Jean Rhys angle and decided to focus on the travel-story angle—but not a conventional travel story. I would avoid organized tourist activities and independently seek out original material. The next morning, I headed away from Roseau, catching a bus south to Scott’s Head, a fishing village whose nearby bubbly ocean waters are caused by underwater volcanic gases.

Dominica consists mainly of volcanic mountains that shoot up from the sea and are covered in dense vegetation, including the largest island rainforest in the Lesser Antilles. When Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand asked Columbus about the island (which he’d sighted and named in 1493), he described it by crumpling up a piece of paper. My point is that the roads are narrow, twisty, and frightening. As the minivan careered wildly down the coast, I nervously asked if there was a speed limit. The three other men in the van, who in typically reserved Dominican fashion had been politely ignoring me, now glanced at each other, then burst out laughing. At least it broke the ice. As he dropped me off, the driver said there were no more buses that day, but he might be by again in an hour or so. Terrified of missing a ride back, I considered staying put for an hour but finally decided to quickly tour the town.

There wasn’t another tourist in the entire village of 800. The locals openly stared at me. “The Canadian,” I heard someone say. I resorted to my stranger-in-a-strange-land thing, striding purposefully along, as if I knew where I was going and didn’t have the time to stop and look at anything. Except there was nowhere to go. The short road petered out onto a rocky shore and the empty ocean. Without missing a beat, I spun around and marched back up the road, eventually veering away from curious eyes by cutting through a graveyard. I noticed the whitewashed headstones’ inscriptions were intriguingly hand-lettered in what looked like Magic Marker, but I didn’t dare stop to read any for fear of missing my ride.

I stood at the edge of town and contemplated the local architecture—some nice homes, but mostly lean-tos and crazily patchworked sheds made of debris from the last hurricane. And yet even around the smallest shacks there was a profusion of colourful shrubs, sinuous vines, flowering trees—as if the owners had mistakenly blown their entire construction budget on the world’s most expensive landscape architects. After almost a week in the place, I still couldn’t figure out what I was looking at. Dominica was supposed to be a poor country, the Third World, a “developing” nation with a failing banana industry, 23 percent unemployment, and an airport that couldn’t accommodate the jumbo jets of a desperately needed international tourist trade. But people looked clean and happy and healthy. With a literacy rate of 94 percent, they were uniformly well-spoken and polite. I saw no homeless people, no beggars in rags. Standing there in Scott’s Head, I felt not only lonely and self-conscious, but also profoundly aware of how ignorant I was about how the world worked.

In the interests of getting a story—any story—I decided to act like a regular tourist and signed up for a guided tour to Titou Gorge, where you can swim into a cave with a waterfall inside. The group included three married couples from Fresno, California, a French-speaking mother and daughter from Martinique, and me. I’d become used to mystified people asking me, “Are you alone?” but now the guide evidently assumed I was looking for company. “Vanstone,” he said, checking his list. “That’s a Dutch name. I usually have luck with Dutch women.” I decided to start telling people that I had a big, husky, armed husband waiting for me back at the hotel, but actually nobody asked me again. The most interesting thing at Titou Gorge was a woman who broke out in hives due, she said, to the extreme coldness of the water, which in fact was tepid compared with Georgian Bay.

I even went whale-watching. A German lady lectured us about the seven species found in these parts while we chugged back and forth on the sickening swells under the relentless tropical sun. Finally, after forty-five minutes, we found pilot whales—puny things that resembled dirty grey dolphins more than majestic Moby Dicks. They leaped alongside the boat. The boredom was excruciating. I stared fixedly at the faraway shore, wondering if I could swim back, and if the German lady would let me. Tiny glasses of free rum punch were circulated, but after I’d gulped down a couple, the tray disappeared, and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by asking for more. Besides, what if I got drunk, and started crashing about the boat screaming obscenities at people, like Jean Rhys? It didn’t look like a literary crowd; I’m not sure they would have got the reference.

I still had many days to go when I decided one morning to stick around the hotel and relax. I got a box of Melba toast, a jar of peanut butter, and some Red Rose teabags. After three calls and then a visit to the front desk, a pretty young clerk came to my room, stared at the kettle’s non-functional plug, then jammed a wooden match into the outlet to act as the grounding prong, after which the kettle worked fine. Without a functional remote, I spent a lot of time standing in front of the TV holding up one arm to change channels until all the blood had drained from it, then switching to the other arm. Eventually, I would settle on a movie, any movie, and—as one day stretched into two, then three—I ended up catching quite a few films that I might otherwise have missed. Like First Blood, which features the memor-able line, “He eats things that would make a billy goat puke.” And a teen date-movie with Keanu Reeves. And a teen date-movie with Ashton Kutcher, in which he tries to stop a girl’s bleeding head wound from dripping on the furniture in his boss’s house. I guess travel does expand the mind, because I had never before appreciated how funny and talented Ashton really is.

I quelled my guilt (about neglecting my travel-story research) and panic (over having become an agoraphobic travel writer) with endless cups of tea and toast, making sure to check the cup and plate first for the little red ants I shared the room with. Sometimes I sat on the balcony and watched normal people line up for whale-watching, or eat and laugh together in the open-air dining room. I thought about travelling and concluded: a) the other tourists were in that bubble that you can safely stay in when you travel with someone else; b) for people like me, travelling alone is not a good way to get away from things, because the thing you most want to get away from is the one thing you keep running smack up against—yourself—but without the cushioning diversions of your own home, work, friends, non-clinging shower curtains, functional remote controls, and edible food.

And while you’re wandering around a strange land not wanting to deal with yourself, you find that the locals don’t want to deal with you either—at least not in any meaningful way. They’re friendly, polite, helpful, they like your Yankee dollars. And you might think you are a different, better kind of tourist because you have a special understanding of Dominica thanks to Jean Rhys, but guess what: they’re not having your fantasy. They don’t want you. They didn’t even necessarily want her.

In Rhys’s unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, she writes: “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 I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.” As I sat rereading it in my room, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t the sort of book one should bring on holiday. In fact, the whole Rhys saga was starting to irritate. She seemed a little negative: one chapter begins, “How old was I when I smashed the fair doll’s face?”; her brother wrecked her sixth birthday party when he got bored and walked out; she was confused and cried when her dog Rex “had a love affair” with another dog; an English landlady got mad when Rhys ran a hot bath without permission; the animals in the London Zoo looked dirty and sad; her lover left her; her cat died. When she finally won fame, money, and awards for Wide Sargasso Sea, it came “too late.”

Not for nothing does Carole Angier, in her definitive 1990 biography, Jean Rhys, call Rhys and her lover Ford “perhaps the two greatest artists of self-pity in English fiction.” By this point, I was starting to identify with Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea—entranced, then alienated, he ends up despising Dominica and the woman who brought him there: “I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”

And yet, rereading those lines, I was struck again by what makes Rochester’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard: the fact that he comprehends his own tragedy. Despite her initial resentment at Charlotte Brontë’s dismissive portrayal of the Creole wife, Rhys ultimately succeeded in creating a masterpiece by portraying Rochester with sympathy and Antoinette without sentimentality. So in fact I couldn’t really hate her. But I’d definitely had enough of her.

Three days before flying out, I decided to visit the Carib Territory, a reserve of 1,530 hectares on the northeast coast of the island, which a broad-minded British administrator named Hesketh Bell had secured in 1903. At that time, there were only a few hundred Caribs, or Kalinago as they call themselves, left on the island, the rest having been wiped out by Europeans. Dominica’s topography—untamable mountains, few decent berths for a fleet of warships—made it hard to control. It was the last island in the Caribbean to be colonized, and the Kalinago’s ability to survive in the wild interior made this one of their last existing outposts. Today there are roughly 3,500 Kalinago on the island; the majority live in the Territory, with problems typical of reserve life: unemployment, poverty, disconnection from their own cultural history. In a so-called developing nation, the Territory is doubly disenfranchised.

I stayed at a guest house owned and operated by the then-chief, Charles Williams, and his wife, Margaret. They were somewhat famous for a few days last year when they banned Disney from their property in protest against the depiction of Kalinago as cannibals in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. Disney was shooting in Dominica, despite its deficiencies in terms of airport, hotels, paved roads, and amenities, because most of its rugged, unsettled shoreline looks exactly as it did 500 years ago.

The first morning I set off, alone, to visit the half-finished Kalinago model village—a project designed as an educational cultural institution and tourist attraction—which was down the road, at the bottom of a path along the river. But after twenty minutes of walking, I still couldn’t find the path. I could hear the river, but where was the opening into the forest? Jungles like this ate footpaths for breakfast. As I stood and pondered, a little girl about five years old came running up the road, dragging a stick. I was going to ask her for directions, but was stunned into silence when I realized that her stick was a rusty old machete, almost as tall as she was. She ran past without giving me a second look.

That was my strangest moment in Dominica. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling that had been simmering since I’d arrived: Where was I? What was I doing here? Whatever made me think I knew anything about the world, or my place in it?

I pushed through the bushes and trees toward the sound of water, making my own path. The river was easy to follow, and eventually I came upon a group of thatched huts and half-finished lean-tos. Giant bundles of thatching material lay in neat piles on the floor of a wide-open karbay, the Kalinago meeting house. I walked across an open green space to the edge of a cliff that overlooked the ocean. The waves boiling up against the treacherous rocks far below were mesmerizing—rising and falling, rising and falling. Centuries ago, right along this coast, Spanish, French, and English ships had stopped for food and fresh water, and were frequently met with a hail of Kalinago arrows instead.

When the village opens this spring, there will be dancing and storytelling events, canoe-making and basket-weaving demonstrations, interpretive displays, dvds, souvenirs, concession stands, litter bins, parking lots, brochures, and tour guides. If they can attract some of the island’s 350,000 annual day trippers or, better yet, visitors who will stay overnight in local guest houses, the Territory might yet move from poverty and unemployment into cultural pride and prosperity.

But on this day, the only evidence of modern life was me. My surroundings were exactly the same as they might have been 600 years ago, when the Kalinago first came from South America, displacing the more ancient Arawak. Perhaps they had just now dashed out for mangoes, or to spear fish, or maybe to catch an agouti for dinner. My sense of utter dislocation was now complete. But somehow experiencing the feeling of alienation while standing in such an alien landscape seemed appropriate.

Over the next three days, I hung out with Mardi Dauphinée from Calgary and Stacia Loft from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ontario, who were working on an aboriginal youth project supported by Ghost River Rediscovery in Alberta and funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. I sat outside their three-room cinderblock shack shelling coffee beans, which Mardi would later roast in a pan on the stove. I listened to Stacia’s six-year-old daughter, Nishina, read aloud from one of her few precious storybooks. A steady stream of Kalinago teenagers drifted sociably in and out of the tiny home.

I went swimming with Ted, ex-US Army, ex-bodyguard of Ross Perot, who quit to work at L.L.Bean, he said, because security work was boring. We sat under a shoulder-massaging mini-waterfall and desultorily traded life stories near the rocks where the Kalinago women did their laundry.

I watched children in old-fashioned school uniforms march smartly down the road before school each morning and straggle back in dusty disarray at the end of the day.

When it was time to leave, my ride didn’t show up, so Chief Charles Williams hopped in his car and drove me to the airport himself.

Much later, back in Canada, I picked up Angier’s biography of Jean Rhys again for the first time in years and saw that the Carib Territory wasn’t a Rhys-free zone after all: not only had she visited the “Carib Quarter” on her one return visit to Dominica, in 1936, but she had even made notes for a never-published book called Wedding in the Carib Quarter (with chapter headings such as “The Bridesmaids dress,” “The Bridesmaids terror,” “The Bridesmaid a bit tight on punch”). In Smile Please, I now noticed that Rhys had had a seminal experience with Hesketh Bell: “Among his other accomplishments he was a very good dancer indeed and like all good dancers he could make his partner feel she too was an expert,” she wrote. “I waltzed three times with Mr. Hesketh and each time was better than the last and I was happier.” Later, “looking at myself in the glass I knew that that night had changed me. I was a different girl….” More mysteriously, Angier reports that Rhys’s brother, Owen Rees Williams, wrote a “lightly” fictionalized memoir with a character clearly based on Jean, who has an affair with a half-white, half-Kalinago boy. Angier adds that once when she was “drunk and depressed,” Rhys wrote: “This feeling I have about the Caribs & the Carib Quarter is very old very complicated.”

Instead of being insanely curious about the whole business, I now found myself blithely accepting the unknowability of it all. Which brings me to one last quote. In the 1950s, living alone in rooms above a pub (while her third husband, Max Hamer, was in jail), Rhys wrote in a diary that she didn’t know many other writers, adding: “That does not matter at all, for all of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be curious about the person. I have never made that mistake.”

Well, I did make that mistake, but, idiotic or not, it was a useful exercise. What was Jean Rhys really like? What is Dominica really like? I don’t know. All I can tell you is what I’m really like when I’m in Dominica, and that has ranged from unnerved and bored to fascinated and inspired to return almost a year later. As I sit here now in the Territory, discussing superstitions about the diablos with Reny, planning a trip to a Roseau jazz club with Sarah, watching the boys outside reluctantly give up playing soccer as darkness falls, and using Stacia’s laptop to type this final draft, I have my own complicated feelings about the “Carib Quarter” and the people I’ve met here. But now it’s my story.

Illustration by Shary Boyle
Ellen Vanstone