“Fishy Waters”: Jean Rhys and West Indian Writing before 1940

  • Leah Reade Rosenberg


Jean Rhys published her first short story, “Vienne,” in the Transatlantic Review in 1924 and went on to become one of the most celebrated Caribbean writers of the twentieth century. Like Marson, she bridged lite great divide between pre- and post-1950 writers. In fact she published nearly as much work after 1950 as she did before. Between 1927 and 1939, she published the collection of short fiction The Left Bank (1927) and four novels: Postures (1928; later published under the title Quartet), After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning Midnight (1939).1 In these same years, McKay published Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933); de Lisser penned The White Witch of Rose Hall (1929) and ten other novels; Una Marson wrote “At What a Price?” (1932), “London Calling” (1934?), and “Pocomania” (1938), while the Beacon group emerged and disappeared in Trinidad. After 1939, Rhys did not publish again until 1966, when her most influential novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, appeared, followed in the 1970s by two collections of short stories and an autobiography. At the time of her death in 1979, the writers who emerged in the 1950s, such as Lamming and Naipaul, had long since achieved eminence and a new generation of writers, including Earl Lovelace, Michael Anthony, and Merle Hodge, was establishing itself.


White Woman Sexual Exploitation Colonial Society Caribbean Woman Colonial Discourse 
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  1. 1.
    Jean Rhys, “Vienne,” Transatlantic Review 2, no. 2 (December 1924), 639–645Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Mary Lou Emery’s work on Caribbean modernism does place Rhys in the context of her fellow Caribbean modernists and is an important exception to this generalization. See Emery, Modernism, the Visual, and Caribbean Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Brathwaite, Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and integration in the Caribbean (Mona, Jamaica: Savacou Publications, 1974), 36.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 296.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Many accounts presented brown women in glowing terms, while portraying white women as comprehensive failures in regard to womanhood. Cynric Williams makes the reversal of the English hierarchy of race explicit in a vignette that depicts a white woman, Mrs. White, and her daughter as terrible innkeepers. Brown women had a virtual monopoly in innkeeping, and therefore Williams’s Mrs. White explicitly fails in relation to a standard set by brown women. See Williams, A Tour Through the Island of Jamaica, from the Western to the Eastern End in the Year 1823 (London: Hunt and Clarke, 1826), 247.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    Wylie Sypher, “The West-Indian as a ‘Character’ in the Eighteenth Century,” Studies in Philology 36 (1939), 504.Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    For a discussion of the influence of the “Black Exercise Book” and Mr. Howard on Rhys’s fiction, see Teresa O’Connor, Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novel (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 4Google Scholar
  8. Coral Ann Howells, Jean Rhys (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    There are a number approaches to reading this symbolic relationship between Rhys’s heroines and enslaved Afro-Caribbeans. See, for instance, Mary Lou Emery, Jean Rhys at “World’s End”: Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 35–62Google Scholar
  10. Judith Raiskin, Snow on the Canefields (Minneapolis MN: Minnesota University Press, 1996), 129–143.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    Phyllis Shand Allfrey, The Orchid House (London: Constable, 1953).Google Scholar
  12. 25.
    Evelyn O’Callaghan, Women Writing the West Indies, 1804–1939: “A Hot Place, Belonging to Us” (New York: Routledge, 2004)Google Scholar
  13. 26.
    Veronica Marie Gregg in her monograph Jean Rhys’s Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995)Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    For a straightforward presentation of Dominican history in this period, see Lennox Honychurch, The Dominica Story: A History of the Island (London: Macmillan, 1995).Google Scholar
  15. 33.
    Gregg, Rhys’s Historical Imagination, 135–140; Belinda Edmondson, Making Men (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 44–45.Google Scholar

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© Leah Reade Rosenberg 2007

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  • Leah Reade Rosenberg

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