The Blue Hour - A Biography of Jean Rhys

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BBC Radio 4, 18-22 May 2009
This four-part adaptation of Lilia Pizzichini's book, read by Pooky Quesnel, recounted the novelist's colourful life. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rhys-Williams in the Dominican Republic, to a Welsh father and a West Indian mother, Rhys grew up in a world of genteel privilege, a paradise of perpetual sunshine darkened only by the presence of a sadistic nurse and a 70-year-old 'uncle' who sexually assaulted her when she was twelve years old.
In 1907 Rhys was sent away to the Perse School in Cambridge, where she felt perpetually ostracized, as someone who could not accommodate herself to the rule-bound world of conformity. The experience taught her the meaning of loneliness, and how writing could provide a means for her to deal with it, as well as keeping her memories of the Dominican Republic alive. She left school and enrolled as an actor in London's Academy of Dramatic Art (later known as RADA). Her subsequent life as a chorus girl/ performer proved eventful; she even worked as a prostitute for some time. However Pizzichini's biography suggested somewhat melodramatically that Rhys was always in search of stable relationships but could never find them. Eventually she married Jean Langlois, a Walloon adventurer-cum-conman and went to live in Paris.
Rhys' career as a writer began in the early 1920s, when she attracted the interest of Ford Madox Ford; this was a personal as well as a professional relationship. She published Quartet, a novel that received good reviews but did not make any money. She descended into an alcohol-fuelled existence, plumbing the same kind of emotional depths as Virginia Woolf. This kind of existence continued for the next forty years until the mid-1950s, when Rhys' third husband died. She took up writing once again; and out of that creative period her most famous novel Wide Sargasso Sea emerged - a vivid retelling of Jane Eyre that evoked her Dominican upbringing, shot through with the kind of emotional highs and lows that Rhys had herself experienced.
Rhys' life constitutes an epic in itself - a quest for something which in Pizzichini's view could only be found late on in life with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea. This kind of narrative is a familiar one - especially where biographies are concerned - but in Pooky Quesnel's finely modulated reading, it made for entertaining listening.