Drama student, chorus girl, call girl and novelist

Jean Rhys became a successful, though psychologically scarred, novelist in her latter years. Many of the traumas described in her novels relate back to her days in Fitzrovia as a drama student, chorus girl, and briefly a call girl.

By Mike Pentelow

Cartoon of Jean Rhys by Kipper Williams

Cartoon by Kipper Williams

Jean Rhys (1890-1979) became a successful, though psychologically scarred, novelist in her latter years. Many of the traumas described in her novels relate back to her days in Fitzrovia as a drama student, chorus girl, and briefly a call girl.

These are all described in a new biography of her called “The Blue Hour” by Lilian Pizzichini (published by Bloomsbury) which was recently serialised on Radio 4.

Jean was born in Dominica where she was described as a “White Creole” and moved to London in 1907, aged 17, to live in a grim boarding house off Gower Street run by a hostile landlady.

In 1909 she was accepted into the Acadamy of Dramatic Art in Gower Street – “the place wasn’t Royal then, so perhaps it wasn’t so choosy” she later wrote. But after only six months the academy said her accent, described by one of her tutors as “a nasty sing-song nigger’s voice”, would “seriously affect her chances of success in drama.” This racist discrimination greatly upset her, as later described in her novels.

She succeeded in becoming a chorus girl, appearing in musical comedies in London’s west end and touring the country. One of her fans was a wealthy stockbroker called Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, who formed a relationship with her. When the landlady at her gloomy Gower Street digs asked her to leave as she did not want “tarts” in the house he paid for her to move to Chalk Farm, before abandoning her.

While dining at a cheap vegetarian restaurant in Tottenham Court Road in 1912 she saw a job advert for “massage services” in Oxford Street. When getting the position she was told she just had to be “nice to the gentlemen clients.”

The following year she bumped into one of her chorus girl friends who was enjoying life being wined and dined and paid for sex. She took Jean into her flat in Langham Street where she became a prostitute for a short time.
After being made pregnant by an American he paid for her abortion and gave her a pet kitten which she became greatly attached to. When recuperating from the operation in Ramsgate she had put the kitten in a home in Euston Road. On her return she was told the kitten was dead which greatly traumatised her at a time she was feeling very vulnerable.

She outpoured the grief from this and everything else from her recent life into the frenzied writing of a novel. The lodger below her complained about her wild crying and laughing through the night so she was kicked out again.
Then she became an artist’s model, posing nude for Sir Edward Poynter among others in his cellar studio at 21 Fitzroy Street. It was dank and dark with an earthen floor and a four-poster bed, where they had sex in between dancing the Highland fling to gramophone records.

She was taken to a decadent bohemian nightclub called the Crabtree Club in Greek Street where she met other Fitzrovian artists such as Augustus John, Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Slade art students from Gower Street. She would arrive at midnight and stay dancing and drinking until dawn, having sausages for breakfast there, and then sleeping all day.

One of the other club members was a Times journalist ten years older than her called Maxwell Henry Hates Macartney, to whom she became engaged. Too old to join up when the 1914 war started he went to France as a reporter while Jean did voluntary work in a soldiers’ canteen near Euston station. There she found the petty rules irksome, such as not allowing men in the kitchen and the women having to smile to the soldiers but not engage in conversation with them. This was recalled in her unfinished autobiography “Smile Please.”

Max broke off their engagement, complaining she entertained other men in their flat, so she moved into a boarding house in Torrington Square, which was so seedy that it rented rooms by the hour. Again it was run by a hostile landlady who liked to limit the number of hot baths guests could have.
Also staying there were a Belgian couple who introduced Jean to their male friend Jean Lenglet who was half French and half Dutch and been a spy for the French in Germany.

The two Jeans became engaged during Christmas 1917 and then moved to Holland and finally got married there in April 1919 – even though Lenglet was already married. They had a daughter Maryvonne who was born in 1922. Lenglet lived very much on his wits and on the fringes of legality, and in 1925 was jailed for fraud and theft, which he denied.

Jean got a job in the south of France where she befriended Fitzrovian writers Nina Hamnet and Ford Maddox Ford. Ford introduced Jean to publishers, one of whom published her first novel originally called “Postures” then retitled “Quartet” in 1928.

After getting divorced Jean married Leslie Tilden Smith and lived in Bury Street near the British Museum. He was a publisher who had financial problems and they were often arrested for being drunk and disorderly in Soho. In the second world war he became a pilot and was posted in north west Norfolk – where she did not fit in and had a nervous breakdown.

Meanwhile her first husband and daughter had both been put in concentration camps by the Nazis. He was sentenced to death and she was released and joined the Resistance.

After the war Jean’s second husband Leslie died in 1945 and the following year she moved in with his cousin Max Hamer and married him in 1947.
Both ended up in prison, she for five days for assaulting a neighbour and he for two years for larceny.

Her greatest novel “Wild Sargasso Sea” took her eight years to write before being published in 1966. The Sargass Sea is where trade winds originate and flotsam accumulates, an analogy in human terms that appealed to her.
The success of this made her a highly acclaimed cult figure very late in her life, and she received a CBE just a year before her death.

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