The Jean Rhys house

‘The chosen photograph in a silver frame stood on a small table under the sitting-room jalousies of our house in Roseau. It pleased me that it was by itself, not lost among the many other photographs in the room, of which there were many. Then I forgot about it.’ 1.

  The photograph described here is the one of her six-year-old self - as a very old Jean Rhys remembered a very young Gwen Rees Williams looking - back at her family’s townhouse in Dominica, probably around the year 1900. It’s where her memoir, Smile Please, begins.

  The house in Roseau – a handsome corner house with a consulting-room attached to the side where little Gwen watched people queuing for treatment by her father – Rees Williams was a Welsh doctor who married a white Creole islander – was demolished last week. Instead, a four-storey office block will neaten what had come to be regarded by some Dominicans as an untidy location that did no credit to the only town which cruise-ship visitors to the island are always bound to see.

  Visiting Dominica myself two years ago (this was in my ongoing role as a questing biographer of Jean Rhys), I had a hard time persuading the people stitching cloth in what had once been the doctor’s consulting-room to let me slip past them and into the shuttered house. The windows had been boarded up; I could see a patch of blue sky through the roof. Walking up the stairs, I had to press myself against the inner wall in order not to put a foot through the floorboards. Still, here and there, looking hard, I saw a pretty doorway, a decorative panel, a shadowy vista, to remind me that this had once been the home of one of the Caribbean’s greatest novelists.

‘I was watching them from between the slats of the jalousies – they passed under the window singing…three musicians at the head, a man with a concertina and another with a triangle and another with a chak-chak playing There’s a Brown Girl in a Ring….’ 2.

  Back in Rhys’s childhood, visitors entered the house through a long gallery that faced the street. One chair was reserved here for the doctor to relax in after hours, reading a weekly edition of The Times by the light of a green-shaded lamp. Sometimes, the doctor let his small daughter mix him a cocktail and bring it out to set on the table at his side. Sometimes, as Rhys remembered in Voyage in the Dark – the book was first called ‘Two Tunes’ because so much of the London-based Anna Morgan’s storyslips back into memories ofRhys’s own West Indian past – the doctor took Gwen out rowing on Roseau’s cold white bay at dusk.

‘We used to go for moonlight rows,’ I said. ‘Black Pappy was our boatman’s name. We have lovely moonlight nights. You should see them. The shadows the moon makes are as dark as sun-shadows.’ 3.

  Writing later about the eruption of Mont Peléeon Martinique in May 1902 - it buried the pretty town of St Pierre and smothered all but one of its inhabitants to death - Rhys remembered how the streets of Roseau had been mantled by ashes (‘two feet deep on the flat roof outside my bedroom’) in the days before the eruption. Children scooped the ashes up and sealed them in glass bottles, marked with the date. Rhys’s father joined a group who went across to Martinique to see the damage. He brought back a trophy, a pair of heavy brass candlesticks from a church.

‘The heat had twisted them into an extraordinary shape. He hung them on the wall of the dining-room and I stared at them all through meals, trying to make sense of the shape.’ 4.

  The Rhys house has gone for good; even the giant mango tree that once overhung the garden is in danger of being cut down. Perhaps a plaque will be set in place to remind passers-by that this was the childhood home of Dominica’s greatest writer. I wouldn’t bet on it.

  But let’s not grieve too much. The house, at the time when I visited it early in 2019, did no honour to Rhys’s memory. Shabby, neglected, passed by all without a second glance, the spirit of Rhys herself had long since left it. Better, perhaps, to take pleasure in the intensity of Rhys’s memory. To know how it felt to be a child growing up in Roseau at the end of the nineteenth century, we only need to turn to a great writer’s own wonderful work. It’s all there, every vivid moment of a past that – as Jean Rhys grew old and made a last brave effort to complete the memoir she’d been intending to write for half her life – flamed ever brighter.  We haven’t lost the house on Cork Street. It’s there, in her work, safe for us all, and safe for ever.

  Here, finally, is a glimpse from Smile Please of little Gwen at her bedroom window above Cork Street, peeping through the shutters that a patois-speaking island called jalousies at the Roseau ladies on their way to Mass.

‘I would also watch through the jalousies as they passed the house on their way to Mass. They were dressed in their best, sweeping trains, heavy gold earrings and necklaces and colourful turbans. If the petticoat beneath the dress didn’t make the desired frou-frou noise, they’d sew paper in the hems.
Frou-frou, frou-frou
Par son jupon la femme
(Frou-frou, frou-frou)
De l’homme trouble l’âme. . . .’ 5.

All quotations are from the works of Jean Rhys
1.    Smile Please (1979) ‘Smile Please’
2.    Voyage in the Dark (1934) p. 156
3.    Voyage in the Dark, p. 346
4.    ‘Heat’, Collected Short Stories (2017)
5.    Smile Please ‘Black/White’

   Added: Tuesday 12 May 2020