Two of the twentieth century’s greatest women writers honoured
The lives and works of two great literary figures are celebrated with the commemoration of their former homes in London by English Heritage. The plaque to the Caribbean-born writer Jean Rhys (1890-1979) will be unveiled by her grand daughter at Paultons House, Paultons Square, Chelsea, at 3.30pm on 6th March. It was while living here in the 1930s that she developed her career as a novelist and penned Good Morning, Midnight (1939), now considered one of her finest works. The plaque to the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) will be installed on the same day at 2 Clarence Terrace, Regents Park, her home for seventeen years and the place in which she wrote her most celebrated works, The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Heat of the Day (1949).
Sir Andrew Motion, said: “Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen are very different kinds of writer, but both made invaluable and unforgettable contributions to writing. In honouring them, the blue plaques scheme does honour to itself.”
Baroness Andrews, Chair of English Heritage, said: “It’s wonderful to see the blue plaques scheme commemorating two of our most important female writers. Although different in many ways, each voice was distinct as they drew on their own experiences to create their work. Each made a vivid mark on literature, and they have left us with a great legacy.”
Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in Dominica, the daughter of William Williams, a Welsh physician, and Minna, née Lockhart, a white Creole of Scottish descent. Educated at a Catholic convent, she was deeply influenced by her experiences of exploring the wild, isolated estate of the sugar plantation which had belonged to her great-grandfather. A spell at the Perse School, Cambridge, taught her that she would never really belong in cold, grey England, and she retained her Caribbean accent, despite numerous elocution lessons while studying at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London. ‘Jean Rhys’ was one of several stage names she used during her early career as a chorus girl, and she later adopted it as her nom de plume. This stage of her life inspired her third novel Voyage in the Dark (1934).
In 1919 Rhys married Dutch journalist Jean Lenglet and moved with him to Paris. After featuring a short story of hers in The Transatlantic Review in 1924, the writer Ford Madox Ford published her first collection of short stories, The Left Bank (1927). He recognised the powerful combination of her colonial perspective with her distinctive ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. Rhys’s affair with Ford, and the breakdown of her marriage, provided the material for her first novel, Quartet (1928), which was first published under the title of Postures.
A return to London in 1928 led to Rhys living with her literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith, whom she married in 1934. Her next three novels, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning Midnight (1939) drew on her experience of displacement, poverty and sexual dependence in Paris and London. From 1936 to 1938, Rhys and Tilden Smith made their home at Flat 22 in Paultons House, a large block of flats that had been built in 1935. It was here that Rhys wrote Good Morning, Midnight, not at her desk, but in the mornings while still in bed, which was ‘strewn with pages’. After Tilden Smith’s death in 1945, she married for a third time, and in 1960 moved to Devon, settling in the village of Cheriton Fitzpaine, which is where she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), her response to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It was this novel, which portrays the first Mrs Rochester’s Caribbean childhood, that brought her fame and it has remained a mainstay of the twentieth-century literary canon ever since.
Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen was born in Dublin, the only child of Henry Bowen, a barrister, and his wife Florence, née Colley. Her childhood was spent between Dublin, her family’s home Bowen’s Court in County Cork and a succession of homes on the Kent coast, where she and her mother lived after her father suffered a breakdown.
It was whilst at boarding school at Down House, Kent, Bowen was encouraged to write by her headmistress. By 1921 she had written a number of short stories and had been introduced to London literary circles by the novelist Rose Macaulay; she published her first collection of stories, Encounters, in 1923. In the same year she married Alan Cameron and in 1925 moved to Oxford after he gained a new job in the Oxfordshire education department. She quickly felt at home in the academic world, making firm friends with Lord David Cecil, John and Susan Buchan, and Isaiah Berlin, and published her first novel, The Hotel (1927).
In 1935, Bowen moved to London after her husband was appointed to the schools broadcasting unit at the BBC. At their grand house in Regent’s Park, Bowen entertained the literary elite and also wrote her two finest novels, The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Heat of the Day (1949). She also published two further volumes of short stories, Look at all those Roses (1941) and The Demon Lover (1945). During the war, Bowen worked for the Ministry of Information and made several intelligence-gathering trips to neutral Ireland; on these visits, she stayed at Bowen’s Court, which had been left to her by her father in 1930.
In 1945 Alan Cameron retired from the BBC, and the couple spent more time at Bowen’s Court, which became their principal home in 1952; his death there in August that year left Bowen distraught. By now, Bowen’s Court was a huge drain on her resources and she channelled her energies into lecture tours and journalism in order to make enough money to keep up the house. In 1959, Bowen sold her family home to a neighbouring farmer, who apparently promised to look after it; within months of the purchase, however, the house had been bulldozed, bringing to a brutal end her family’s long association with the property. Rather than mourn its loss, she viewed its destruction as symbolic of the end of the Anglo-Irish way of life. Bowen returned to England, and lived out her final years in Hythe, Kent, where she finished her final novel, Eva Trout, or, Changing Scenes (1965).
Dr Susan Skedd, Blue Plaques Historian, said: ”Both women drew on their personal experiences during their time in London to create the stories and fictional worlds inhabited by their characters. Jean Rhys is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), and for her pioneering contribution to post-colonial literature. Elizabeth Bowen is a fascinating figure within Anglo-Irish writing, who described herself as ‘an intuitive writer, once concerned with place’; in The Heat of the Day, she produced one of the most compelling portraits of life in London during the Blitz.”