Ways to Love, Jean Rhys, Ford Madox Ford, Stella Bowen


In Quartet, Jean Rhys’s revenge tale about her affair with writer Ford Madox Ford, the female protagonist Marya imagines meeting her lover for the last time.

When and where? In some café, of course. The unvarying background. Knowing waiters, clouds of smoke, the smell of drink. She would sit there trembling, and he would be cool, a little impatient, perhaps a little nervous. Then she would try to explain and he would listen with a calm expression. Top dog.

‘Of course you want money,’ he would be thinking. ‘Naturally. How much? I’m willing to give the traditional sum, the sum which is right and proper under the circumstances, and no more. Well, talk. I’m listening.’

She’d talk and all the time her eyes would be saying, ‘I loved you. I loved you. D’you remember?’

In 1922, Ella Lenglet (soon to assume the name of Jean Rhys) arrived in Paris with her Dutch husband Jean Lenglet and their baby daughter. Ella’s husband was a writer, a drifter and a conman and they had been dodging the police across Europe. They were now impoverished so he had written some articles that Ella translated in the hope of selling them to one of the English literary publications.

Donning the last pretty dress left from their splurge in Vienna, Ella took her translations to the offices of the Continental Daily Mail. After reading them Pearl Adam, wife of The Times correspondent, asked whether Ella had ever written anything herself. The following day she left her diary with Pearl, who liked her writing enough to edit an episode. She called the piece ‘Suzy Tells and sent it to Ford Madox Ford, novelist, critic and editor of the Transatlantic Review. Ford was on the lookout for new talent. Seeing through the sentimental alterations, he recognised an original mind and asked to meet the author.

It was Ford who gave Ella Lenglet the pen name of Jean Rhys and printed her piece in the final issue of his Transatlantic Review. She soon became a member of his entourage: drinking at the Café Dôme, the Closerie des Lilas, Deux Magots; dining at the Niègre de Toulouse, and dancing at the informal bars of the bal musettes. He urged her to read the French Classical writers and showed her ways to improve her writing. From a young age she had written poems and plays and as an adult she had kept a diary and written short stories, but recently she had stopped in the belief that her writing was not any good. This powerful, accomplished man convinced her otherwise and she came to see that writing was ‘the one thing she could do’. She was grateful to him and trusted him. When, in December 1924, her husband Jean Lenglet was arrested and later gaoled on a charge of embezzlement, it was to Ford that she turned.

Jean Rhys was childlike, mournful, beautiful, submissive and in complete despair. Ford was 51 to her 34. The Transatlantic Review he had started had never been financially viable; being forced to close it he was now in need of consolation. He took on the role of Jean’s protector. His partner and the mother of his child was the Australian painter Stella Bowen, and they invited Jean to stay with them in the spare room of their Montparnasse studio until she could get back on her feet. Shortly afterwards, Ford and Jean began an affair.

The affair was unusual in that it was written about by all four of the people closely involved: Jean Rhys in her novel Quartet (1928); Stella Bowen in her memoir Drawn from Life (1941); Jean’s husband Jean Lenglet, in his novel Barred (1932) and Ford Madox Ford in his novel When the Wicked Man (1931).

Ford Madox Ford

The man who for a while was central to the lives of Stella Bowen and Jean Rhys remains, according to some, one of the most neglected great English writers of the twentieth century. From his teens he had written prolifically, almost every day of his life, producing an astonishing eighty-two books. He edited two influential literary magazines, discovered D.H. Lawrence, employed Ernest Hemingway, collaborated with Joseph Conrad and befriended Henry James. He was a poet, a feminist, a farmer for a time and a Tory and club man. Yet apart from his masterpiece, The Good Soldier (1915), which is considered by some to be one of the finest novels in English, he is little known today.

In appearance Ford was florid and large, with yellow hair and drooping blue eyes but as his friend Ezra Pound observed, he had a way with women. Stella Bowen had met him in London towards the end of the First World War and in her frank and perceptive memoir Drawn from Life she wrote that he was enthralling. ‘His movements were gentle and deliberate and his quiet and mellow voice spoke, to an Australian ear, with ineffable authority’. He appeared to her to be the font of all wisdom: ‘he could show you two sides simultaneously of any human affair, and the double picture made the subject come alive and stand out in a way that was very exciting.’ Ford seemed to Stella to have lived a dozen lives already.

Unusually for those in her circle, who were mostly pacifists, he was still in khaki (having enlisted at the age of forty-one) and in certain respects Stella wrote that ‘he actually liked it.’ She suspected this was because obeying orders gave him a reprieve from the torments of his extremely sensitive mind. He would regale her with entertaining tales of the army while hiding his overwhelming sense of dread and his fragile state of mind in reaction to the horrors of the Somme. With prescience, Stella wrote:

The still, rather alarming exterior, and the conventional, omniscient manner, concealed a highly complicated emotional machinery. It produced an effect of tragic vulnerability; tragic because the scope of his understanding and the breadth of his imagination had produced a great edifice which was plainly in need of more support than was inherent in the structure itself. A walking temptation to any woman, had I but known it!

Stella Bowen

Ford had been instantly drawn to Stella. She had fled an Adelaide she describes in her memoir as a ‘cotton-wool lid of fixed ideas, and sweetness and light, under which the chilly blast of independent thought can never penetrate.’ This deeply conservative town had produced a courageous and ambitious woman, ripe for adventure and consumed with a love for painting. After school she had studied with the great Australian painter Margaret Preston, a ‘red-headed little firebrand of a woman’ who was freshly returned from Paris. The happiest moments of Stella’s life to that point were the anticipation she felt on walking up the stairs to Preston’s studio. ‘All sorts of new aesthetic sensibilities began sprouting in my spirit like mushrooms.’

When Preston returned to Paris in 1912, Stella’s widowed mother refused her request to continue her studies at Melbourne’s National Gallery School. It was one thing to have a daughter with talent but beyond the pale to have one with professional ambitions. Like Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, Stella was a daughter teetering into the modern twentieth century but hindered by a parent tethered to the past. There was a real risk that her creative hopes and talent would languish, unused, in a suburban backwater. As with Virginia and Vanessa too, this conflict was resolved by the death of a parent; Stella’s mother ‘died superbly, in a gentle radiance of faith.’

The prospect of attaining her much longed for freedom terrified Stella but she knew what to do with it when the opportunity came. In 1914 she embarked on a boat to England and never returned to Australia.

When she met Ford in London, Stella was being taught at the Westminster School of Art by Walter Sickert (who mentored Nina Hammett). He was helping her come alive to new possibilities of colour and form, and to observe minutely, and with great patience.

Sickert opened my eyes to the beauties of the accidental and the spontaneous, and got me right out of the dismal academic rut into which I had been sinking. He taught me the difference between something dead (on canvas) and something living…I suppose that this gift of creating life at a touch is the most enviable gift that a painter can have.

At twenty-four, Stella was hungry for new ideas and Ford responded to her intellectual curiosity and rich imagination. She was grounded and full of practical commonsense, yet he recognised a vulnerability in her too, and he wooed her with a series of intimate, self-revealing letters.

The great thing is to have some soul one can believe in…

I belong to you altogether – & to you only, & for good, and all. That is the truth.

Ford helped her overcome a crisis of confidence with her work:

Don’t be discouraged about your painting because you don’t like what you are doing or do it against the grain…The only work that one does that is any good is always the work one does against the grain – because then one is working advisedly and consciously. When one likes what one is doing & it all goes easily – then one may begin to suspect oneself.

He encouraged her to become acquainted with other painters and to live in the milieu, immersing herself as deeply as possible in the world of art.

Yet from the time she moved in with Ford, to a damp cottage without electricity in the depths of Sussex, Stella’s output diminished. They started farming, in an attempt to fulfil Ford’s fantasy of living an idyllic rural life. The venture failed (all the animals had names) and it was soon clear that Ford would have to go back to writing. Substituting her easel for a baby, a stock pot and a horde of animals, Stella served as the essential lubricant for Ford’s post war creative regeneration. She later wrote that he had been ‘a great user-up’ of other people’s nervous energy.

My painting had of course been hopelessly interfered with by the whole shape of my life, for I was learning the technique of quite a different role; that of consort to another and more important artist.

Stella found that to keep Ford productive, she would need to look after their child, run the household and protect Ford from all interruptions. She was expected to walk and talk with him as required. She paid the bills and hid from him the full extent of their debts because, at the least stressor, he was apt to fall into a state of despair.

Although this was a time of great happiness for Stella, she discovered that, far from the confident, godlike figure Ford appeared to be, he was actually full of fear and in need of more reassurance than anyone she had ever met. So, ‘although Ford was always urging me to paint, I simply had not got any creative vitality to spare’.

As her biographer Drusilla Modjeska writes: ‘What she discovered at Coopers Cottage was that love and art, those two great desires, did not sit together as easily as she had hoped when she accepted Ford’s invitation.’


After three years spent in genteel poverty as farmers, Ford and Stella moved with their daughter Julie to Paris in 1923. Here Stella was drawn back to art, to the company of other artists and conversations about painting. And almost as soon as they arrived, Ford founded the Transatlantic Review, a classy journal of the avant-garde which raised their profile amongst the extraordinarily brilliant expatriate community of the time. The Review featured stories about Picasso, Tristan Tzara, Erik Satie and e.e. cummings, and its contributors included James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein. Ford revelled in the recognition this brought him. He ‘enjoyed himself superbly’, Stella wrote.

Following the grey horrors of war, Paris was in the midst of a golden, intensely creative period which promised magical possibilities to the many writers and artists who flocked there.

Ford was ambivalent about the city; for him, Paris was a place for social and literary connection. But it was a city that Stella adored from the outset:

I love the way its quick and brilliant life runs openly on the surface for all to see. Every face in the street, every voice, every shape, is hard at it, telling its story, living its life, producing itself…the French are never ashamed to live…they bring their life out with them into the boulevards and cafés, and it gets into the air, and is soaked up into the houses, and into the soil of the Luxembourg gardens.

They settled into a studio in Montparnasse and became famous for hosting wild parties with some of the spectacular names of the Lost Generation. But as their first year in Paris wore on, Stella found herself increasingly preoccupied with raising funds for the Review and warding off debtors. Ford diverted all his funds into this project and then Stella’s own allowance from Adelaide too. He was also writing a novel and he was able to work well as long as she could manage everything around him. Once again, the possibility of the shared life of love and work that Stella had long hoped for with Ford seemed increasingly remote.

Jean Rhys

Like Stella, Jean Rhys was from the ‘colonies’. She was born to a Welsh doctor and a mother of Scottish heritage in the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, where she grew up. But while Stella’s upbringing had been constant and loving, if stultifying, Jean’s childhood was riddled with abuse.

When she was five, on the birth of her sister, Jean’s beloved mother was replaced by a nurse called Meta. Jean wrote in her memoir Smile Please (1979) that Meta ‘couldn’t bear the sight of me’. She filled the child’s head with tales of zombies, vampires and bloodsucking witches, vividly sharing her fear of voodoo and the Caribbean black magic of obeah. Meta set out to destroy Jean’s innocence by teasing, tormenting and physically abusing her. She ‘always seemed to be brooding over some terrible, unforgettable wrong.’ Jean spent much of her childhood screaming or crying in terror. ‘My life was peopled by fears’: of Meta, black magic, and the island’s huge spiders, snakes and cockroaches. Her mother stood by, seemingly oblivious, consumed by other concerns.

Jean felt terribly alone. Her five siblings were swarthy and confident compared to her own timid, fair-complexioned fragility. At school she failed to fit in with the other girls. Two people who had grown close to Jean, an aunt and a young black girl, both disappeared from her life, suddenly and inexplicably. Jean came to expect only cruelty or neglect and abandonment from others. She took refuge in the beauty of nature, in books and writing.

On this lush if inhospitable island, Jean thought of herself as an outsider. As she writes in Smile Please:

I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing.

In her twenties, Jean worked as a chorus girl in England and had a number of unhappy relationships with men. It had been ‘an odd life’ that she describes in Quartet:

Morose landladies, boiled onion suppers. Bottles of gin in the dressing-room. Perpetual manicuring of one’s nails in the Sunday train. Perpetual discussions about men. (‘Swine, deary, swine.’) The chorus knew all about men, judged them with a rapid and terrible accuracy.

Once when living alone in a squalid London bedsit, abandoned by her wealthy lover, a man she had loved deeply, she was saved from suicide by an acquaintance who just happened to drop by. Shortly afterwards she bought some quill pens and exercise books and began to write. For ten days she wrote compulsively, recording everything that had happened to her to that point. When done, the worst of her mood had lifted. Later, she turned the beginning of her diary into her novel Voyage in the Dark (1934). For the next eight years she would write in those books whenever her emotions overwhelmed her. Much of this period involved heavy drinking and affairs with dubious men.

Jean Lenglet, the man Rhys met in a Bloomsbury boarding house and married, impressed her as a direct, generous and romantic man. Although she was not in love with him, she appreciated that he liked women and understood them. They had a son who died at three weeks and a daughter who, just before Lenglet was gaoled, was placed into care.


In Jean’s fictional (and possibly unreliable) account of her affair with Ford in Quartet, he and Stella, both insisted that she should move in with them. She was down to her last few francs, and her incarcerated husband, worried about her welfare, had urged her to accept their offer.

Stella wrote that she was actually reluctant to take Jean in but that there appeared to be little option. She described her as:

a really tragic person…She had a needle-quick intelligence and a good sort of emotional honesty, but she was a doomed soul, violent and demoralised.

According to Jean in Quartet, soon after she moved in, Ford (Heidler in the book) declared his love for her, saying that Stella (Lois) knew and had left them alone together in a bar to give him a chance to talk to her.

She knows that I’m dying with love for you, burnt up with it, tortured with it. That’s why she’s gone off.

Ford (in the novel) confessed that on a number of occasions he had left Stella’s bed to creep into Jean’s room at night to watch her sleep. Jean writes that her attempt to escape from him was ineffectual, ‘pitiful’. Once in his arms she was struck by his gentleness. ‘I was lost before I knew him. All my life before I knew him was like being lost on a cold, dark night.’ He seemed like a monied gentleman, and Jean tended to link wealth and security with love.

In Quartet, Jean’s character gives Stella short shrift. Stella is the smug, bourgeoise wife, ‘sitting tight and smiling’, at times casually cruel:

‘Let’s go to Luna-park after dinner,’ she said. ‘We’ll put Mado on the joy wheel, and watch her being banged about a bit. Well, she ought to amuse us sometimes; she ought to sing for her supper; that’s what she’s here for, isn’t it?’

Jean implied that Stella tolerated her husband’s affairs as long as she could control them. But Stella said that she was ‘singularly slow in discovering’ that Ford and Jean were in love. It is more likely that once she found out, she put up with it in the belief that the affair could not last.

She felt caught in a bind:

Life with Ford had always felt to me pretty insecure. Yet here I was cast for the role of the fortunate wife who held all the cards, and the girl for that of the poor, brave and desperate beggar who was doomed to be let down by the bourgeoisie. I learnt what a powerful weapon lies in weakness and pathos and how strong is the position of the person who has nothing to lose, and I simply hated my role.

Certainly, there is sense of repressed violence in Quartet that Katie Owen, in her introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition describes as ‘the revenge of the meek’. Jean originally called her novel Postures, because, she said, they were all pretending. Jean pretended to be reckless but she was full of fear; Stella was pretending to be a ‘sport’ but was angry and fighting to save her marriage, and Ford was pretending to be in love with Jean but was focused on channelling his renewed vigour and passion into his work.

Excruciatingly for Stella, Ford saw no need to hide the affair and he flirted openly with Jean around their Paris haunts. He took her to see the tapestries at the Cluny museum and to meet Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.


The affair dragged on unhappily for a year and a half. At one point Ford found Jean a job on the Riviera as a ghost writer. When she returned to Paris, he moved her into a hotel by the Gare Montparnasse, paying her an allowance and sneaking off from Stella to be with her.

This was not his first experience of being involved with two women at the same time. He needed a wife to manage his life; a muse to inspire him and one woman could seldom serve in both capacities for long. As usual, his personal life was complicated by indecision and his economy with the truth. Stella observed that he had ‘a genius for creating confusion and a nervous horror of having to deal with the results.’

Jean, drinking heavily, was increasingly difficult for Ford to manage. In his memoir she rates no mention at all but looking back on it a decade later, Stella wrote that Jean:

…neither had the wish nor the capacity to tackle practical difficulties…[she] showed us an underworld of darkness and disorder, where officialdom, the bourgeoisie and the police were the eternal enemies…It taught me that the only really unbridgeable gulf in human society is between the financially solvent and the destitute. You can’t have self-respect without money. You can’t even have the luxury of a personality.

For Jean, love had yet again turned into rejection and loss, but the end of the affair with Ford, while pushing her further into alcoholism, inspired her powerful first novel Quartet. Even before the affair had properly ended, Jean was writing it in the hotel in Montparnasse which was being paid for by Ford. She describes her cheap room in Quartet:

It was impossible, when one looked at that bed, not to think of the succession of petites femmes who had extended themselves upon it, clad in carefully thought out pink or mauve chemises, full of tact and savoir faire and savoir vivre and all the rest of it.

Ford as Mentor

Although their affair ended acrimoniously, Jean had gained a lot from her alliance with Ford and was always grateful for the time he had put into helping her with her writing.

When it came to writing he was a very generous man and he encouraged me a great deal. I really don’t think that he tried to impose his ideas on me or anyone else but his casual hints could be extraordinarily helpful.

He recognised that Jean’s sense of being an outsider lent a valuable perspective to her work.  The clarity of the French novels he insisted she read improved her writing. Ford encouraged her to scrap the melodramatic endings to her short stories and write instead about what she knew – advice that, on the publication of Quartet, he probably lived to regret. He had given Jean her first break by publishing her work in the Transatlantic Review, then found a publisher for her short stories which came out as The Left Bank in 1927. The collection begins with Ford’s lengthy introduction which peculiarly, is mostly about himself. But he praised Jean’s ‘singular instinct for form’, which is ‘possessed by singularly few English writers and almost no English women writers.’ Elaborating on his comments, Jean said,

The things you remember have no form. When you write about them, you have to give them a beginning, a middle, and an end. To give life shape – that is what a writer does. That is what is so difficult.

Her writing is meticulous and well crafted. She borrowed a fragmented, elliptical style from Modernists like Woolf and Mansfield that matches the disjointed perceptions and voices of her heroines.

New Life for Jean

At roughly the same time as her departure from Ford’s life, Jean’s marriage to Lenglet ended too. He wrote in his own novel Barred about their break up, noting he had lost prestige in her eyes when she saw him in prison. ‘If we were to stay for years together she would never be able to forget that she had seen me shiver when a warder spoke.’ Deeply wounded by this, despite loving her charm, her generosity of spirit and beauty, he could not forgive what he saw as her betrayal of him. Lenglet reclaimed their daughter and took her to live with him in Holland, while Jean, manuscript tucked under her arm, went back to London to a literary agent Ford had found for her.

Quartet was published in 1928 and although this novel and The Left Bank, were by no means bestsellers, they were recognised by critics as strikingly original and lucid. Although funny at times and full of vivid imagery, Quartet is generally regarded as the least successful of Jean’s novels, overbalanced as it is by her anger and bitterness towards Ford. Jean’s biographer Carole Angier said she took out the one thing that plausibly attracted the female protagonist to Ford: his literary mentorship. It is a novel she later regretted having written. Ford, in a fury over being portrayed as cold and calculating and far removed from his self-image as a saviour, responded viciously. In his novel When the Wicked Man (1932) Lola Porter, the character based on Jean, is a drunken, violent Creole woman with the demeanour of a vampire.

In London, a city that she loathed, Jean managed to steer clear of reckless living and threw herself into her writing. She became a writer of brilliance but was in constant psychological turmoil, never far from the edge. From 1928 to 1939 she wrote most of her life’s work: After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight. She said that most of it was autobiographical: ‘I can’t make things up, I can’t invent…I just write about what happened.’

Her heroines are homeless and alone, living passively in a shifting, dangerous world, both exploiting and exploited for their sexuality. Their voices are moody, bitter, mocking. They haunt seedy hotel rooms full of ‘battered and apologetic’ furniture, and dingy cafés. In Good Morning, Midnight, her next novel that was set in 1920s Paris (thought be her best), her darkly funny but fatalistic heroine Sasha Jensen writes:

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.

In London, the agent Ford had suggested Jean try, Leslie Tilden Smith, became her second husband. They were not in love, and Leslie was neither wealthy nor well connected, but he was well educated and kind. He stood by her, borrowing money to send her back to Paris to write Good Morning, Midnight in the city she loved and worked in best. He intercepted her manuscripts, saving them from her obsessive perfectionism, editing, typing them up and selling them, handling her contracts and money. He even did the cooking and the housework. Yet, although his total care was exactly what Jean had longed for, he arrived too late in her life to break her entrenched belief that she was abandoned and unloveable.

None of Jean’s novels was especially successful on first publication, possibly because she was decades ahead of her time. War intervened, the books fell out of print, and Jean Rhys disappeared from the radar. Many thought she was dead but nearly twenty years later she was ‘rediscovered’, living reclusively in Cornwall, having outlived Leslie and a third husband. In 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean’s brilliant prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, was published, which spectacularly resurrected her literary career. But she felt this subsequent fame came too late. Jean published another collection of short stories and was made a CBE before her death in 1979 at the age of eighty-four.

New Life for Stella

The affair with Rhys signalled the beginning of Stella’s withdrawal from Ford. While in Paris she had begun her first studio but, between tending to the needs of Ford and Julie, she again found little time for painting. In her portrait Ford Playing Solitaire (above) she depicts him staring vacantly into middle distance with a concentrated focus while he plots another novel (he was frequently open mouthed due to a facial injury sustained during the war). Stella painted the portrait in 1927 while Ford was enjoying boosted interest from a series of popular lectures in America. Her choice of subject and title suggests Stella is aware that he is moving out of her world.

Ford returned from America with an offer to share his life fifty-fifty with Stella and Julie in Paris and with his new lover in New York. Stella declined and began a separation that although painful, remained amicable. She wrote movingly in her memoir of the independence she finally achieved:

falling out of love is as delicate and important a business, and as necessary to the attainment of wisdom, as the reverse experience… I think that the exhilaration of falling out of love is not sufficiently extolled. The escape from the atmosphere of a stuffy room into the fresh night air, with the sky as the limit. The feeling of freedom, of integrity, of being a blissfully unimportant item, in an impersonal world, whose vicissitudes are not worth a tear. The feeling of being a queen in your own right! It is a true re-birth.

At last Stella was able to ‘slip out from under the weightiness of Ford’s personality and regain [her] own shape.’ For the next decade, she made a living from painting, reviewing and teaching in England and France. Some of her portrait subjects included Edith Sitwell, Diaghilev, Cecil Beaton and Constance Lambert.

In an introduction to Drawn from Life, Stella’s daughter Julie wrote lovingly about these years. Once back in England, she noticed that her mother seemed more self-assured when speaking English rather than her ‘haphazard French’ and said that Stella’s quiet strength and warmth attracted many friends. In 1944, she was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial as offical war artist, becoming only the second Australian woman appointed to the role (after Nora Heysen) and she completed a number of celebrated works.

Stella and Ford maintained their correspondence until his death and fifteen years after leaving him, she wrote that having

the run of a mind of that calibre, with all its inconsistencies, its generosity, its blind spots, its spaciousness, and vision, and its great sense of form and style, was a privilege for which I am still trying to say “thank you”.

After being diagnosed with cancer she tried to return home but her application for a pension, rehabilitation rights and a passage to Australia on a troopship were rejected. She died in London in 1947 at the age of fifty-four.

Two Ways to Work and Love

These outsider daughters of the ‘colonies’ responded very differently to their times and their talent. Although Jean’s books of dispossession and alienation were strikingly modern, she was by no means modern herself, never having felt safe enough in the world to stand alone. Jean looked back to Edwardian England, pining for its luxury and old-world courtesy, and she longed to be completely looked after by a man. Her extraordinary talent came second to these longings. In a Paris Review interview in 1979 Jean said that if given a choice, she would have preferred to have been happy than to write. She said her books came from a desire to relieve herself from the weight of mounting sadness. ‘I suppose it’s like a Catholic going to confession, or like psychoanalysis.’

Towards the end of her time with Ford, Stella had bristled when another painter remarked that her work was still immature. She wrote in her memoir that it was not just a question of having enough time or a studio to do the work; she needed the right inner space. But the necessary balance between a sense of risk and safety was impossible to achieve with Ford. After leaving him, she became single minded in her pursuit of her art. ‘Why did not my godfathers and godmothers in my baptism, and my copybooks at school, and my mother when she tried to explain the facts of life, all tell me, “You must stand alone?” she asks in her memoir.

How dare parents encourage their girls to remain in a state of receptive idleness so that they may be ready at a moment’s notice, to follow the dictates of a love affair? How can the nations afford to waste the immense volume of women’s energy that is left over after the emotional life has taken its toll?

Stella painted her Self-Portrait (pictured above) at the time of her separation. Here she stands, resolute. She looks us in the eye, hurt, unsmiling, full of suffering, and undefeated.


Le p’tit bal musette – Marcel & l’Orchestre Musette Gigetto – 1930

Marcel Beaudet was born in 1898 and died in 1987. He was best known between 1925 and 1935 for his radio concerts and his biggest hit was ‘Le Tango de Lola’, which he recorded in 1928. This song is about a bal musette. These were simple cafés that doubled as working class dance halls. They were jazzed up with brightly painted furniture, mirrors and garlands, often featuring a long zinc bar and an area set aside for dancing. In the twenties and thirties they attracted writers and artists along with the usual patrons. An accordion player, cigarette permanently dangling from his lips, would churn out some music from a gloomy corner.

As the evening wore on, the gatherings could become volatile. In Quartet Jean writes that the brandy would often be watered down, so people would drink ‘a great deal of it, and it generally had a very bad effect on their tempers.’ Stella Bowen described how she would invariably find herself dancing with a stranger:

Nothing but the coat sleeve to indicate whether he should be addressed as French or English. You decide to try English:

‘I love an accordion,’ you say,

He, ‘So do I. I have a beauty at home, in carved ivory and pink silk. My wife gave it to me the first time she was unfaithful to me.’ Dare you ask if he got a piano the second time?


Ford played an important role in Ernest Hemingway’s literary apprenticeship by employing him as sub-editor of the Transatlantic Review. The magazine published several of Hemingway’s early stories that had previously been rejected by American magazines. He benefitted from Ford’s vast literary knowledge and his personal acquaintance with writers who became significant literary influences like Stephen Crane and Joseph Conrad. But one of Hemingway’s most unattractive traits was that he turned against nearly everyone who helped him.

Like Jean Rhys, Hemingway took his resentments out on the couple in a novel. In The Sun Also Rises Stella appears as Mrs Braddocks, a crass, loud-mouth Canadian ‘who in the excitement of talking French was liable to have no idea what she was saying.’ Ford, portrayed as Mr Braddocks, is imperious, ever eager to be seen as the connoisseur.

After reading the novel Stella wrote to Ford:

He has touched me off rather nastily – rather on Jean’s lines. So I feel very discouraged! Even you don’t quite escape. Still it’s all of no consequence.

If she had been alive when A Moveable Feast was published in 1964, she might have been less philosophical. Hemingway devoted a whole chapter to  a famously vicious portrayal of Ford. But Jean was alive to defend him:

I think it’s a spiteful book. He bullies everybody. Ford wasn’t at all the way Hemingway described himback then Hemingway wasn’t catty. He always seemed to me as if he were enjoying himself terribly. He was a very nice-looking young man. But in that book, he was disparaging about everybody—Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, everybody.


My mother passed on her love of Jean Rhys’s writing to me. From early on I devoured these stark, intimate, unflinching stories and I relished them again in Paris, while walking down the streets Rhys came to know so well. These slender works sparkle against Ford’s somewhat convoluted prose, and it seems that posterity has favoured her work over his.

One big surprise while writing this story has been the discovery of the extraordinary Stella Bowen, whose paintings were only vaguely familiar to me before. It’s a travesty that her memoir is out of print. Her descriptions of her travels through Provence and Italy are sublime.

Café La Palette at 43 rue de Seine in the heart of the art district of Saint Germain was used for several scenes in James Ivory’s 1981 adaptation of Quartet. Coincidentally, ‘La Palette’ was the name of Stella’s first exhibition in Paris. Snugly enclosed by its wood panelled and art ladened walls you can imagine yourself back there with members of the Lost Generation lingering by the bar or on its large terrace overlooking rue Jacques-Callot.

Originally, because of its proximity to the École des Beaux-Arts, it was popular with artists – Cézanne, Picasso and Braque were regulars. The poets came later: Apollinaire, Jarry, Salmon at the start of the twentieth century. Later still, in Force of Circumstance (1963) Simone de Beauvoir wrote how she enjoyed it for its heated debates about the Algerian War. La Palette had a reputation for passionate discussion, which drew the Italian novelist and journalist Alberto Moravia to patronise it whenever he was in Paris.

I have included a picture of the interior of the beautiful church St Julian le Pauvre featured in Quartet. Outside the church a woman was busy at her easel. In the novel Heidler (Ford) goes down on one knee and crosses himself as he passes the altar, before briefly glancing at Marya (Jean) to check she is watching. “I’ll never be able to pray again now that I’ve seen him do that. Never!’ she thinks. “However sad I am.’ And she felt very desolate.’


The trailer for the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Quartet (1981) Starring Maggie Smith, Isabelle Adjani and Alan Bates.

You can hear Jean Rhys talking here.

Diana Athill remembers the challenges of being Jean Rhys’s editor in this article for the Guardian.

On the Granta website Alexander Chee and Maud Newton discuss Jean Rhys, her affair with Ford and the much anticipated biography by Lilian Pizzichini, The Blue Hour.

A review of Stella Bowen’s fine memoir Drawn from Life on the Neglected Books blog.

A series of essays about Stella Bowen on the Australian War Memorial Website.

The Ford Society Facebook Page.

Julian Barnes on Ford Madox Ford’s complicated personal life and literary legacy.


Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys, Penguin, 1985

Bowen, Stella. Drawn from Life, Virago, 1984

Burke, David. Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light, Second Ed, Paris Writers Press, 2016

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast,

Restored Edition, Penguin, 2011

Modjeska, Drusilla. Stravinsky’s Lunch, Pan Macmillan, 1999

Pizzichini, Lilian. The Blue Hour: a portrait of Jean Rhys, Bloomsbury, 2009

Rhys, Jean. Quartet, Penguin, 1983

Rhys, Jean. Smile Please, Penguin, 1995

Vreeland, Elizabeth. ‘Jean Rhys, The Art of Fiction No. 64’, The Paris Review, Issue 76, 1979

Saunders, Max. Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, Oxford University Press, 1996

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Comments from others


    I admire and enjoy every one of your pieces. i send them on all over the place. Cornish-based and a writer, i wd so like to meet you. i wonder whether you ever head Penzance way? Whether you might be coming for its Bookfest 6-9 July? My house is very close to all the event venues; several writers will come and go to stay for their presentations. You’d be so welcome for tea or whatever then or at any other time.
    Best wishes Julia

    • Jo Wing on

      Hi Julia, thanks so much for sharing these pieces with others and for your invitation. I would love to come to Penzance to meet you – it’s my favourite town in Cornwall but I’m too far away. In 2020 I had actually intended to move there but the pandemic interfered with my plans and I am now living back in Sydney. Hope you have a great Bookfest. Blow Penzance a kiss from me.

  2. Cathy Macken on

    Really enjoyed this one Jo. Not familiar with Jean Rhys, however Stella Bowen is a great favourite. I have a copy of her book ‘Drawn from Life’. A treasured favourite.

    Stella is a much underrated artist. She’s an Australian modernist of tremendous importance – if you ask me. Attended a retrospective of her work at the War Museum Canberra, many years ago. It was wonderful. The Museum has has a great collection of her work.

    Sadly today many Australian have no idea who she is.

    • Jo Wing on

      Isn’t ‘Drawn from Life’ wonderful, Cathy? Thanks for letting me know about the collection at the War Museum – wish I’d seen that retrospective. I did find some essays about her work on their site which I’ve added in Weblinks, and I’ll definitely visit when I’m next in Canberra. It’s such a shame she’s so little known. Drusilla Modjeska’s ‘Stravinsky’s Lunch’, her double biography of Grace Cossington Smith and Stella Bowen did raise awareness of her work to some extent but that was a while ago now. If you haven’t read Modjeska’s book, I highly recommend it!