C ... Caribbean Seas at Cheriton Fitzpaine

C  ... Caribbean Seas at Cheriton Fitzpaine

View of Cheriton Fitzpaine from Raddon Hills
Looking back northward toward Cheriton Fitzpaine from the Raddon ridge
Photo Julie Sampson

(The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini)

A to Z of Devon places and Devon women writers - B

    During the very early 1960's  for almost a couple of years two of the twentieth century's now most famous women writers lived within twenty miles of one another, in mid Devon. One was Sylvia Plath, who moved to North Tawton, in 1961 and left there late 1962; the other, Jean Rhys, who moved to Cheriton Fitzpaine in 1960 and stayed there until her death in 1979. Plath and Rhys are probably the two foremost C20 writers whose Devon home base/place must appear on this A to Z of Devon women writers places. Both authors have drawn countless followers and admirers to seek out their Devon homes and in Rhys' case, grave, in Cheriton's churchyard. One of these visitors remarked that finding the grave was a 'moving moment'  Another, the poet Olive Senior, wrote a long poem called Meditation on Red about her visit to the Cheriton grave, which both conjures up the sensual response of the poet herself and also expresses the complex reactions of both author herself and the locals at the time of Rhys living and writing in their village:

Opening of Senior's poem Meditation on Red
making faces/
 at you/  
who knew/
 how to spell/
 little knowing /
in that grey mist /
hanging/ over Cherton Fitzpaine/
how cunningly
 you masked/  
your pain/ 
how carefully
 you honed /your craft/ 
how tightly
you held /your pen  (extract fron Meditation on Red)

        It took me many years to visit Rhys' grave in Cheriton, but I eventually made it, on a brilliant sunny winter's day. Rather surprisingly, the memorial stone is propped up against the church wall just left of the main door. At least the village has recognised the famous author's once presence in their parish, because she is mentioned in the church guide book. 

Photo of Jean Rhys' Grave Cheriton Fitzpaine churchyard
Jean Rhys' grave,
Cheriton Fitzpaine churchyard
Photo: JES

Jean Rhys' grave, Cheriton Fitzpaine
Photo: JES

Photo of Cheriton Fitzpaine Church
Cheriton Fitzpaine church
Photo: JES

Photo of Jean Rhys' grave at Cheriton Fitzpaine Church
Jean Rhys' grave Cheriton Fitzpaine
Photo: JES

     Going back some years, back in the sixties and seventies, following publication of and acclaim for her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, people frequently followed a quest to the village in search of the novelist. One visitor wrote up an account of her trip to Devon;


Then she said, suddenly “I’ve lived here six or seven years. I loathed it at first; then I got resigned to it. Fixed it up, found it better. I miss a lot living in Devon, miss meeting the people who wrote to me after the books were re-published. I don’t think I’m liked in the village, they think I’m strange. I’d like to get away but I won't now.

Another visitor, Louis James, wrote an academic paper following  her encounter with the novelist, 'The Lady Is Not A Photograph: Jean Rhys, D.Litt., and "The Caribbean Experience"'. See Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Vol. 3, No. 3, Jean Rhys (Summer 2003), pp. 175- 184. Louis explains how, with colleagues, she went down to Devon from Kent, to present Rhys, with an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Kent. James explains that
She accepted the Honorary Doctorate when it was offered her. But, at the age of eighty-seven, with deteriorating health, she did not wish to make the long journey from Cheriton Fitzpaine in Devon where she was spending the summer, to receive her degree.
So, as James tells us, in an unusual change from protocol, the university took the degree to its recipient:

 In the case of Jean Rhys, the University made the exceptional decision to award the Honorary D. Litt., in absentia. On that day of July, an empty red leather chair represented Jean Rhys on the dais, addressed by the Public Orator Professor Robert Gibson with an accolade recording her life and achievements. At the side, a portable Grundig tape deck ticked away, recording the oration. On the 20th of July two cars set off from Canterbury to her cottage in Cheriton Fitzpaine, carrying Professor Foakes as Chairman of English Literature at Kent, together with Professor Mark Kinkead-Weekes and myself as teachers of Common- wealth Literature. We also took a set of doctoral robes, the Grundig tape recorder, the Orator's recorded speech, and several bottles of champagne. The summer Jean Rhys spent at Cheriton Fitzpaine in 1977 was proving, in Carole Angier's words, "fairly disastrous" (638). Apart from intensifying health problems, Jean had begun to fall violently out with Janet Bridger, her young companion, nurse, and typist, with strains intensified by Jean's struggle to find the right approach to writing her proposed autobiography. Then there were other anxieties, too, of which I knew nothing at the time.
James provides a fond and amusing account of the time she spent spent at the by now renowned author's house. I can't resist including another short extract:

There is no shortage of material about Jean Rhys on the internet. A google search will coax out all sorts of goodies. In particular the Jean Rhys Archive has information about the whereabouts of various materials and texts.

 I wrote a little about Rhys and Plath in a very early piece in Scrapblog from the South-West.  Some thoughts about them appear in Crossing the Water, a more recent feature and extract from a longer piece posted in my earlier blog. (A poem 'Rhys and Plath; Cheriton and Court Green' was published by Shearsman and appears in the collection Tessitura. You can read the poem on Scrapblog).


  1. Hi Julie, I enjoyed reading your blog, but as far as I know, Jean Rhys died in May 14, 1979, and not 1969 as stated in your piece.

  2. Oops! Many thanks for noticing and pointing out this error. Now amended!


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