She was born in the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica to a third-generation Dominican creole mother (of Scottish ancestry) and a Welsh father. She was sent to Great Britain for education when she was 16 and never lived in the Caribbean again.
She wanted to be an actress but her Caribbean accent prevented her from getting the best roles and her father took her out of acting classes, though she continued to work in traveling companies in small parts and dancing in the chorus line.
She became a party girl, had an affair with a wealthy stockbroker but didn't marry him, though she returned to him for financial support after they split. All the while she kept notebooks about her life. She was married three times, the first to a French-Belgian journalist and spy who ended up in prison.
While he was imprisoned, she met writer Ford Madox Ford, moved in with him and his girlfriend and soon developed an affair with him. Ford encouraged her to write and taught her to fashion her life stories into something that could be published. He also suggested that she change her name from Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams to Jean Rhys. She learned well. She wrote many short stories under his direction. She subsequently wrote about her affair with Ford in the novel Quartet (1928).
She married twice more, once to an editor and literary agent who died in 1945. Then she married her second husband's cousin, an attorney. He was convicted of fraud and sent to prison.
In 1949, the BBC presented some of her work on the air and she gained the attention of a book editor who asked her for more work. She told him she was working on a novel. It turned out to be Wide Sargasso Sea, in which she imagined the backstory of Mr. Rochester's wife (the mad woman in the attic) in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
Rhys writes her as a white Creole heiress from Jamaica whose unhappy arranged marriage to an English nobleman and her displacement in Victorian England leads to her undoing. The book was adapted as a film in 1993.