Reviewed by Harriet
I discovered Jean Rhys in my twenties, and raced through her three great 1930s novels, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning Midnight in quick succession. Then there was Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 after a gap of almost thirty years. I couldn’t have guessed then that a decade or more later I’d be teaching that novel to groups of students studying feminist and post-colonialist writing. Rhys’s novels have almost unanimously been read as autobiographical, a view that Miranda Seymour sets out to oppose in this detailed and impressively researched biography. I’ll come back to that argument later.
Rhys’s life, it has to be said, was an exceptionally chaotic one. Born and brought up on the Caribbean island of Dominica, she was the daughter of a Welsh doctor and an island-born descendent of plantation owners, a heritage that would qualify her as a white Creole. It was an unhappy childhood from which she rebelled at the age of sixteen and headed for London, where she became, in relatively quick succession, a chorus girl, a demimondaine, and, in Paris, the mistress of the novelist Ford Maddox Ford. In 1919 she married her first husband, Jean Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist and song writer who, despite his own somewhat chaotic life – he spent some time imprisoned for fraud – would remain a tremendous source of love and support, bringing up their only surviving child Maryvonne. She would marry twice more: to editor Leslie Tilden-Smith, who encouraged her writing, and after his death to solicitor Max Hamer, who was also imprisoned for fraud. After his death in 1966 she lived alone.
And through all this, Rhys was drinking heavily. Her chronic alcoholism had predictable results – marital quarrels, street brawls (she would ‘spit, bite, or scratch a perceived opponent’), imprisonment, hospitalisation- and certainly contributed to the ending of a number of important friendships. The account of the years she spent living in Devon in what was not much more than a shack, with a leaking roof, ropey walls and no bathroom, make painful reading. She could have quietly (or noisily) died there had it not been for actress Selma Vas Dias, who wanted to adapt Good Morning Midnight for radio, and advertised in the New Statesman for information on the author’s whereabouts. Vas Dias encouraged her to start writing again, which led eventually to the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea. Credit for this must go to the writer Francis Wyndham and the wonderful Diana Athill, a publishers editor, who persuaded her company, André Deutsch, to take a gamble on the novel. Athill’s role in Rhys late success cannot be overestimated, and her support for Rhys through thick and thin was positively heroic.
It would be nice to be able to say that Rhys lived a happy and settled old age, enjoying her rediscovery and new success. Certainly her life became a lot more physically comfortable, and she was much celebrated in the media, even awarded a CBE the year before her death at the age of 88. But the drinking continued, and must have contributed to the falling out with close friends which was a feature of her life up to the end. A few months before her death she started an autobiography, which sadly reached only her early twenties: it was published posthumously under the title Smile, Please.
But what of the novels, I hear you say. Seymour spends very little time on the early ones, though she explores Wide Sargasso Sea in some depth. Her argument is that the early novels should not be read as simply reflections of Rhys’s own life. This is always a wise approach, but all her early novels do correspond in some detail to the circumstances of the writer, a fact that is impossible to ignore completely. According to Seymour, ‘At the centre of Rhys’s life stood her writing, a resource that is entirely absent from the lives of the women she described in her novels’. This is unarguably true, but the desperate, poor, rootless and often mistreated women who inhabit the early novels certainly cast light on states of mind that Rhys herself undoubtedly experienced. The fact that she could transform these into superbly crafted fiction that is still read and admired so many years later only increases my admiration for her as a creative artist. I’ll be rereading her again soon. Meanwhile I’m glad to have read this compelling portrait of a complex, infuriating, opinionated, brilliant woman.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Miranda Seymour, I Used to Live Here Once: The haunted life of Jean Rhys (William Collins, 2022). 978-0008353254, 432pp., hardback.
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