I LIVED HERE ONCE
The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys
By Miranda Seymour
Illustrated. 421 pages. WW Norton & Company. $32.50.
Like George Orwell, Thomas Hardy and WH Auden, the British novelist Jean Rhys did not want to be the subject of a biography and took steps to cover her trail. Rhys destroyed many letters; she tore up sections of newspapers; throughout her life she maintained, in the words of Miranda Seymour, her last biographer, a “maddening discretion”.
These escapes failed. Seymour’s book is the third major biography of Rhys, following Carole Angier’s long and excellent biography from 1985 and Lilian Pizzichini’s shorter and more atmospheric book from 2009. Seymour’s biography struggles under a lugubrious title: “I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys.
Again, perhaps Rhys (1890-1979) succeeded too well. If you’ve deleted phrases like “no clear account exists”, “we can’t be sure”, “a curious silence”, “it’s possible that”, “complete lack of documentation”, “seems” , “seems likely” and “questions abound,” Seymour’s biography would drop 10 percent.
These locutions clutter Seymour’s book, especially since what we know of Rhys’s life and career is, if not encyclopedic, much. She is best known, of course, as the author of “Wide Sargasso Sea” (1966), a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” Told from the perspective of Antoinette Cosway, Mr. Rochester’s Creole wife, the novel is inspired by Rhys’ own childhood on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
This novel was published when Rhys was 76, after the literary world had largely forgotten about her. Readers rushed to catch up. A lot of people – including me – are more drawn to his earlier novels, especially “Good Morning, Midnight” (1939) and his short story books, which are darker, shrewder, darkly comical and feature vulnerable elements and painfully self-aware. women, loners who are, to some extent, fictitious alter egos.
Rhys (pronounced Rees) has led a complicated life that defies neat summaries. She left Dominica, where her father was a doctor, to study at a boarding school in Cambridge. Mocked there for her singsong Caribbean accent, she spoke for the rest of her life in what Seymour calls a “cultured whisper”.
She hoped to become an actress, in the years before World War I, but found herself in supporting roles, often as a backup singer. She had bad taste in men; two of her three husbands were charming smugglers who ended up in prison for fraud.
One of his earliest manuscripts landed in the hands of novelist Ford Madox Ford, whose reputation was greater than it is today. For her, he was like the subject of a painting coming out of the frame.
Ford advised her to change her name — she was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams — and helped get her published. She became his mistress. His books found only a small audience, and money troubles were constant. Rhys spent decades, often isolated and paranoid, in lumpen houses and flats in and outside London, before success came late.
That’s one way to describe his life, at least. It’s also possible to capture only the most tragic and sinister details – she was like a shore regularly hit by hurricanes – and that Rhys was a particularly difficult person.
Her first child, a son, died aged three weeks in a hospital just as Rhys and her husband were drinking champagne. She never forgave herself. She didn’t have strong maternal instincts. Her second child, a girl, grew up largely in a series of baby shelters and orphanages.
Rhys drank heavily to lighten her burdens and was known for her tirades and other skunky behavior. “I’m not one to whine like some women do,” she told a friend. “I attack.” This often meant biting, scratching, screaming or spitting.
She had thin skin; its shell was transparent, like that of a shrimp. She and her second husband had deadly fights; they landed in jail after one of them. After she died at age 60 of a heart attack, some believed she had left him to die. She was arrested at least once for public drunkenness, which made local headlines.
When a neighborhood dog killed two of her cats, she threw a brick through her owner’s old stained glass window. She sometimes hurled anti-Semitic slurs. She was sometimes ordered to be placed under psychiatric care. In his book “Difficult Women”, writer David Plante cruelly described the messy scene when, late in life, skinny Rhys got stuck in the pit of a toilet he had left open.
Seymour is the author of many well-regarded biographies, including those of Mary Shelley, Robert Graves and Lord Byron’s wife and daughter. He kind of distanced himself from her. It’s oddly dull.
For one thing, it’s airy — the kind of biography in which the author prints out a snapshot of herself outside a school Rhys attended and describes chatting with various locals about her research.
On the other hand, it’s petty. Seymour includes a rather unflattering photo of Rhys’ editor-in-chief, the great Diana Athill, shortly before her death, above a caption that reads, “The smile and the shiny clothes marked the moment she decided that I was worth his time.”
The prose and analysis are sweet. Seymour leaves out so much of the best things Rhys has written and said, and thus makes her seem less intelligent than she was. She dwells on Rhys’ intense interest in his own appearance, even quite late in life, for example, not noting that Rhys wrote that such interest is “the real curse of Eve”.
Each chapter begins with a quote, which is almost standard practice. But Seymour does not tell us that Rhys wrote, in a published journal, “No more quotes. Paul Morand says in one of his books that English novelists always start with a quote. The text before the sermon. I found it witty.
Seymour has material that previous biographers did not have. But the details of his book are, sentence by sentence and page by page, less piquant than those of Angier – what people ate, what they wore. Angier also did a better job of placing fiction alongside life without blurring the two.
Rhys had a unique solitary intelligence and a talent for facing hard truths. If all you know of her is “Wide Sargasso Sea”, this book will encourage you to branch out. It’s almost – almost, maybe – worth the price of admission.