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6 June 2022

Reflections of the elusive Jean Rhys

The novelist wrote four dark, slyly autobiographical novels – then vanished for 25 years. A new biography hopes to separate the woman from the work

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In 1977, when she was in her late eighties, the novelist Jean Rhys asked an actor to paint her face with the stage make-up she had worn as a young actress. While he rouged her lips and cheeks, Rhys watched silently, sipping a martini; once the job was done, she asked him to leave. Her puzzled friend left the room, leaving Rhys alone, staring at her made-up face in the mirror. Reflecting on the incident almost 40 years later, he said: “I still don’t have a clue what it was all about.”

This small but novelistic detail from Miranda Seymour’s immersive new biography of Rhys feels suggestive. It captures something of her: eccentric, demanding, haunted by her past, and committed to looking herself dead in the eye – a commitment that might well resemble self-absorption. But, like many of the compelling stories from her life, it both invites and resists analysis: there is something defiantly unknowable at its core. Though she would describe herself as always feeling like “a person at a masked ball without a mask”, we glimpse Rhys behind a painted face, in a mirror, through the eyes of another, frozen in a photo, or through the imaginative lens of her fiction.

Rhys began her memoir, Smile Please, with a memory of having her photo taken as a young girl, watching the photographer dodge out from behind a dark cloth. Then she recalls looking at the same photo three years later, realising “with dismay” that she was no longer the same girl. “The eyes were a stranger’s eyes,” she writes. “It was the first time I was aware of time, change, and the longing for the past. I was nine years of age.”

Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, though she was not called that then. Her parents – William Rees Williams, a Welsh doctor, and Minnie Lockhart, a white Creole descended from a slave-owning family on the island – christened her Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams. But she would have many names: Gwen to her family, Ella to friends in England, Miss Ella Grey on the stage, three new names for each of her marriages, and Jean Rhys on her novels. After Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, Rhys told her daughter to call her Jean, “because that is who I am”.

Smile Please focuses on Rhys’s childhood in Dominica, which retained a hold on the writer’s imagination into her old age – Seymour sees it as the “wellspring” from which her novels originated. Certainly it’s where Rhys’s sense of herself as an outsider began to emerge. She was whipped as a child: Rhys believed this was because her mother saw “something alien” in her, and remembers her despairing, “You’ll never be like other people”. Seymour writes that at Rhys’s majority black convent school, pupils “wouldn’t mix” with the white girl, “a mere colonial”. She doesn’t mention that, as well as being envious, Rhys admitted she was suspicious of the “black people who surrounded” her, and who, she claimed, “seldom smiled” and “hated” her.

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Aided by the jingoistic nostalgia of the colonial community in which she lived, Rhys developed a fantasy of a snow-laden England full of brightly coloured trains. She was bitterly disappointed when she arrived in a drab, grey country in 1907, where she was punished for taking hot baths and other girls at her boarding school mocked her Caribbean accent. (This was exacerbated as they were studying Jane Eyre, in which Bertha Mason, the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic, was a white Creole. The experience would indirectly lead to the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’sprequel about Mason’s life before the attic.)

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After school, Rhys embarked on a stage career and a wild, impoverished life in London – this is when her life story first begins to get chaotic, and it remains so for the duration of Seymour’s fast-moving biography. She drinks, visits clubs and ricochets from heartbreak to financial destitution. This was also when she began to write. It was after supper one night, Rhys writes in Smile Please, that “it happened. My fingers tingled, and the palms of my hands.” She wrote into the small hours, relating everything that had happened to her in the past year and a half, ending with the line: “Oh God, I’m only 20, and I’ll have to go on living and living!”

Rhys met the Dutch writer Jean Lenglet during the First World War. She was married, pregnant and living with him in Paris before she realised he had no money and no passport and showed little regard for the law. Their son, William, was born in 1919, but soon died after catching pneumonia, leaving Rhys wracked with guilt. (Their daughter, Maryvonne, was born in 1922. Rhys was something of an absent mother.)

The couple moved to Vienna soon after, where Rhys met Ford Madox Ford, who would become her first literary champion. He was also her lover: when Lenglet was arrested for embezzlement, Rhys was taken in by Ford and his wife Stella Bowen – a disastrous experience that inspired her novel Quartet. In Europe, she met countless poets and painters – if this is anything to go by, the rise of “autofiction” as a recent phenomenon has been greatly exaggerated, as everyone she encountered had ambitions to publish their “heavily autobiographical novel”. Ford introduced her to a literary world, where he had connections to Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, who recalls zipping up Rhys’s dress in a lift.

Her work began to get attention. She had a string of dark, witty novels published – Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) – which took as their protagonists depressive, alienated characters who “always look half asleep”, drink heavily and rely on rich male lovers for money until they are abandoned, a type that became known as “the Rhys woman”. In 1984, Vivian Gornick summed up this type: “A woman in a black velvet dress lies on a narrow bed in a half-darkened room in a pension in a foreign city. When she goes out… she stops to pick up a cheap bottle of wine and a man to pay for the wine. She takes them both upstairs. Next morning she is hungover and betrayed.”

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While readers may be struck by the circularity of Rhys’s plots, moments of melodrama (Quartet) and the odd jarring echo of her colonial upbringing, they will also find a disarming clarity of voice, a striking psychological acuity, and a pleasingly direct style. (Rhys said she wrote Voyage in the Dark “almost entirely in words of one syllable, like a kitten mewing”.) The precision of her prose found a renewed literary purpose in her best work, Wide Sargasso Sea.

After a divorce, a violent second marriage, an increased dependency on alcohol and long periods of mental instability, Rhys was not just struggling to write, she was struggling to live. She had run-ins with the law for assaulting her neighbours and repeatedly shouting anti-Semitic abuse; she would be institutionalised for mental health concerns multiple times. Unsurprisingly, she retreated from public life in the 1940s and 50s – many assumed she was dead. It was through this magazine that she found a second chance at her career. Hoping to adapt Rhys’s work for radio, the actress Selma Vaz Dias placed an ad in the New Statesman in 1949, asking for “anyone knowing the whereabouts” of the author to get in touch. Rhys wrote to her, but after her third husband was arrested she disappeared from view again. A second NS advert in 1956 rediscovered the author. (Rhys dryly observed it was “very tactless of me to be alive”.) The radio broadcast inspired a brief flurry of interest. The editor Francis Wyndham, a long-term admirer, got in touch: he and his colleague Diana Athill became Rhys’s later-in-life champions, encouraging her to produce Wide Sargasso Sea, which propelled her to reluctant fame in her seventies.

In sections on Rhys’s later life, her personality comes through. Cantankerous, ungracious, often drunk, she was nicknamed “Johnny Rotten” by friends who took her in, though she was stubbornly difficult company. Perhaps she seems more vivid here because her quirks grow more pronounced with age – maybe there are more recorded anecdotes to draw on, post-fame. Still, though Seymour’s biography is evocatively written, meticulously researched and deeply empathetic, Rhys remains difficult to pin down.

Seymour hopes her book will reveal “the depth of the chasm” that existed between the real Jean Rhys and “the Rhys woman” of her fiction. “Finding the biographical clues within a Rhys novel is always fun,” she writes. But “it’s a pursuit which undermines appreciation of Rhys’s uncanny ability to engage with readers who know nothing about her personal circumstances”. And yet it is a game Seymour can’t resist playing – she forensically examines the events in Rhys’s life and novels, hunting for “autobiographical details”, “red herrings” and spot-the-difference divergences: the “thinly disguised” love interests, the “alter egos” of her protagonists. This may be inevitable in literary biography, but still risks reducing her fiction to a source of biographical data. Seymour’s constant drawing of comparisons means she cannot fully separate her subject from the novels.

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We read literary biography to get inside the minds that brought us beloved fiction – but if biography promises to reveal to us the inner life of a distant, often long-dead figure, then it must be doomed from the start. Rhys, who saw herself as a “stranger” to almost everyone – her mother, her peers, her daughter; even, sometimes, herself – is a particularly difficult case. Though she put so much of herself in her fiction, a sly elusiveness remains. This, I suppose – though it must be mere supposition – would satisfy Rhys.

Miranda Seymour will be in conversation with Anna Leszkiewicz at Cambridge Literary Festival on 20 November. Tickets are available here

I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys
Miranda Seymour
William Collins, 432pp, £25

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man