The best biographies marry the talents of a perceptive biographer and a complicated subject. In Miranda Seymour’s new biography of British writer Jean Rhys, readers will find a perfect match.
Seymour has chronicled some tumultuous lives (Robert Graves, Mary Shelley) and Jean Rhys’ story matches those sagas in drama, hardship and heartbreak. Best known for her 1966 novel “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Rhys was born to the planter class of the Caribbean island of Dominica, a “white Creole,” a white islander who stood apart from the island’s mostly Black population. It was this upbringing that would inform her most famous book, her reimagining of the life of Mr. Rochester’s mad Creole wife in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”
In her novels and short stories, Rhys portrayed women who were spurned and judged by society. She was one of them. She left Dominica as a teenager and moved to England, where after a brief acting career, she became the mistress of a wealthy Englishman.
After a breakup she moved to France and married Jean Lenglet, a charming French-Dutch gambler, con man and embezzler who would eventually land in jail, serve in the resistance and survive a Nazi death camp. They had a daughter, whose childhood was largely spent in orphanages.
After Lenglet was incarcerated, Rhys fell in with the Parisian literary crowd that included writer/editor Ford Madox Ford and his wife. Rhys became Ford’s mistress, and he became her literary champion. She began to produce highly original novels and short stories, fueled by a fierce will, prodigious amounts of alcohol and simmering rage.
Eventually Rhys and Lenglet split up, and she married again and moved to England. Some of her best stories are about women in England during World War II, but at the time her bleak view of their predicament was out of step with the stiff-upper-lip fervor of wartime. Her second husband died and she married his cousin, another Englishman with an elastic grasp of money who was jailed for fraud (Rhys herself was briefly jailed for attacking a neighbor).
The aging couple led hard lives, and her work would have sunk into obscurity were it not for a phalanx of angels who donated food, paid her rent and eventually revived her literary career, notably the editors Francis Wyndham and Diana Athill, who called Rhys the only real genius she had ever worked with.
Why did people, from a neighboring vicar to George Orwell’s wife, Sonia, support this difficult woman? When she wasn’t drunk and angry, she was “an enchantress,” Seymour writes. She loved art and culture, gardening and pretty clothes. After “Wide Sargasso Sea” was published, in her mid-70s she became the center of a literary cult and briefly grasped the life she had longed for.
Why has her work endured? Seymour sums it up: “Writing from pitiless self-knowledge, Jean Rhys addresses the watchful and lonely outsider who lurks within us all.” Hers is a compassionate and unflinching portrait of a renegade of tenacity and talent, for whom writing was the best and only thing. Everything else was a complication.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a writer and critic in Seattle.
I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys
By: Miranda Seymour.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 368 pages, $32.50.
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