Book Reviews - Summer 2022

What a Long, Strange Trip It Was

The explosive writer who created worlds alien and mundane

By Madison Smartt Bell | June 30, 2022
Jean Rhys, left, and Mollie Stoner, in the 1970s (Wikimedia Commons)
Jean Rhys, left, and Mollie Stoner, in the 1970s (Wikimedia Commons)

I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour; W. W. Norton, 448 pp., $32.50

Born in 1890, Jean Rhys (christened Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams) lived through two world wars and in her long life observed firsthand the many changes wrought by the 20th century. She consorted with the literati of the Lost Generation in 1920s Paris, including Ford Madox Ford, and again with those of the late 20th century, including American novelist David Plante. Consorting with Ford may have got her pregnant, but Rhys was so protective of her private life that even Miranda Seymour, in this exhaustively researched biography, cannot say for certain.

Rhys spent her childhood in Dominica, a flyspeck island in the eastern Caribbean between Martinique and Guadeloupe that was a British colony at the time of her birth. English was and remains the island’s official language, but a French-based Kweyol, in which Rhys had some fluency, is spoken by the Black inhabitants, some of whom also practice Obeah, one of several African-based religions in the Caribbean.

The child of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole woman, Rhys spent her childhood in Dominica’s declining colonial aristocracy. A sojourn in a convent school inspired a relatively brief fit of religiosity and also awakened her to the beauty and power of nature. At 17, she was taken by an aunt to England to attend the Perse High School for Girls, which she detested. She switched to Herbert Tree’s new acting school, today the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and when that could no longer be afforded, auditioned with Blackmore’s theatrical agency and became a touring actress under the name of Ella Gray. She returned to Dominica only once, in 1936; her sense of being a stranger in English society contributed a great deal to her work.

Rhys usually had a man in her life. In 1911, she took up with Lancelot Hugh Smith, who was good to her in many ways but kept her at a certain distance, maintaining her in her own apartment, according to the style of the times. Marriage to “Lancy” (a lifelong bachelor) was not in the cards, so eventually the couple parted ways, after which he nevertheless continued to support Rhys financially.

In 1919, Rhys traveled to the Hague to marry Willem Johan Marie Lenglet, a romantic but shady figure who fathered her one child who lived to adulthood, Maryvonne—born in Belgium in 1922—but ended up making and losing a fortune in currency trading during the marriage. The Lenglets fetched up broke in Paris in 1924, where Rhys, attempting to sell some anecdotal pieces to the Daily Mail, wound up attracting the attention of Ford Madox Ford, who published several pieces of her early, fragmentary fiction in his transatlantic review. (Ford’s companion, Stella Bowen, meanwhile, found the work “unpublishably sordid.”) Rhys’s marriage to Lenglet began to collapse when he was sent to prison for embezzlement, and she became known as “Ford’s girl”—a disparagement of Bowen’s, though Seymour suggests that the three of them probably had a sort of ménage. (Rhys did live with Ford and Bowen for a time while Lenglet served out his sentence.) An inveterate womanizer, Ford was unflaggingly supportive of writers he admired. In Rhys’s case, his motives were mixed, but like Lancy, he and Bowen paid Rhys’s expenses after she left their household. Ford also helped Rhys get writing work and introduced her to influential people in publishing, including literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith. It was Smith who facilitated the 1927 publication by Jonathan Cape of Rhys’s first book, a collection of stories called The Left Bank, and in 1934, became Rhys’s second husband.

Rhys’s work is autobiographical, up to a point. Seymour meticulously stitches Rhys’s stories to events in her life, while scrupulously maintaining the distinction Rhys herself insisted on: the women who people her fiction are not self-portraits. Her first published novel, Quartet (1928), draws on her relationships with Ford, Bowen, and Lenglet, and her second, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), does something similar with Lancy, but these works should not be read as romans à clef. For Voyage in the Dark (1934), Rhys mined her Dominican childhood and her early experience as a colonial outsider in England. In Good Morning, Midnight (1939), writes Seymour, “Rhys endowed Sasha Jensen with her own paranoia” as the character moves through chronic instability, similar to what Rhys endured during her own dismal demise following the economic crash of 1929.

Seymour asserts that these novels of the 1930s developed Rhys’s “unfailing ability to create … a world that is both uniquely alien and recognizably mundane” while serving “her growing belief that the dreamworld of the past and the activity of the present coexist, simultaneously, within the same conscious realm.” By the time she reached her late 40s, Rhys had fully matured as an artist, but the grim effect of these works earned comments in the press like “sordid” (again!) and “squalid.” The books did not sell well.

Financially ruined by the Great Depression, Leslie Tilden Smith died in 1945. Broke and alone, Rhys depended on flickering support from friends and family until she married Leslie’s cousin, Max Hamer, in 1947. Hamer, like Lenglet, was caught in an embezzlement scheme and in 1950 began a two-year sentence at Maidstone Prison. By then the writer Jean Rhys had disappeared into Mrs. Hamer, scrabbling to survive in ever more impoverished circumstances and dismal lodgings, rowing frequently and sometimes violently with her neighbors, often while drunk—episodes that sometimes ended with police and court proceedings. In such a state, she vanished from the public eye for the better part of a decade.

Rhys’s seclusion was so complete that only after placing an ad in the New Statesman, did actress Selma Vaz Dias discover that the writer was still alive. An avid fan of Rhys’s first four novels, Dias wanted to perform Good Morning, Midnight as an audio play for the BBC, which she finally did in 1956. But her interest quickly landed on one of Rhys’s works in very intermittent progress, which the writer was then calling “Mrs. Rochester.” Rhys was at first grateful for the renewed attention to herself and her work that Dias’s efforts brought about, but the actress’s increasing possessiveness of the Mrs. Rochester project finally caused a rift between them.

Rhys wrote inscrutably by hand (increasingly hampered by arthritis) and was wont to destroy what she had written by day during alcoholic rages at night.

Seymour’s book develops a certain teleology around the completion of this novel, Rhys’s best-known work (published in 1966 as Wide Sargasso Sea), which she might never have finished without the interventions of her friends and colleagues. Rhys was still living in poverty, with and then without Hamer, who was in failing health and unemployable after his imprisonment. She wrote inscrutably by hand (increasingly hampered by arthritis) and was wont to destroy what she had written by day during alcoholic rages at night. But in 1957, she accepted a tiny advance from publisher André Deutsch for the far-from-completed novel, and thenceforward editor Diana Athill was committed to seeing it through. Improvements were made to Rhys’s living situation, and people were found to try to decipher and type the scattered pages or to take dictation, which is what David Plante was hired to do. Rhys was not easy to work with; Plante’s notion that he would in effect be her co-author particularly (and understandably) infuriated her, though she could also explode over lesser provocations.

The publication of Wide Sargasso Sea brought Rhys, then in her mid-70s, the greatest recognition she had ever had, and she enjoyed her sudden celebrity considerably, although not without reservations. By this time, a successful novelist was expected to project a personality cult, but Rhys did not at all want her work to be assimilated to her person. Here the autobiographical elements of her fiction could cause confusion and distress; some of Rhys’s heroines may have been prostitutes, but that did not mean that the writer had been one, too. She was fierce (and just) in her insistence that her work should stand autonomously, apart from her equally extraordinary life.

Rhys conceived Wide Sargasso Sea, in part, as a rebuttal to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre—to its demeaning depiction of the island-born Mrs. Rochester as deranged. Ironically, Rhys had played that role herself often enough: in her drunken altercations with various neighbors, she fought like a hellcat, scratching and biting and sometimes landing in jail or a mental institution. She wrestled often with the demon of English respectability and usually lost. At the end of her life, no longer able to look after herself, she was installed by friends in a pink boudoir in their London home; after an initial idyll, she became so unpleasant that those friends took to calling her Johnny Rotten. Madwoman in the attic, indeed.

Beyond Rhys’s quarrel with Brontë, Wide Sargasso Sea is fundamentally about cultural incomprehension: all the ways in which the European mind is threatened by that other, island way of being. Obeah does come into it, obliquely. Rhys, always at odds with the British society in which she was encysted for most of her life, captured the same idea in the short story “Let Them Call It Jazz,” based on her own brief 1949 stay in Holloway Prison’s hospital wing, though in this case she differentiated the narrator plainly from herself by making her a woman of color. “I don’t belong nowhere, really,” the character says, “and I haven’t money to buy my way to belonging. I don’t want to either.” Neither did Rhys, who despite her long exile in a strange and often unwelcoming land, always remained adamantly herself.

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