Jean Rhys was seventy-six years old before she had a literary success. Her first five books—a collection of short stories and four novels, published between 1927 and 1939—had been praised sporadically for their style, disliked generally for their sordid subject matter, and sold hardly at all. Fame of a kind came finally in 1966 with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, which won her what were then two of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards, one from the Royal Society of Literature, the other the W.H. Smith Prize. Rhys refused to go to either presentation ceremony. She pleaded ill health, but the truth was she was too old, too shy, and too distrustful of her fellow writers to cope with the fuss. She was also beyond caring. According to Diana Athill, her friend and publisher, her reaction to the good news was that it had come too late.
She was right, of course. In literary terms, nothing was going to make up for forty years’ neglect. But Rhys didn’t think in literary terms: they figured hardly at all in her life and interests and ambitions. Until her last years, when she became successful and therefore sought after, she met few other writers and with those she did meet she was so formal and shy that they lost interest and rarely tried to see her again. If she had to communicate with a fellow author, she preferred to do so by letter. The 1984 selection of the letters she wrote after 1931 contains none at all to anyone of a comparable literary stature.
The reason is that, although there were times when she wrote obsessively, her real life was elsewhere and writing was secondary to it. “I never wanted to write,” she wrote to her friend Peggy Kirkaldy. “I wished to be happy and peaceful and obscure. I was dragged into writing by a series of coincidences…[and] need for money.” Obscure she certainly was until the last few years of her very long life—she was eighty-nine when she died—but happy and peaceful never, and her belated success was no compensation for the unspeakable mess she made of the business of living. Maybe she thought that if recognition had come earlier a little money might have eased the strain and made the need to behave badly less overpowering.
Carole Angier puts it more starkly: success had come too late, she says, because “by the time it came she had too much to hide.” In her will Rhys specifically asked that no biography of her should be written unless it was authorized in her lifetime. She never gave that authorization. Instead, she began to write her memoirs, published posthumously as Smile Please. Her objections to a biography were partly a matter of principle:
I have not met other writers often. A few in Paris…. Even fewer in England. That does not matter at all, for all of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be curious about the person.
She wrote that in a fragment of a diary published at the end of Smile Please. But as Ms. Angier shows, Rhys’s objections were not just a matter of principle: the style of her writing—offhand yet purified and austere—was utterly at odds with the style of her life.
Yet her books were autobiographical to an exceptional degree. Rhys had great imagination and no invention at all: she had no gift for plots, she couldn’t dream up situations she herself had not already been in, the people she wrote about are the people she knew. This is an honorable tradition, of course. Shakespeare rarely bothered to think up his own plots; he either reworked them from other people’s plays or lifted them from Plutarch or Holinshed. Rhys’s invention was even more straitened: she stuck to the facts of her life, the people and places and disasters she had lived with, and then refined them, reduced them to their essence.
As Ms. Angier explains in the introduction to her notes, for years Rhys kept a series of notebooks that she used partly as a diary, partly for rough drafts that were later worked up—or down—into fiction. She sometimes claimed that the notebooks were all fiction, fiction in diary form, but Ms. Angier argues convincingly that this was not true. She plots Rhys’s life by moving continuously to and fro between the notebooks and the finished work. She has also done a great deal of research: she has examined the archives, interviewed everyone who knew Rhys when she was old, and combed the work of those, all of them now dead, who knew her in her dazzling but confused youth. The result is sympathetic, even-handed, and psychologically shrewd, and I am quite certain Rhys would have hated it: first, because of what it reveals of the life she wanted to keep hidden; second, because of the way it is written. It is odd that someone who has immersed herself for so long in Rhys’s spare and immaculate prose could come up with writing so slack and chatty. It is also odd that Ms. Angier’s editors allowed her to pad out an already lengthy biography with five chapters of longwinded, crude literary criticism which add nothing to the life, repeat a great deal, and make an already bulky book a couple of hundred pages longer than it need be.s
The story of Rhys’s life itself, however, is fascinating, which is why she did not want it written. Writing is a sedentary, middle-class profession—like psychoanalysis but far more lonely—and writers seldom lead interesting lives. Some, like Conrad, lead interesting lives in their youth, then settle down and write about them later, but most, like oysters, need only a small irritation to get them going. Rhys herself was doomed to an interesting life. Or rather, she led four lives, two of them “interesting” in the direst way and all of them, until the last years, spiraling remorselessly downward.
The first lasted until her middle thirties when she met Ford Madox Ford, who got her writing and helped publish her first book, a collection of stories called The Left Bank, in 1927. Then came her second life with her second husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, a failed literary agent turned publishers’ reader, who encouraged her to write, typed her manuscripts, and sent them off to be published. According to Ms. Angier, most of her work was written between 1928 and 1938, when she was with him. When Good Morning, Midnight, one of her best books, sank without trace in 1939 she sank with it, dragging Tilden Smith down with her. After he died in 1945, she married his cousin, Max Hamer, a bent but unsuccessful solicitor and one of God’s losers, like Rhys herself. She stopped writing and her trajectory on the downward spiral went more or less out of control until she was rediscovered a decade later and began, sporadically, to write again. She died in 1979, acclaimed by the establishment she despised—she was awarded the CBE—and even modestly solvent, a condition she found hard to believe in after a lifetime’s penury.
The first “interesting” decades of her long life gave her most of her material. She was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in 1890 on the island of Dominica, known to its inhabitants as “the Cinderella of the West Indies” and “the third world’s third world.” Her father was Welsh, a romantic figure who had run away to sea before becoming a doctor and emigrating to the Caribbean in search of a career and a wife. Her mother came from an old Dominican family, originally Scots, sugar merchants who had come down in the world after the abolition of slavery. Rhys seems to have felt herself an outcast in her own family and maybe she was. A baby sister had died exactly nine months before she was born, so perhaps her mother was still in mourning for the dead child; she certainly seems to have preferred Rhys’s younger sister.
Ms. Angier reels off a catalog of injuries Rhys felt were done to her in her childhood, mostly by her mother, a decent but uncomprehending woman who believed, like most other Victorians, in strict propriety and corporal punishment. But I have the impression that Rhys played this card too hard, as though to excuse her own subsequent bad behavior—her indifference, her rages, her fecklessness. It is more likely that unhappiness was the country of her heart and there were times when this puzzled her, so she sought excuses and someone to blame.
She left Dominica for England when she was seventeen, spent a term at a school in Cambridge, then two terms at Beerbohm Tree’s Academy of Dramatic Art. She said later that she left the academy because her father died and there was no money to pay the fees. Not true, Ms. Angier writes: her father did not die until a year later. She left because she had not much talent and a grating West Indian accent that no amount of elocution lessons could modulate into the obligatory Edwardian upper-class drawl. Later she developed a soft, almost whispering voice. But in the land of Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle she would have had a hard time making it as a lady.
She couldn’t act and she didn’t want to go home to Dominica and her disapproving mother. All she had were marvelous looks and a vague instinct for trouble. So she joined the chorus of a touring company, which in those days was not considered a proper job for a well-brought-up doctor’s daughter. In a way, turning chorus girl was one of the few deliberate choices Rhys ever made. She seems to have fallen into her other careers—mannequin, mistress, good-time girl, wife, mother, even novelist—as a result of what John Updike has called “drift and whim,” allied to a deep passivity which manifested itself in everything from her inability to get out of a relationship to her pathological unwillingness to finish her books and let them go.
It is characteristic of Rhys, who always thought of herself as not belonging anywhere, that her one decisive choice should have been to move socially downward into the demimonde. In those days, the chorus line was not a stepping stone to a career on the stage. The best a chorus girl could hope for was to catch the eye of a rich young “masher” in the stalls and get him to marry her. But that happened very rarely and most of the girls thought instead of free dinners and presents and casual affairs. The next step down was prostitution and Rhys, in due course, took it, although not for long.
First, she found herself an ideal lover. His name was Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith and he was a stockbroker from a grand banking family, vastly rich. He was also twice her age, patient, subtle, intelligent, and, for a time, as besotted with her as she was with him. But after eighteen months he pensioned her off, albeit gently and regretfully, and she never really recovered. What she did do, however, was write it all down in a notebook which, she claimed, she put in the bottom of her trunk and forgot all about until she dug it out and turned it into Voyage in the Dark, the most poignant of all her books, published in 1934, twenty-five years after the event. Ms. Angier doesn’t altogether believe that this burst of writing happened spontaneously, out of the blue: “She’d been writing out her sadness in poems since she was a child; she’d probably been writing it out in a sporadic diary for years. She went on doing this for ten more years; indeed, for all her life.” Whatever the truth, her writing began in heartbreak and stayed that way.
Meanwhile, she went on the skids, drank heavily, slept around for money, became pregnant, and had a backstreet abortion. In 1919, after seven years of dingy Bloomsbury bed-sitters and Soho nightclubs and casual affairs, she married Jean Lenglet, who was part French and part Dutch, and moved with him to Paris. Lenglet, like Rhys, was a demimondain—a journalist, chansonnier, and con man who lived by his wits and not always above the breadline. They scraped by hand-to-mouth in the Latin Quarter and had a baby son who died when he was three weeks old. Rhys’s description of his death in Good Morning, Midnight is one of the bleakest, most moving things she ever wrote:
I can’t feed this unfortunate baby. He is taken out and given Nestlé’s milk. So, I can sleep….
The next day she comes in and says: “Now I am going to arrange that you will be just like what you were before. There will be no trace, no mark, nothing.”
That, it seems, is her solution.
She swathes me up in very tight, very uncomfortable bandages. Intricately she rolls them and ties them. She gives me to understand that this is usually an extra. She charges a great deal for this as a rule.
“I do this better than anyone in the whole of Paris,” she says. “Better than any doctor, better than any of these people who advertise, better than anyone in the whole of Paris.”
And there I lie in these damned bandages for a week. And there he lies, swathed up too, like a little mummy. And never crying.
But now I like taking him in my arms and looking at him. A lovely forehead, incredibly white, the eyebrows drawn very faintly in gold dust….
Well, this was a funny time. (The big bowl of coffee in the morning with a pattern of red and blue flowers. I was always so thirsty.) But uneasy, uneasy…. Ought a baby to be as pretty as this, as pale as this, as silent as this? The other babies yell from morning to night. Uneasy….
When I complain about the bandages she says: “I promise you that when you take them off you’ll be just as you were before.” And it is true. When she takes them off there is not one line, not one wrinkle, not one crease.
And five weeks afterwards there I am, with not one line, not one wrinkle, not one crease.
And there he is, lying with a ticket tied round his wrist because he died in a hospital. And there I am looking down at him, without one line, without one wrinkle, without one crease….
It’s all there: spare, precise, ironic, a kind of shorthand for heartbreak, “without one wrinkle, without one crease,” and also without a trace of self-pity. In the novel, the vanity is a terrible irony. The reality, as described by Ms. Angier, is just as terrible but altogether shabbier. The baby died because of Rhys’s profound incompetence and even profounder indifference. He had been left by an open window in January and developed pneumonia; the parents took their time before they called a sage femme who called a doctor; while the baby was dying in the Hospice des Enfants Assistés, Rhys and Lenglet were getting giggling drunk on champagne, trying to pretend the disaster wasn’t happening.
But “this catastrophe changed their luck,” Ms. Angier writes. Friends took pity on them and wangled Lenglet a job with the Interallied Disarmament Commission. For a time, they lived it up in Vienna and Budapest, but naturally the good times didn’t last. Lenglet got involved in a currency swindle and they had to flee precipitately, with the police on their tails. By then, Rhys was pregnant again. Their daughter Maryvonne was born in Brussels, but motherhood was never one of Rhys’s talents. After two weeks, she dumped the new baby in a clinic and went off to London to hustle money. That was in May 1922; it was November before they came to collect the child, then promptly dumped her again in a French clinic where she remained until she was three. By that time Rhys and Lenglet were separated and Maryvonne was mostly left to fend for herself in one institution or another. During the 1930s she spent summer holidays with her mother. Most of the little parenting Maryvonne received was done by Lenglet, and when World War II broke out she returned to Holland to be with him. Eventually, Rhys made what were, for her, determined efforts to repair the damage, and Maryvonne did what she could to be a dutiful daughter, but they were never at ease together.
Back in Paris, Rhys and Lenglet were penniless again. She had already tried and failed at a number of jobs—mannequin, shop assistant, governess, guide. Finally, she translated some of his articles and tried to peddle them to the English newspapers. Nobody wanted them but their prose seems to have impressed Mrs. H. Pearl Adam, a formidable lady journalist. She asked to see the diary-notebook Rhys had kept in Paris and Vienna, tinkered with it, then passed it on to Ford Madox Ford, that great discoverer of unknown young writers. Ford, who recognized a natural when he saw one and also loved women, was entranced both by the prose and the author. She had, he wrote in his preface to The Left Bank, a “singular instinct for form,” “a terrifying insight and a terrific—an almost lurid!—passion for stating the case of the underdog.” He set about teaching her how to perfect her talent: how to cut out the extraneous details, condense the narrative, avoid cliché and melodrama, and pare away until the prose rhythms followed, with uncanny precision, the sidelong, casual, flickering movement of her sensibility.
Rhys was a perfect pupil for Ford: a prodigiously gifted tabula rasa. Thirty years later, Alwynne Woodward, vicar of Cheriton Fitzpaine, the Devon village where Rhys was then living, and one in her long line of rescuers, said that she was “almost without education, but with a wonderful mind.” She read a great deal, of course, but undiscriminatingly, anything that came to hand, without direction, without ulterior motives, trash as avidly as “good” books. Instead of getting her to read the great English novelists, Ford pointed her toward French writers he thought she would find sympathetic. “He told her,” Ms. Angier says, “if she wasn’t sure of a passage to translate it into French: ‘If it looked utterly silly one got rid of it.’ ” Twenty years later, Samuel Beckett, another of this century’s great stylists, also found his voice through French, although his approach was more radical: he gave up English altogether, wrote only in French, then translated himself back triumphantly into his native tongue.
For both, despite their differences, the result was a prose style utterly their own which owed no debts to the great—or even to the not-so-great—tradition. This, combined with Rhys’s contempt for the respectable world and the ease with which she took for granted life at the bottom of the heap, makes her work seem curiously contemporary.
The big literary figures of the 1920s and 1930s—not just popular writers like Aldous Huxley and Maugham, but Lawrence, Woolf, even Joyce—sometimes seem dated now, trapped by the intellectual and cultural rhetoric they were reacting against, while Rhys, who had no cultural baggage, no intellectual preoccupations, no axe to grind, wrote then as though she were writing now. In her short story “Till September Petronella,” the shock for the contemporary reader is not at the end, when the narrator lets herself be picked up like a common prostitute, but halfway through, when she looks at a calendar and sees the date—July 28, 1914. Her prose is contemporary in the way a poem by Donne is contemporary: you hear the voice speaking directly to you; her reality is your reality. It is a prose close to poetry not in the lush sense usually implied by the term “poetic prose” but because it is condensed, elliptical, emotionally precise.
Rhys had a taste for older men and Ford, like Lancelot Smith, became, in Ms. Angier’s words, “lover, father and friend; and teacher and patron too.” He launched her as a writer, but in doing so he was sharpening a knife for his own throat. When Lenglet’s sins caught up with him and he was sent to prison, charged with illegal entry into France and offenses against the currency regulations, Rhys moved in with Ford and his stolid, complaisant mistress, Stella Bowen. Rhys was in her middle thirties by then, although she looked at least ten years younger, and she had refined her natural passivity into a fine art. Ford was captivated by what he called her “Creole nonchalance” and Lenglet suffered for it. She didn’t show up for his trial, answered his passionate letters coolly, visited him irregularly, and left him to fester in the knowledge that he was “betrayed, cuckolded and let down.”
All four of the main characters eventually wrote about this miserable affair—Bowen in her memoirs, the others in novels—though Rhys had the last word artistically in Quartet. What is common to them all, even to Rhys—especially to Rhys—is how badly she behaved: venomously, abjectly, sullenly, as though driven by an overpowering need to lose. What is also common to them all is how much she drank. Rhys herself makes no attempt to disguise this. The heroines of the four novels she published in the 1930s—Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight—are all trying, in varying degrees, to drink themselves to death. It is their way of forgetting their mislaid happiness, of blotting out the confusion and perpetual money worries. What she fails to mention, however, is that when she drank another person entirely emerged. The odalisque languor, passivity, fastidiousness, and charm dropped away, along with the whispering voice. She became a nightmare figure, full of rage—violent, obscene, hoarse, murderous. Stella Bowen called her “a doomed soul, violent and demoralised” and Ford, quite simply, was terrified. (He wasn’t alone in this. In 1977, a good-natured and brisk young nurse, who was looking after her in Devon, momentarily thwarted her and was frightened out of her wits when her sweet, eighty-seven-year-old charge leaped out of her wheelchair and became a taunting, threatening witch, straight out of the girl’s worst nightmares.)
Ford pensioned her off and left for a lecture tour in the States, Lenglet fled to Holland and went into a poorhouse, Rhys stayed in Paris and wrote Quartet. Briefly, in 1927, she took her daughter out of the institution she had been dumped in and joined her husband in Amsterdam. By that time he had contrived one of his characteristic transformations: he had gone from inmate to manager of the poorhouse and had then been fired for embezzlement. They spent a few weeks as a family—the only time the three of them lived together—but the marriage was over. By 1928, Rhys had drifted back to London and moved in with Leslie Tilden Smith, whom she eventually married.
Ford had turned her into a writer but it was Tilden Smith who nurtured her talent and kept her going: he cooked, cleaned, typed, edited, and sold her books to the publishers. More important, he even managed to make her let go of the manuscripts—always the hardest part for her—when he thought they were finished. But at a cost. Her drinking got worse and so did her drunken rages. She taunted him unceasingly, threw his typewriter out the window, blacked his eyes, tore his face. He was a self-effacing, generous man, with a real passion for literature, and he put up with it because he loved her for a time and, when that ended, because he loved her talent. And under his diffident, stoic care, at least she was writing. According to Ms. Angier,
Jean conceived and probably wrote the majority of her lifetime’s work, published and unpublished, between 1927 and 1939: four novels, eight stories (of which two reached novel length), a mass of autobiographical writing, and a further lost novel. Only her early diaries and her first volume of stories…came before; and about fifteen stories, her final version of Wide Sargasso Sea, her unfinished autobiography and a few commissioned pieces after.
But the books didn’t sell and the drinking got worse. In 1935, one year after the appearance of Voyage in the Dark, she was hauled up before the magistrates at Bow Street court, along with the hapless Tilden Smith, on the charge of being drunk and disorderly. Good Morning, Midnight, her masterpiece, was published in April 1939, four months before the Germans marched into Poland, and according to Rhys “the war killed it,” although in fact the reviewers had already made sure there wasn’t much left to kill. They had always criticized her for her amorality and for what they thought of as her sordid subject matter—sex and money and drink, topics the Brits warm to reluctantly and only when they come gift wrapped in “life-affirming” Falstaffian disguise. On those terms, Good Morning, Midnight does not admit a chink of light into its darkness. Like her other novels, it has an unhappy ending, but this time the unhappiness is so abrupt, unexpected, and yet inevitable, that the effect is not tragic, with all that implies of nobility and waste; it is simply unnerving, a horror made more horrific by being muted and factual and assented to (the last words are “Yes—yes—yes…”). It is also the product of extraordinary artistic control, and perhaps it was this combination of high art and low life that made Rhys’s work so hard to stomach at the time she was writing. She didn’t write about low life as a literary subject—à la Zola à la socialist realism—she wrote about it as the reality she lived with. Her view is the view from the bottom, the underdog’s Ford called it, and her themes are underdog’s themes: fear, loneliness, lack of money. Her method, however, is that of high art, pure and fastidious, and she uses it to create a wholly original tone of voice, casual and clear and disabused, the voice of the vulnerable young woman Rhys herself might have been if booze and failure in her real life hadn’t turned her into a vengeful hag.
By 1939 she was a chronic alcoholic, sinking fast. In 1940 Tilden Smith joined the RAF, perhaps thinking he would have more chance fighting the Nazis than fighting his sodden wife. Without him to take care of her, she fell apart. In July 1940 she was arrested again for being drunk and disorderly and the local paper wrote up the trial:
Police Constable Haverson stated defendant was unsteady on her feet, her appearance was dishevelled, and her breath smelt strongly of spirits. She broke out into a stream of abuse of the English race, declaring, according to one witness, “I am a West Indian, and I hate the English. They are a b——mean and dirty lot.” The disorderly conduct…arose only after one of the witnesses had thrown water over her. Mrs Tilden Smith was very distressed because no news had been received of her daughter in Holland since the invasion of that country.
“It’s terrible to think of this—“ Ms. Angier writes. “Jean on a country road, raging at England; someone throwing a bucket of water over her. And this was the woman who had already written some of the finest prose of our century.” If you set this against America’s long line of alcoholic writers who managed to keep a canny grip on their careers, despite their bad habits, you begin to understand both the degree of Rhys’s self-destructive rage and helplessness, her lack of any sense of herself as an artist, and also of England’s self-satisfied indifference to talent. Ms. Angier’s biography often reads like a morality tale about art and life and the deadly cost of one to the other. But there are long stretches when, like the end of Good Morning, Midnight, it turns into a horror story.
Because of his wife’s drunkenness Tilden Smith had to resign his commission in the RAF and go back to his miserable hack work for publishers in London. But because he was around, at least Rhys kept writing—short stories and long bouts with her notebooks, which she later turned into fiction. But the strain of the marriage may have got to him at last: he died just after the end of the war at the age of sixty. He smoked heavily and he had heart trouble, but he came from a long-lived family and his daughter thinks he should “have lived for years and years.” But that was reckoning without Jean Rhys and the monster she became when she drank.
Throughout her life Rhys was terrified of loneliness. She was also totally incompetent in practical matters: she couldn’t type, she couldn’t drive, she couldn’t manage any mechanical device more intricate than a corkscrew. Since she never much cared for other women, she needed a man about the place, however dreadfully she then treated him. Soon after her husband died, she moved in with his cousin, Max Hamer, and within two years they were married. Hamer was eight years older than Rhys and, like her father, he had been a sailor. He was invalided out of the navy after twenty years of service, then trained as a solicitor, but on his good days he retained the military bearing of a naval officer and the tweedy, blue-eyed English gentleman’s demeanor that Rhys always fancied. Unfortunately, he was as unworldly as she was and penniless, and he neither knew about nor cared for literature. They were together for twenty years and, all in all, it was a dreadful marriage. Yet although she made him suffer as she had made her other husbands suffer—she was still beating him up when he was old and dying—she always talked fondly of him after his death, perhaps because, as a loser himself, he was never judgmental toward her.
They settled in Beckenham, a dreary south London suburb and a very long way from the Latin Quarter. Without someone to encourage her and prod her on Rhys stopped writing altogether and devoted her attention exclusively to booze. There were vendettas with the neighbors, screaming matches, physical fights. She was arrested for throwing a brick through a window, for assault, for wandering around in the street, drunk, in her nightgown and slippers. During a period of two years, she was brought up before the magistrates nine times. She became a local freak show, a joke people pointed at, a bag lady. She took to stuffing her handbag with papers “to prove everything I say now,” including a story nobody believed, that she was a writer called Jean Rhys. She also spent a week in the grim women’s prison Holloway, and was ordered by the court to undergo a psychiatric examination. The fact that she was sixty years old and a great writer made no difference at all.
For a brief moment, her identity as a writer was resurrected. An actress called Selma vaz Dias had come across Good Morning, Midnight and adapted it as a dramatic monologue for BBC radio. The BBC didn’t pay much but they were sticklers for professional etiquette and they required the author’s permission. Rhys’s publishers didn’t know where she was, nor did the British consul in Paris. There were rumors that she was dead but no death certificate could be found. So vaz Dias put an advertisement in the New Statesman and Rhys, by some miracle, saw it. The next time she was arrested she was waving a piece of paper and saying “something about the BBC.” Her enemy next door said she was “impersonating a dead writer called Jean Rhys.”
This remission from her sodden, violent, mindless way of life was as short as all her other highs. Before vaz Dias paid her first visit, Rhys was back in front of the magistrates again. Then a worse disaster struck: her husband was brought to trial at the Old Bailey, charged with larceny and obtaining money by false pretenses, sentenced to three years in prison, and struck off the solicitor’s roll. Rhys disappeared. Ms. Angier can find no trace of her until she surfaced a year later in the town of Maidstone, where Hamer was doing time in the local prison.
Bruno Bettleheim once suggested that paranoids seemed to function quite well in the concentration camps because the terrible reality of the world they had been thrust into effortlessly outstripped their wildest fantasies. On a smaller scale, disaster seemed to strengthen Rhys and make her sane. She stopped drinking—or so she told her daughter—and began, briefly, to write again. In the diary she kept while staying at a pub called the Ropemakers’ Arms in Maidstone she turned her, by now, extensive courtroom experience into a kind of spiritual trial, with counsels for the prosecution and defense and herself as prisoner at the bar. When the prosecutor asks her why she says she must write she replies, “If I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people. But it could be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death.”
She was sixty-two when she wrote this and the dream of being “happy and peaceful and obscure” had long been washed away by booze and penury and rage. When she was younger she could get by on her looks and charm but now her looks were gone. (Or so she thought. When I met her in her middle eighties she dressed and made herself up with enormous care to emphasize her marvelous velvet-blue eyes and she still had the slim legs and shy, flirtatious manner of a young girl.) She tended her writing as scrupulously and obsessively as she once tended her physical appearance, and made her prose into what she herself had once been—beautiful. It was the only way left to justify the waste she had made of her life.
Of course, her good resolutions didn’t last. Hamer, who was seventy by then, was released after serving two years. They drifted west to wherever the rent was cheapest—a yacht moored up for the winter in a Welsh estuary, unheated summer chalets in dreary seaside towns—and the boozing and violence started again, compounded by regular bouts of flu, “twice a year and regular as clockwork.” Gradually, however, her luck changed. In 1957 the BBC finally broadcast Selma vaz Dias’s version of Good Morning, Midnight, along with a Radio Times article that said she was working on a new novel. The writer Francis Wyndham, a fan who, the year before, had described her as “the late Jean Rhys,” read the piece and arranged a contract with a London publisher.
The book was Wide Sargasso Sea, the advance was £25, and it was another nine years before it was published. The fact that it was published at all was mostly owing to the devotion and pertinacity of Wyndham and Rhys’s editor, Diana Athill. But they were in London and she was holed up in a draughty jerry-built bungalow in deepest Devon. She always found writing hard and she was hopelessly disorganized; she wrote on scraps of paper and left them scattered all over the cottage, in “plastic bags and hatboxes,…under the bed and the sofa,…on top of wardrobes and inside kitchen cupboards.” Without someone like Ford or Tilden Smith at her elbow to put the manuscript in order, and wrestle it away from her and her obsessional revising, the progress was infinitesimal. Though her incessant rewriting of Sargasso became legendary, she told me that much of the time she had not been rewriting the book at all; she was simply copying it out again and again, maybe changing a word or two in the process. Hamer died the year the book was published and she dedicated it to him, although he probably hadn’t read a word of it and, knowing what it had cost them both, must assuredly have hated it.
It was time for a happy ending, but in fact success changed nothing at all. The boozing and rages continued as before and Rhys behaved shamelessly to anyone who came too close. Near the end, she almost destroyed Diana Melly who, because she loved Rhys’s books and was enchanted by the old lady when she was sober, invited her to stay in her London house one winter. Diana’s husband, the jazz singer and writer George Melly, nicknamed this Woman Who Came to Dinner “Johnny Rotten.”
Rhys was right when she said that only through writing could she earn death. In all other ways, her life was monstrous and the effect of Ms. Angier’s well-meaning biography is to make the reader doubt if any book, however original, however perfect, could be worth the price Rhys and those close to her paid. No wonder she did not want her biography written. Her prose was pure and self-denying and it kept very close to the facts of her life. In doing so, it distilled them, shaped them, made them seem inevitable. But the facts behind the art are shabby and demeaning: booze, rage, sexual manipulation, cultivated passivity, dire ingratitude, and a blank indifference to husbands, lovers, children, friends, and relatives. Ms. Angier’s biography is a powerful argument against biography itself: Jean Rhys was one of the finest writers of the century but the best way to read her work is to know nothing about the woman who wrote it.
October 10, 1991