I must write. If I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure…. I will not have earned death.
There isn’t an adjective more appropriate than “haunted” to describe the deeply troubled, self-lacerating, and finally (to a degree) triumphant life of the Caribbean-born Jean Rhys. As presented by Miranda Seymour in I Used to Live Here Once, her richly detailed, exhaustively researched, and warmly sympathetic new biography, Rhys appears to have been haunted by memories of her girlhood on the small, largely impoverished island of Dominica, then a British colony. Most vividly and memorably in her later works of fiction—the teasingly elliptical ghost story “I Used to Live Here Once” and the lush, lyric Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a postmodern prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre that is her greatest literary achievement—she evokes the lost Eden of her youth. Like many another writer exiled from her birthplace, Rhys dwelled most productively in the (imagined, reappropriated) past, when, as the child of relatively well-to-do parents, she lived in a large timber-framed corner house in Dominica’s capital, Roseau. Her adult life, however, was spent in cheap Parisian hotels, rented rooms or flats, or dwellings in English villages so cramped, “charmless,” and “wretched” that visitors were scandalized.
“Jean Rhys” was a pen name urged upon the young writer in 1924 by the influential literary figure Ford Madox Ford, her lover and benefactor. She was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in 1890, one of four surviving children of a white Creole mother, whose ancestors had once owned slaves in Dominica and who looked down upon her black island relatives, and a Welshman, a former ship’s doctor who had emigrated in order to work as a medical officer. In the late nineteenth century Dominica was inhabited by fewer than 30,000 people, of whom fewer than one hundred were “white”—then as now, in some quarters, an accursed minority associated with a slaveholding past. Separated from the black islanders, to whom she was attracted (though, like the protagonist of Wide Sargasso Sea, a white Creole girl like Rhys might be taunted by darker-skinned Dominicans as a “white cockroach”), she was also isolated from British-born visitors to the “cruel, caste-conscious little world of Roseau.” A black girl whom she befriended abruptly and inexplicably disappeared from her life, possibly as a consequence of having attracted the attention of a male member of Rhys’s family. “Mixed race,” Seymour writes, “was not uncommon in families like hers.”
The practice of obeah (voodoo) was widespread among the native Dominicans; Rhys’s nursemaid Meta terrorized her with tales of vampires and zombies who, she recalled, “could get through a locked door and you heard them walking up to your bed.” The sinister subterranean power of obeah suffuses the early life of Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea, whose anxieties surely mirror Rhys’s own: “Meta had shown me a world of fear and distrust, and I am still in that world.” She once casually remarked that Dominicans traveled to Haiti to study obeah “just as English students went to Oxford and Cambridge.”
According to Seymour, Rhys resembled neither her father, whose favorite she was and who encouraged her education, nor her mother, who whipped her routinely until she was twelve and who “missed no opportunity to crush and humiliate a daughter of whom she was perhaps a little jealous.” Almost from birth, she felt like an outsider:
I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.
Though Rhys never wrote in depth about the inexplicably hostile, hateful mother who made her girlhood so miserable, it seems likely—indeed inevitable—that her lifelong sense of alienation and chronic depression sprang from her mother’s rejection. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a sense of self-worth after such an early wounding; for an artist, life is combative enough without the added disadvantage of a mother who not only withholds love but deals out corporal punishment. In any case, as Seymour notes, Rhys’s self-identification as an outsider was “the role which would come to fit both the writer and her work as closely as a handstitched glove.”
That she often inhabited a role—that an “unforgiving solipsism was indeed central to Jean Rhys’s work”—is persuasively suggested by Seymour throughout the biography. It might be argued that all artists are obliged to construct personae through which to observe the world, as a photographer requires a camera lens; a female artist of the early twentieth century would have felt particularly obliged to take up a protective role with which to shield her vulnerability. Rhys’s social affect was one of extreme femininity; decades later she recalled herself at the age of seventeen, praying, “Oh, God, let me be pretty when I grow up. Let me be, let me be. Oh, God.”
To Rhys, as to most others of her era, femininity was synonymous with a doll-like prettiness, docility, passivity, though there was a steely will beneath her public mask (often a carefully applied cosmetic mask involving elaborate eye makeup), which would erupt spectacularly when she was older and no longer dependent on attracting the attentions of men. But as a young woman, she seems to have resembled the drifting, seemingly will-less Marya Zelli of her first novel, Quartet (1928), whose life consists almost entirely of time spent in Parisian cafés alone or in the company of men who pay for her drinks:
Marya was a blond girl, not very tall, slender-waisted. Her face was short, high cheek-boned, full-lipped; her long eyes slanted upwards towards the temples and were gentle and oddly remote in expression.
Marya presents herself as a blank slate to men, sexually alluring but not threatening, “the petted, cherished child, the desired mistress, the worshipped, perfumed goddess.”
As a girl, Rhys seems to have conformed, at least outwardly, to the sort of gender-determined behavior appropriate to her class, even as, from an early age, she was an obsessive reader. Despite a curious interregnum in her twenties, when she lived in England, supported herself as a chorus girl, and claimed not to have read a book for years, a love of books was perhaps the most abiding of her loves. She seems to have read virtually everything available to her, beginning with such classics for children as Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels. Her Irish grandmother sent her boxes of books, one of the happy memories of her childhood.
Despite Rhys’s mother’s disinclination to educate her, her father insisted upon sending his daughter to a Catholic convent school in Roseau where, taught by “intelligent and worldly nuns,” the sensitive girl flourished. Still, it was with relief that Rhys left Dominica at the age of sixteen to attend the distinguished and academically demanding Perse High School for Girls in Cambridge, on the ship bound for Southampton, rather coolly thinking, “Already all my childhood, the West Indies, my father and mother had been left behind. I was forgetting them. They were the past.”
As a girl in Dominica, Rhys had, unsurprisingly, attracted the attentions of older men. One of these, Seymour notes, was the “sinister Mr. Howard” (“Captain Cardew” in one of Rhys’s short stories), a friend of her parents’. She recorded in an exercise book at the time: “Fourteen, he says, fourteen is old enough to have a lover… His hand of an old man on my breast felt cold and dead.” Thrown into his company, Rhys had to endure his lurid fantasies of making her his slave, “ready,” Seymour writes, “to be carried off to a distant island where she would obey his every whim: she would be whipped, bound with ropes of flowers, summoned to wait, naked, upon his fully clothed guests.”
Sinister Mr. Howard prefigured a number of older, well-to-do, predatory men who were attracted to the diminutive Rhys, particularly during her hardscrabble years as a chorus girl (under the stage name Ella Gray); an undertone of sadomasochist fantasy suffuses virtually all of her works of fiction, as in the more self-consciously erotic fantasies of her younger contemporary Anaïs Nin. Repeatedly, naive young women are exploited by men who, though physically unattractive, even repellent, exert a perverse sort of charisma, like the manipulative Hugh Heidler of Quartet, modeled on Ford:
He had oddly shaped eyelids, three cornered eyelids over pale, clever eyes. Not at all an amiable looking person. But nevertheless not without understanding, for every time that her glass was empty he refilled it. She began to feel miraculously reassured, happy and secure.
Marya is easily seduced:
He wasn’t a good lover, of course. He didn’t really like women. She had known that as soon as he touched her. His hands were inexpert, clumsy at caresses; his mouth was hard when he kissed…. He despised love. He thought of it grossly, to amuse himself, and then with ferocious contempt.
Eventually her submission is complete:
He whispered: “Open your eyes, savage. Open your eyes, savage.”
She opened her eyes and said: “I love you, I love you, I love you. Oh, please be nice to me. I love you.”
She was quivering and abject in his arms, like some unfortunate dog abasing itself before its master.
In 1919 Rhys, somewhat impulsively and against the advice of her older lover/protector at the time, married a twenty-eight-year-old Dutchman named Jean Lenglet, who happened to be already married. Dazzled by Lenglet’s handsome face and seductive manner and the illusion he gave that he was wealthy, Rhys seems to have been a victim of a skilled con man, French spy (in England), and habitual embezzler and thief who was soon incarcerated in a French prison. Nonetheless, Rhys remained deeply in love with Lenglet for years; they did not divorce until 1932. She had two children with him: William, who died at the age of three weeks in 1920 of pneumonia while his parents were out “drinking champagne with a friend,” and Maryvonne, born in 1922, who survived to figure intermittently in her mother’s chaotic life.
It was during Lenglet’s incarceration that Rhys met Ford—“Silenus in tweeds,” according to the artist Paul Nash—a notorious but kindhearted womanizer who would become the most valuable of her older-male protectors, introducing her to the expatriate coterie in Paris, which included, famously, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce; and to the work of Joseph Conrad, Guy de Maupassant, and Colette. Eventually, Ford tired of his unstable young mistress’s emotional outbursts and broke with her by leaving Paris for New York City.
By this time, encouraged in her writing by Ford, Rhys was completing Quartet, in which thinly disguised characters based on Ford, his common-law wife, Stella, and Rhys’s reprobate husband, Lenglet, figure prominently. The slender novel is suffused with the air of youthful melancholy and cynicism that characterizes Hemingway’s far more acclaimed first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), set in much the same milieu:
The Place Blanche, Paris, Life itself. One realized all sorts of things. The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance.
Marya takes as consolation the pitying remarks of a Parisian sculptor: “You’re a victim. There’s no endurance in your face. Victims are necessary so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong.” Significantly, Quartet ends with Marya’s ex-convict husband murdering her for having been unfaithful to him.
In addition to Quartet, Rhys published three similar, slender novels during this early phase of her career, each of them from the perspective of what Seymour calls “the Rhys woman”: After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). In exhaustive detail Seymour traces the ways in which Rhys transformed fairly ordinary autobiographical material into fiction, writing of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie:
Rhys’s genius—still not fully flowered in her fortieth year, but growing at an astonishing rate—lay in her unfailing ability to create, within fewer than 150 pages, a world that is both uniquely alien and recognisably mundane.
In Rhys’s artful variations on the theme of acute female sensitivity conjoined with a fatal passivity, as in the purposeful smallness of her fictional worlds, she is a precursor of sorts to Anita Brookner, though more willing to explore the sleazier depths of female experience than Brookner was; she is more naturally akin to Colette or Nin, who also wrote of ménages à trois in which a sensitive young ingenue is seduced by an older, manipulative couple.
After this highly promising start to her career, Rhys did not publish another novel for nearly thirty years. World War II and its aftermath were not hospitable to her particular sort of talent, though she continued to write short fiction, which was eventually gathered in Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off Lady (1976) and posthumously reprinted in her Collected Short Stories (1987). Rhys was twice widowed after her divorce from Lenglet, by men who seem to have been devoted to her (Leslie Tilden Smith, Max Hamer) despite her violent oscillations of mood, her heavy drinking, and her propensity to brawl with them publicly; it does not escape Seymour’s notice that one night in February 1942 she caused a fracas by shouting “Heil Hitler” while she and Tilden Smith were drinking at a country pub in the east of England.
When she was drinking, which was frequently, Rhys was likely to get into physical altercations with astonished neighbors; once she “rashly called the constable ‘a dirty Jew.’ After hitting and even biting him, she accused the bewildered officer of belonging to the Gestapo.” On another occasion she was so ill-behaved that she was incarcerated briefly in a prison hospital on a charge of disturbing the peace, and later Hamer was more seriously incarcerated on a charge of fraud. Ostracized as a public nuisance, the frail Rhys was finally banished by the Bromley Court from Beckenham, the London borough where Hamer had bought a house—surely a unique distinction for someone subsequently honored with both the W.H. Smith Literary Award and the Heinemann Award. As her devoted editor Diana Athill wryly observed, “Disaster seems to be so much her element.”
Despite the vicissitudes of her later life, about which we come to know a dispiriting amount in the concluding chapters of I Used to Live Here Once, in March 1966 Rhys finally finished her fifth and most accomplished novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which she had begun planning before World War II. Published in 1967 to disappointingly obtuse reviews, her deftly executed “prequel” to the Gothic-Romantic melodrama Jane Eyre gathered acclaim by degrees, winning awards, assuming a place as a major English work of fiction of the twentieth century, and becoming a staple of university courses in contemporary English literature, Caribbean literature, postcolonial literature, and gender and women’s studies.
Rhys had said, Seymour writes, that she’d long wanted to “redress the injury done by Charlotte Brontë to the white Creole class of which Rhys herself was a member”—reclaiming the madwoman Bertha, Rochester’s despised wife, whose rival is the governess Jane Eyre. Rhys brilliantly reimagines Bertha as Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress of nineteenth-century Dominica, before the abolition of slavery, who is seduced by the English fortune hunter Rochester, unwisely marries him, and is brought to the punishingly cold climate of England, where she deteriorates into the “madwoman” Bertha locked in the attic in Rochester’s manor house. In Wide Sargasso Sea the quintessential “Rhys woman”—the intensely female “victim”—is given a historic and political significance through her identity as a white Creole woman appropriated, misused, and betrayed by a figure of the English aristocracy; in a sense, Rhys’s very narcissism becomes a virtue, transcending the particularities of her own identity and suggesting the “victimhood” of colonials by imperialist Britain.
Despite her alcoholism, her chronic ill health, and the general chaos of her life, Rhys not only lived to the age of eighty-eight but was working until shortly before her death in May 1979; her last book, Smile Please: An Unpublished Autobiography, was published that same month, with an excellent introduction by Athill that focuses on her as a highly disciplined prose stylist for whom revision was obsessive and necessary, rather more than as a figure of somewhat lurid celebrity. As Rhys said, “A novel has to have a shape, and life doesn’t have any.” Athill observes:
When [Rhys] wrote a novel it was because she had no choice, and she did it—or “it happened to her”—for herself, not for others… A novel, once it had possessed her, would dictate its own shape and atmosphere, and she could rely on her infallible instinct to tell her what her people would say and do.
Smile Please includes fragmentary prose passages akin to a personal journal in which Rhys admonishes herself to write write write all night even as she castigates herself for the many failures of her personal life. A relentless interlocutor (the internalized voice of her mother?) pursues her until she admits defeat: “I am tired. I learnt everything too late. Everything was always one jump ahead of me.”
Rhys was strongly opposed to a biography, fearing (with justification) that much in her life that was sordid, petty, and shameful would be brought to light, including unfounded claims that Ford was the father of one of her children. In her later years, after the success of Wide Sargasso Sea brought her a belated and not always pleasurable literary celebrity, including requests to attend public events that she could not always decline, the reclusive writer found herself surrounded by editors, journalists, self-appointed caretakers, hangers-on, and sycophants (predominantly the young American writer David Plante, who befriended the elderly Rhys, only to write about her with misogynist contempt in his memoir Difficult Women). It was a shifting pack, some of whom (Athill, Francis Wyndham) genuinely cared for her as a person as well as a writer, while others appear to have been prurient witnesses to her physical decline. Seymour summarizes Rhys’s exasperation with these people: “And why must they regard every careless word she uttered—after the couple of stiff drinks required for the ordeal of being interrogated—as gospel truth?”
Following Rhys’s death, Athill and Wyndham gave permission to a number of writers to quote from her letters and manuscripts, and approved a short biography, aptly titled The Blue Hour (2009), by Lilian Pizzichini, as well as this surely definitive study by Seymour, the author of acclaimed biographies of subjects as diverse as Mary Shelley, Robert Graves, Ottoline Morrell, and, most recently, Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace, the wife and daughter of Lord Byron. The biographer’s voice in I Used to Live Here Once is a steadying principle throughout the turbulent, disjointed life of Jean Rhys, corrective when necessary, at times rueful, bemused, but never intrusive or judgmental: “Writing from pitiless self-knowledge, Jean Rhys addresses the watchful and lonely outsider who lurks within us all.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified The Blue Hour as the first biography of Jean Rhys.