The London Times has just published its review of The Blue Hour, the new biography of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini. As a biographer myself (I wrote a biography of Rhys’s friend Phyllis Shand Allfrey and am hard at work on a maddeningly complicated biography of Cuban patriot José Martí), I have a stomach-churning feeling about a book whose reviewer begins by asserting that . . .
“Few writers have made such a mess of their life as Jean Rhys. We should be grateful she did, otherwise we should not have her novels. They are all versions of her autobiography — not excluding her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, though it is disguised as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre — and they all draw their power from the pain and rage she felt at the way people, especially men, had treated her. The thought of it never ceased to torment her, and it brought her close to madness. But she could not write about anything else. She is a classic case of the cruel price art exacts from life.”
Poor Jean Rhys. It strikes me as a disservice to her talent to reduce her searing commitment to her art to merely a confessional impulse. I have only read an extract from the new biography (see my post of April 25, “New Biography of Jean Rhys”), but there is plenty of evidence there, and in the details of the review, that Ms Pizzichini has concluded that there is no dividing line between Rhys’s life and her fiction. The incontrovertible fact is that there is such a line and we cross it at our peril as biographers. I have a queasy feeling about this…
You can, however, make up your own mind by reading the review at