I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour review

This biography of the Wide Sargasso Sea author comes close to being a masterpiece. A review by John Walsh for The Times of London.

The novelist Jean Rhys was a nervous 11-year-old growing up in the Caribbean island of Dominica when, in August 1902, her mother woke her up to show her a black cloud spreading above the hills of neighbouring Martinique. Soon after the Mont Pelée volcano erupted, showering deadly burning ash on to the capital, St Pierre, and its 40,000 inhabitants.

Rhys’s father went to inspect the terrible sight, and returned with souvenirs — two brass church candlesticks twisted into a hideous contortion — which he hung on the wall of the family’s dining room. In her story Heat, Rhys wrote, “I stared at them all through meals, trying to make sense of the shape.”

Gazing at the grotesque, watching the onrush of disaster, feeling fear in domestic settings — all were central to Rhys’s childhood. As a white Creole (meaning simply someone born on Dominica) she was taunted by locals as a “white cockroach”. When carnival dancers arrived in town, one shrieked at her and poked a thick tongue through his wire-mesh mask, sending her running away, crying. Her nursemaid, Meta, terrified her with stories of red-eyed women creeping into children’s bedrooms at night to suck their blood. Even in a sunlit glade near the family summer home she found herself trembling with fear.

Rhys remained bloody-minded to the end

Her parents’ treatment didn’t help. Her mother, Minna, flogged her with a whip and told her she was too ugly to interest men. Her doctor father, William, doted on her, but when gentlemen friends visited he encouraged her to perch on their knees. It seemed natural for her to be taken, at 14, for drives in the Botanic Gardens with a family friend, Mr Howard, who groped her breasts and told her they would live on a distant island where she’d obey his every whim.

In her 1979 memoir Smile Please Rhys said that almost from birth she had felt like “an outsider; a changeling; a ghostly revenant in the hard light of day”. The women in her stories and novels don’t fit the worlds they inhabit either. They are alienated, angry and exploited, surviving by being witty and tough-minded (although perhaps too dependent on drink). And in her finest work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Rhys took Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic” in Jane Eyre, and retold her story as Antoinette Cosway, an independent-minded, Creole mirror of Jane — a real literary revenant.

Given her childhood, it was understandable that Rhys was delighted when her aunt Clarice volunteered to take her to England at 17. Dreaming of becoming a great actress like Sarah Bernhardt, she showed promise in early stage roles, but her lilting Creole voice meant she would never be a serious actress, and she was called home. She refused to go, and joined a touring company as a chorus girl. There follows a louche chronicle of demimondaine squalor, suave gentlemen, grinding poverty, arty clubs that opened at midnight, rackety travels to Paris, Vienna and London — in prewar Chelsea she could be found dancing at the Crab Tree Club beside Ezra Pound, Walter Sickert and Dora Carrington — and lots of sex.

She married three times. Husband No 1, Jean Lenglet, was a Belgian man of mystery, a spy, embezzler, bigamist and jailbird. No 2, Leslie Tilden-Smith, a publisher’s reader and freelance editor, came a financial cropper after the Wall Street Crash and spent years in a coma. Last came Max Hamer, charming, cheerful and fatally susceptible to every plausible conman in England; he wound up in Maidstone prison for attempted fraud.

Rhys, left, with George Melly, behind

Along the way Rhys had a passionate affair with Ford Madox Ford, the portly yet sexually irresistible literary impresario. Their tormented entanglement with Ford’s lover Stella Bowen was told in Quartet (1928), Rhys’s claustrophobic first novel. At the time the editor of The Transatlantic Review, Ford helped Rhys to write the tiny, pungent stories of down-and-out Paris life that became her first collection, The Left Bank (1927). Through him she met Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, but kept what Miranda Seymour calls “a maddening discretion” about her amours.

With war becoming imminent in 1939, nobody wanted to read Rhys’s fourth novel, the terminally despairing Good Morning Midnight, and she virtually disappeared from public view. Her fondness for whisky led to public scenes; she would fly into rages at any mild remark, scream, spit and lash out. Court appearances in Bromley were frequent. When she shouted “Heil Hitler!” in a country pub, her husband was asked to leave the RAF.

Amazingly her career was saved in 1949 by a Dutch actress, Selma Vaz Dias, who put a small ad in the New Statesman, asking if anyone knew of Rhys’s whereabouts. The women exchanged letters: the actress had fallen in love with Good Morning Midnight and wanted to perform it. Rhys was ecstatic and bragged about it in her London suburb, after which an unimpressed neighbour emptied a rubbish bin over her head. After the ensuing melee Rhys and her husband were banned from living in Beckenham.

I had expected the final 100 pages to be all geriatric decline, but they are full of incident. Her stories were brought back into the light; after the publication of Sargasso in 1966 critics such as Al Alvarez wrote glowing encomia, calling her “the best living English novelist”. Agents fought to control her film and TV rights. In 1978 the Queen conferred a CBE on her wizened frame. Rhys died a year later, aged 88.

To the end she remained bloody-minded. One day she was enjoying a spliff at the home of George and Diana Melly; the next she was wielding a knife and calling Diana “the enemy”.

This is a first-class life and a rollicking read. Seymour skilfully interweaves the autographical stories and novels with the people and fortunes in Rhys’s crazily adventurous life. She’s warmly sympathetic to the young ingénue of 17, and only slightly less so to the old bat of 87. She’s also the only Rhys biographer who travelled to Dominica to see what it was about the island — its colours, smells, conflicted history and voodoo sorcery — that haunted Rhys all her days but fired her imagination. The result is close to a masterpiece.

I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour William Collins £25 pp448

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