Jean Rhys a postcultural icon? Pull the other one

Miranda Seymour’s I Used to Live Here Once shows another side to the progressive writer – that of an embittered racist. A review by Sameer Rahim for London’s Telegraph.

Since Jean Rhys’s death 42 years ago, our obsession with her life and work – mostly in that order – has only grown. The legend of Rhys, author of five novels, 50 stories and a memoir, has been burnished by a collection of her letters, biographies by Carole Angier and Lilian Pizzichini, plus memoirs by her editor Diana Athill and by her friend David Plante. Now it is Miranda Seymour’s turn to re-tell the story, with informative new material on her early life in the Caribbean, and a more generous tone than some of her predecessors.

There is certainly plenty to tell. Born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in 1890 to a white family in Dominica, she became a chorus girl in London before moving to Paris and taking up with a bohemian set including her lover and literary champion Ford Madox Ford. Along the way she married a bigamist and later a fraudster, lost a son and gave her daughter to an orphanage. Her stories often feature beautiful, troubled women attached to charismatic, unpleasant men.

Her second novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), portrayed Ford, who had earlier claimed the credit for a translation from French she had done, as a pompous character. Reviewing that novel in this newspaper, Rebecca West called Rhys one of the most interesting writers of her generation, but “enamoured of gloom to an incredible degree”.

By the late 1940s, though, Rhys had fallen so far from fashion that many assumed she was dead. After cajoling from admirers Francis Wyndham and Athill, who regularly visited the reclusive Rhys now living in Devon, in 1966 she eventually produced her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, a dream-like retelling of Jane Eyre from “the other side” – the perspective of the West Indian wife of Mr Rochester. In the 1980s, postcolonial critics seized on it as an early example of the “empire writing back”.

The irony of her elevation to postcolonial feminist icon is that, as Seymour notes, Rhys was hardly a progressive. She often made anti-Semitic remarks and, the descendant of slave-owners, she had an ambivalent relationship with the black population of Dominica. It was her status as a member of a white minority, writes Seymour, that “bred an enduring feeling of alienation”.

'I have a certain power': Rhys was aware of her effect on men
‘I have a certain power’: Rhys was aware of her effect on men 

Rhys had a knack for falling in with abusive men. When she was 14 years old, she was fondled by an older family friend called Mr Howard, who then invited her to become his slave, and “be whipped, bound with ropes of flowers, summoned to wait, naked, upon his fully clothed guests”. Living in London, she modelled nude for the “immensely successful and sexually unscrupulous” Irish artist Sir William Orpen. In a fictionalised version of what Seymour assumes was a real experience, her character is attacked by an artist in a taxi. “I know now that I have a certain power,” says Rhys’s narrator, “and yet, how mean, how mean.”

That “certain power” was her sexual allure, which even though it got her into trouble, was also a useful way into a literary world full of handsy men. In Paris, James Joyce, whose work she loved, unzipped her dress while in a lift – perhaps at Rhys’s instigation.

Joyce’s friend Ford did spot her talent and encouraged her first book, The Left Bank (1927), a series of sketches about Parisian life. He also embroiled her in a ménage à trois with his lover Stella Bowen, with whom Rhys may well also have had an affair. (Seymour, blurring too much the line between life and work, cites as evidence that Rhys “writes about the female body with an appreciation of physical beauty that seems to go well beyond self-regard”.) It was also around this time she renamed herself Jean Rhys.

By 1949 the glamour had gone. She was living in Beckenham with her third husband, a solicitor called Max Hamer, who spotted a magazine advert asking for the whereabouts of Jean Rhys, instigated by Selma Vaz Dias, who wanted to adapt for the BBC her novel Good Morning, Midnight, a failure when it was first published in 1939.

'An enduring feeling of alienation': in her later years, Rhys retreated to a small village in Devon
‘An enduring feeling of alienation’: in her later years, Rhys retreated to a small village in Devon 

The last 30 years of Rhys’s life were spent in a village in Devon called Cheriton Fitzpaine. She was courted by the literati, while working on her fiction and memoir Smile Please. Always fond of a drink, she found the place so dull she insisted “whisky is now a must for me”. Oddly, the more positive attention she got, the more she claimed she was being hounded: “I am envied and hated”; “More than half the population think I am a witch!”

Athill told Seymour she regarded Rhys as a greater writer than the other Caribbean writer with whom she worked, VS Naipaul. “Vidia…was a bit of a genius. But not the real thing. Not like Jean.” Naipaul, for his part, wrote an uncharacteristically generous tribute to Rhys in 1972, identifying himself with an author who moved “from a background of nothing” to “an organised world with which her heroines could never come to terms”. Yet what Seymour sees as her “self-knowledge” others see as self-pity. “She was always incredibly lonely because in her own mind no one else existed,” wrote LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers in 1980.

Rhys was certainly a complex woman. One of the frustrations of Seymour’s biography is the author’s shifting terms of address for her subject: from Gwen to Ella to Jean as well as myriad married names. Yet Seymour’s point is well made: Rhys was a master of transformation, as mixed up as the cocktails she describes being made in one famous story set in Dominica.

Perhaps it’s that ghostly opacity that makes her such an intriguing subject – a writer on whom we can project our own fears and desires. Fittingly, when George Melly visited her during her final stay in hospital in 1979, he noticed that the name written above her bed identified her as “Joan”. To the end, someone was always getting her slightly wrong.


I Used to Live Here Once is published by William Collins at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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