In a late short story by Jean Rhys, a woman sees a couple of children standing near a very familiar house, near an exotic flowering tree. “I lived here once,” she told them. They can’t see she’s there; she is a ghost, haunting her former home. This story gives its title to Miranda Seymour’s new biography, which places Rhys’ upbringing in the Caribbean at the center of the narrative. She was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother descended from slave owners on the island of Dominica, “[t]the island that haunted her mind and almost everything she wrote” and “the source of Rhys’ art”. For the rest of her life, Rhys would feel like she didn’t belong anywhere – not on the island where she felt so at home, and not in England, where she would always be seen as an outsider, her voice even, with its “seemingly ineradicable sound”. island rhythm” betraying its origins.
This is not Rhys’ first major biography; Carole Angier’s 1990 study is richly detailed and still holds up. But as one of the major writers of the 20th century, Rhys deserves as many biographies as people want to write (or read). Suffice to say that they attempt with sensitivity and rigor to understand this complex woman – in particular the relationship between her eventful life and her brilliant work.
This is where Seymour’s biography excels – in evoking Rhys as a real person, especially in the early years: a born rebel; “delicate” but determined; a perennial outsider. In a life marked by two world wars, the death of a child, her own incarceration and that of two of her husbands, poverty, rejection, despair, obsession and breakdown, this delicate young wife became a belligerent drunk, who “spit, bite, or claw at a perceived adversary”. In labor he went, Seymour writes; “all became water for Rhys’ fictional mill”.
Rhys wrote from an early age, but it was in London during World War I, after a devastating affair that led to an illegal abortion, that she began to write something between a diary and the stage of his future works of fiction. She continued – in a series of notebooks – through her move to Paris with her first husband (an erratic Dutchman called Jean Lenglet who nevertheless appears, in Seymour’s account, as an unwavering source of love and support in life de Rhys, as well as a brave resistant during the Second World War). Glimpses of the world through which she drifted […] appear in the stories that were now beginning to take their final shape from pages of urgently scribbled notes,” Seymour writes.
At this time, Rhys falls under the tutelage of novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford, who will become his lover as well as his mentor. This too would end badly. She and Lenglet divorced in 1933, and there followed a hand-to-mouth existence with two subsequent husbands, which left Rhys languishing in squalid bungalows around Cornwall and Devon until his belated rediscovery and publication of Wide Sargasso Sea. At this point, his fortunes turned and his life became a little more comfortable – just in time, we could watch with biting, Rhysian irony, as old age with all its discomforts sets in.
More than previous biographers of Rhys, Seymour clearly and conscientiously distinguishes the person from the work. “At the center of Rhys’ life,” she explains, “was her writing, a resource utterly absent from the lives of the women she portrays in her novels.” Her fiction consistently depicts poor, friendless women; Seymour’s biography tells a different story, that of a woman who saw her fortunes fall and rise, but who was supported by caring friends and lovers, as well as her daughter Maryvonne. It was Rhys’s great gift as a novelist and short story writer to have been able to draw on her own experiences of alienation and exclusion to write these fictions of the oppressed. By reading fiction too closely to life, we risk obscuring this literary success.
Seymour returns to his leitmotif of Rhys as a ghost – a frequent touchstone is one of Rhys’ favorite books, Nadja, André Breton’s 1928 novel. “I am a wandering soul”, Nadja tells the narrator . But Breton reserves a sad fate for his anti-heroine, relegating her cruelly to an asylum at the end of the novel; it cannot be integrated into the dominant world that the narrator himself inhabits. And although Rhys wandered – Seymour pays great attention to her various places of residence – in the end she was happy to settle in Devon, with her garden and view of nearby fields, relieved when her editor Diana Athill tried to move her. a healthier place has fallen.
Seymour reserves the most space for discussions of Wide Sargasso Sea, which some consider Rhys’ masterpiece. One moment in her reading stands out, in the context of Seymour’s interest in the ghostly: “Locked in by a husband who despises her and seeks to banish her (‘She was but a ghost. A ghost in the light gray of the day”), Antoinette refuses to become another in this anonymous crowd of nameless patients, this almost inaudible incantation from the depths of the Great Forest”. It was while reading this passage that I realized: Rhys’ fiction is an attempt to prove that she has been there, lived there, lived there; that the ghostly women she evokes eluded even those before whom they stood, clear as day. Rhys wrote so as not to become a ghost.