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In a late short story by Jean Rhys, a woman sees a pair of children standing near a house that is very familiar to her, by an exotic, flowering tree. “I used to live here once,” she tells them. They can’t see that she’s there; she is a ghost, haunting her old home. This story lends its title to Miranda Seymour’s new biography, which places Rhys’s upbringing in the Caribbean at the centre 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 slaveowners on the island of Dominica, “[t]he island which haunted her mind and almost everything that she wrote” and “the wellspring of Rhys’s art”. For the rest of her life Rhys would feel as though she belonged nowhere – not on the island where she felt so at home, and not in England, where she would always be seen as an outsider, her very voice, with its “seemingly ineradicable island lilt” betraying her origins.
This is not the first big biography of Rhys; 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). So long, that is, as they sensitively and rigorously attempt to understand this complex woman – particularly the relationship between her turbulent life and her brilliant work.
Seymour’s biography excels in conjuring up Rhys as an actual person, especially in the early years
This is where Seymour’s biography excels – in conjuring up Rhys as an actual person, especially in the early years: a born rebel; “delicate” but determined; a perennial outsider. Through a lifetime that included two world wars, the death of a child, her own imprisonment and that of two of her husbands, poverty, rejection, desperation, obsession and breakdown, this delicate young woman became a belligerent drunk, who would “spit, bite, or scratch a perceived opponent”. Into the work it went, writes Seymour; “all became grist to Rhys’s fiction-making mill”.
Rhys wrote from a very young age, but it was in London during the first world war, after a devastating affair that led to an illegal abortion, that she started writing something between a diary and the staging ground for her future works of fiction. She continued – in a series of exercise books – through her move to Paris with her first husband (an erratic Dutchman called Jean Lenglet who nevertheless comes across, in Seymour’s account, as a stalwart source of love and support in Rhys’s life, as well as a brave resistance fighter during the second world war). “Glimpses of the world through which she drifted […] appear in the stories that now began to take their final form from pages of urgently scrawled notes,” Seymour writes.
Around this time Rhys fell under the tutelage of novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford, who would become her lover as well as her mentor. That, 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 her late-in-life rediscovery and the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea. At this point her fortunes turned, and her life became somewhat more comfortable – just in time, we might observe with mordant, Rhysian irony, for old age with all its discomforts to set in.
More than Rhys’s previous biographers, Seymour distinguishes clearly and conscientiously between the person and the work. “At the centre of Rhys’s life,” she explains, “stood her writing, a resource that is entirely absent from the lives of the women she described in her novels.” Her fiction consistently represents women who are poor and friendless; Seymour’s biography tells a different story, 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 that she was able to draw on her own experiences of alienation and exclusion to write these fictions of the downtrodden. By reading the fiction too closely to the life, we risk obscuring that literary achievement.
Seymour returns to her leitmotif of Rhys as ghost – a frequent touchstone is one of Rhys’s favourite books, Nadja, André Breton’s 1928 novel. “I am a wandering soul,” Nadja tells the narrator. But Breton reserved a sad fate for his antiheroine, cruelly banishing her to an asylum at the end of the novel; she cannot be integrated into the mainstream world the narrator himself inhabits. And though Rhys wandered – Seymour pays keen attention to her various places of residence – in the end, she was happy to settle down in Devon, with her garden and her view of the nearby fields, relieved when her editor Diana Athill’s attempts to move her somewhere more salubrious fell through.
Seymour reserves most space for discussions of Wide Sargasso Sea, which some consider Rhys’s masterpiece. One moment in her reading stands out, in the context of Seymour’s interest in ghostliness: “Locked away by a husband who scorns and seeks to banish her (‘She was only a ghost. A ghost in the grey daylight’), Antoinette refuses to become another in that anonymous throng of nameless sufferers, that nearly inaudible incantation from the depths of the Great Forest”. It was reading this passage that I realised: Rhys’s fiction is an attempt to prove that she has been there, lived there, dwelled there; that the ghostly women she conjures up eluded even those they were standing before, plain as day. Rhys wrote to keep from becoming a ghost.
• I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys is published by William Collins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.