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I Used To Live Here Once

Miranda Seymour

(William Collins, 2022)

Review by Suzanne Harrington


When Anna Morgan, narrator of Jean Rhys’s novel Voyage In The Dark (1934), writes, ‘And when you’d had a drink you knew it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen. I don’t know how people live when they know what’s going to happen to them each day’, you wonder how much the author is throwing her voice.  

 Jean Rhys lived the rootless, shape-shifting life of a chaotic drunk, ceaselessly moving, forever falling out with people. That she managed to write at all is remarkable, never mind being deemed the only ‘genius’ her editor Diana Athill had ever known; more so even than V.S. Naipaul, another Caribbean writer with whom Athill worked: Vidya, she told Miranda Seymour, was ‘a bit of a genius. But not the real thing. Not like Jean.’

 Naipaul himself, in a 1972 essay for the New York Review of Books, was the first major critic to recognise that the women created by Rhys – precarious, watchful characters inhabiting a shabby, twilit bohemia – were not authorial alter egos, but works of fiction, ‘cruder and less gifted than herself’. Rhys, then in her eighties, was moved to tears by his insight.

 Miranda Seymour’s biography of Rhys, named after one of Rhys’s short stories, is not the first – Carole Angier, Lilian Pizzichini, Catherine Rovera have all written about her – but Seymour’s is the real thing. Erudite and meticulous, it is nevertheless something of a page-turner, given the sheer madness of Rhys’s life, and the great beauty and originality of her work. Seymour offers a humane and generous reading of a woman who thumped neighbours and lodgers, brawled with her middle husband (there were three – she outlived them all) and spent time in psychiatric wards and prison, undone by drink in an era where her only therapy was writing.

 Seymour takes us to Dominica, where in 1890 Rhys was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams to a Welsh doctor who loved her and a white Creole mother who did not. Minna Rees Williams, physically abusive and emotionally absent, ‘disliked books, hated cleverness in a woman, and saw no merit in giving her daughters an education’.  Rhys would later write, ‘She couldn’t bear the sight of me’. Rhys was left in the care of a nursemaid who terrified her with obeah zombie stories; at 14, she was sexually abused by a family friend and – blamed for it – was sent away to a convent. ‘Away from her mother, Gwen grew happier’, notes Seymour.  

 At 16, Gwen Rees Williams travelled to England to go to school, but ended up in a chorus line. She wrote continuously, short stories and journals, in exercise books, as she fell in love with a rich young man, Lancey Hugh Smith. When he dumped her, having paid for an abortion, she moved to Paris, then Vienna. Now calling herself Ella, in 1919 she married Jean Lenglet, a Dutch poet and bigamist; they had a baby son who died while they were out drinking, and a daughter, Maryvonne, who spent her early years in orphanages.  

 In the mid 1920s, Rhys – alone in Paris and desperately poor – was discovered by the writer Ford Madox Ford, who put an extract of her work in his literary magazine alongside Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Tristan Tzara. ‘No aspiring writer could have hoped for a more auspicious debut’, writes Seymour. Ford encouraged his new author – and lover – to change her name from Ella Lenglet, and she came up with Jean Rhys.  

 After several collections of short stories, three extraordinary novels followed – After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). These books gave us the Rhys woman – drifting, drinking, raging, vulnerable, hyper-observant, imbued with a ‘savage self-knowledge’. The subjects of her writing ranged far beyond the respectable female realms of the drawing room, the salon and the family, into territories touched upon by men only – the boarding houses, the bars, the bedrooms. Unflinching. Decades ahead of her time.

 And then she vanished. Presumed dead. Instead, Rhys was having alcoholic nervous breakdowns in London suburbs and Devon villages, only to be rediscovered once more by the writer Francis Wyndham, who coaxed into being her masterpiece, fermenting inside Rhys for decades – Wide Sargasso Sea, her hallucinatory prequel to Jane Eyre.  It was published in 1966, and changed her life.  

 Championed now by Wyndham, Sonia Orwell, and Diana Athill, who remarked the same year how ‘disaster seems to be so much her element’, Rhys entered a period of growing fame in her old age.  As an introvert, she hated it. ‘I’m a person at a masked ball without a mask’, she remarked. Instead, she spent her old age sipping whisky and champagne, being cared for by a close circle of loyal literary friends, until her death in 1979. ‘Rhys deserves and demands to stand alone’, concludes Seymour: ‘Writing from pitiless self-knowledge, Jean Rhys addresses the watchful and lonely outsider who lurks within us all’.

Photo courtesy of Almy Stock Photo (Jean Rhys)