By Miranda Seymour

William Collins. 425 pages. £25. ISBN 978-O-OO-835325-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I am looking at a copy of The Transatlantic Review, a magazine edited by Ford Madox Ford from Paris. It’s dated December, 1924, and the list of contributors includes Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon, Tristan Tzara, and Jean Rhys. Her story is entitled “Vienne”, and a note says that it’s an excerpt from a novel called Triple Sec which remained unpublished in its complete form. But the presence of the story in a publication which had status in the world of the literary avant-garde of the Twenties brought its author to the attention of people who knew and cared about new writing.   

Jean Rhys was born on Dominica, a “small and sternly beautiful Caribbean island”, in 1890. Rhys wasn’t her real name which was Ella Gwendoline Williams. Her father was Welsh and had been a ship’s doctor but had set up a practice on shore. Her mother was Irish and had been born on the island so was classified as a “white creole” in the same way that her daughter would be, a fact that had relevance in terms of jean Rhys’s later experiences. Gwen, as she was called at home, was discouraged from associating with darker skinned relatives. Miranda Seymour has some useful things to say about distinctions between the minority white population of Dominica and the coloured people who constituted the majority. Power and wealth were largely in the hands of the whites when Rhys was growing up. But she had a nursemaid who told her tales of witchcraft, Obeah and Zombies. Rhys later said, “Meta had shown me a world of fear and distrust. I am still in that world”.  

She was brought up in the Anglican faith but was sent to a Catholic Convent school. Seymour offers a vivid account of Rhys’s adventures as a young girl, including probing into the “forbidden world of the islanders”, and her love of reading. It’s of some importance to know about her background in order to understand why Rhys always felt like an outsider and often looked back wistfully to some aspects of her earlier life in Dominica. At the school she was introduced to French poetry. At home her unsympathetic mother punished her for any infraction of the set rules of behaviour and told her, “You’ll never be like other people”.

In 1907 she was sent to school in England where, as a colonial with an accent (she had what was described as a sing-song voice), she was ridiculed by other girls. She had ambitions to go on the stage, and in 1909 gained a place at Sir Herbert Tree’s Acting School. Her accent worked against her taking on leading roles and she eventually joined the chorus of a touring musical comedy group which visited places like Oldham and Southport. The life of a chorus girl with its sequences of dingy lodgings, cheap meals, and different men with the same idea in mind, is evoked in Voyage in the Dark, Rhys’s third novel published in 1934.

She worked in pantomime and in the chorus for a 1911 production of Franz Lehar’s The Count of Luxembourg, but it was evident that she was going nowhere as an actress, and was struggling to keep afloat financially. When a wealthy admirer, Hugh Lancelot Smith, offered to support her she took to the arrangement quite willingly. She soon had to have an abortion and her liaison with Lancelot Smith came to an end, though he continued to keep in touch with her and bail her out when she had money problems. She worked as a film extra and as a model for the artists Sir Edward Poynter and William Orpen. And she frequented Augustus John’s club, The Crabtree, where she mixed with Nina Hamnett, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, and Wyndham Lewis. There are references to the club in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, which appeared in 1930.

Rhys helped out in a canteen catering for soldiers during the First World War, and in 1919 met Jean Lenglet, a Dutchman with a somewhat shady background. She was warned against involvement with him but their relationship developed and they married, despite Lenglet already having a wife. A job for Lenglet with the Inter-Allied Commission took them to Vienna (see the story I mentioned earlier) and Budapest. Rhys gave birth to a son, William, who died.  But Lenglet had been embezzling money from the Commission and was arrested and imprisoned. An idea of how Rhys survived can be gleaned from her story, “Hunger”. She had another child, a girl named Maryvonne, who was “cared for at a series of baby shelters or orphanages”. When she grew up Maryvonne opted to live with her father in Holland just before the Nazis invaded. Both became involved with the Dutch Resistance.

I’m moving quickly through the facts of what was frankly a somewhat rackety life. Rhys ended up in Paris where she met Ford Madox Ford, and had an affair with him which later provided the basis for her novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, published in 1930. It was during her time in Paris that her first book, The Left Bank, a collection of stories, was published in 1927. Seymour gives a full account of Rhys’s involvement with Ford and his wife, Stella Bowen. Whatever the facts, there’s no doubt that, from a literary point of view, Ford was of great use to her, both in terms of advising on her writing and widening her choice of reading. Like virtually all of Rhys’s work the stories in The Left Bank were autobiographical, so it is possible to identify many of the real people behind their fictional counterparts. For example, Seymour says that a staid English couple in “La Grosse Fifi” were probably based on the artist Paul Nash and his wife.

The marriage with Lenglet having foundered Rhys took up with Leslie Tilden Smith, who soon became her second husband. A heavy drinker, like her, he acted as her agent, and regularly argued and even physically fought with her. The marriage survived, despite the couple’s financial and other problems. Rhys’s novels, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight were published in 1934 and 1939 respectively, but after that there was what became a long silence insofar as publishing was concerned. And Rhys’s behaviour tended to work against her widening her reputation in the London literary world, not to mention any kind of respectability among neighbours. When intoxicated she could quickly turn both orally and physically aggressive. She was arrested in Soho for drunkenness and fighting with her husband. When she moved to live in a village in Norfolk in 1940 while her husband was in the RAF she quickly fell out with the locals and was again arrested for being drunk and disorderly. “I Spy a Stranger”, one of Rhys’s excellent wartime stories (“rich in black humour”, in Seymour’s words), is illustrative of how she saw her situation with regard to other people. She was always the outsider.

Tilden Smith died in 1945, and in 1946 a collection of Rhys’s stories was rejected as being “too dark”. She continued to drink, and in 1947 married Max Hamer, a man described as “unreliable”. There were more disputes with neighbours, one of which involved her throwing a brick through a window, and another a confrontation with a policeman. Hamer was arrested and charged with attempted fraud when he stole several cheques from his employer. Again, I’m compressing details of Rhys’s life and activities. Seymour covers them fully and they can occasionally make for fairly depressing reading. Perhaps the one positive aspect of this period is that Rhys did continue to write and was working on what was to become her most well-known work, The Wide Sargasso Sea, though it wouldn’t be published until 1966.

In the meantime a few people tried to keep track of her. She had admirers, among them Alan Ross, Lucian Freud, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Francis Wyndham, Sonia Orwell, Diana Athill, and Selma Vaz Dias. There were occasional glimpses of her when the BBC broadcast a radio adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight, and short-stories appeared in Art & Literature and the London Magazine. But the usual problems of poverty and excessive drinking continued. Rhys’s brother bought her a cottage in the Devonshire village of Cheriton Fitzpaine, though she complained about the local people and feeling isolated. Seymour is of the opinion that, in fact, Rhys’s loneliness “was always more of a state of mind than a fact of her existence”. People helped her in various ways, and the well-educated local vicar often visited to talk about books and other matters. He encouraged her to continue writing when she was depressed and about to give up. But she shocked other people with her drunkenness and her rages. An attack on a neighbour in 1964 led to her brother having her sent to a mental health clinic for observation and possible treatment.

When Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966 her fortunes began to improve. Thanks to her supporters the book received advance publicity and was guaranteed reviews in the right places. Not all of them were positive. Kay Dick dismissed it as an “awkward annotation” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Alan Ross said it was just “romantic evocation”. But Rhys’s creation of the story of the mad woman locked in Mr Rochester’s attic proved popular. I have to admit to preferring Rhys’s other writings to this book. Stories of chorus girls in pre-1914 London, and bohemians in 1920s Paris, are, for me, of greater interest, and the way in which they are written has more appeal. Their simple sentence structures, the directness, and the moods they evoke are to my taste. But that’s a personal opinion, and the fact is that sufficient people bought Wide Sargasso Sea to bring Rhys’s name to greater prominence and to provide her with financial security. She didn’t write another novel, but she could still turn out fine short-stories. A couple of late ones are worth noting. “Kismet” takes us back to the pre-1914 world of shabby theatre dressing-rooms and the tawdry lives of chorus girls. And there is the wonderfully brief and chilling ghost-story, “I Used to Live Here Once”, which ought to be held up as an example to budding writers of how to make an impact with a minimum of words.  

There’s no doubt that Rhys could be hard work to be close to. Seymour makes it clear that even her most-devoted friends, who had tolerated her drinking and requests for loans that would most likely never be repaid, were glad that she continued to live in Devon: “Absence made it possible for them to retain real tenderness for a stubborn old woman whose child-like need for sympathy and attention could - and increasingly often did – become relentless. What almost certainly would have killed off such unstinting affection was the greater trial of daily proximity”.  The easy-going George Melly and his wife, with whom Rhys lived for a time, eventually grew tired of her demands and asked her to leave. She spent her final years in Cheriton Fitzpatrick and died after a fall in 1979.

Good writing doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, but when all the anecdotes and gossip are done with what remains is, as Rhys herself said, the work. There’s no doubt in my mind that her four early novels, and her short stories, constitute a body of writing that deserves to last. I’m not forgetting Wide Sargasso Sea, simply stating my preference for the other books. But I have to admit that it may be the one she will be remembered for.

Miranda Seymour’s biography has all the information about Rhys’s often-chaotic life that a reader might need. And she looks closely at the novels and stories, and shows how they drew on her life for their inspiration. But the point I would make is that it isn’t necessary to have that information, nor to know about the real-life characters behind the fictional ones, to enjoy what Rhys produced. She didn’t deal in facts and, as Seymour herself says, “It’s seldom useful or enlightening to attempt to overanalyse Rhys’s fiction”.  I respect what biographers and academics do, but I like to think that Jean Rhys can be assured that her reputation will rest on her books and not on any kind of notoriety she attracted because of her waywardness and indiscretions.