In 1974, at the age of eighty-four, Jean Rhys was asked in a television interview whether she would prefer to write or be happy were she to live her life over again. ‘Oh, happiness!’ she replied without missing a beat.
Rhys had been channelling unhappiness since the publication of her first volume of short stories in 1927. The four novels she published before the war chart journeys that go from bad to worse for heroines who end up alone in dreary hotel rooms. Ford Madox Ford, her much older mentor and unfaithful lover, said she had a ‘terrific – an almost lurid! – passion for stating the case of the underdog’ as well as a ‘singular instinct for form’. The novels are spare, witty and completely unsentimental. Her protagonists sometimes dwell on who they were or might have been if their looks hadn’t faded or their lovers had been kinder or their babies hadn’t died. Their creator never falters in her acknowledgement that they are who they’ve become.
After years of neglect and obscurity, Rhys emerged as a grand old lady of English letters. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) marked the change. In the wake of its success, her prewar novels were republished and her wartime stories appeared for the first time. Money was no longer a problem. Rhys enjoyed annual London breaks from her solitary life in the Devon village of Cheriton Fitzpaine, where she had long been taken for a witch. She was pin-thin, often drunk by lunchtime and sometimes sported a wonky wig. After her death, she became the star turn in a memoir called Difficult Women by David Plante, a young American who had volunteered to help with her autobiography. That book, Smile Please (1979), remained unfinished and was published to little notice after her death. In it, Rhys described her white Creole inheritance growing up on the West Indian island of Dominica. The book also touched on her rackety life in England between the ages of seventeen and twenty-nine, before she escaped to Paris in 1919.
Biographers have given Jean Rhys an easier time than she had in real life. Her first, Carole Angier, in 1990 produced a marvel of detective work and imagination. Her account of Rhys’s life is interspersed with speculations and insights in italics, giving her sprawling project an atmosphere of urgency. Angier ends up seeking opinions on her wayward subject from professionals, with whose help she labels Rhys not as mad but as suffering from a personality disorder – an underwhelming conclusion to an otherwise brilliant book. Angier’s book was followed by Lilian Pizzichini’s The Blue Hour (2009), a much briefer attempt to ‘recapture’ key moments of the life as they might have felt to the author. It is an engrossing and persuasive read, though it depends for much of its power on the idea that a fiction writer’s feelings about the world can be deduced, more or less, from their fiction.
Miranda Seymour in her new biography takes fewer liberties than her predecessors and presents a more industrious, less delinquent Rhys. In some respects, this is the Rhys of the Letters (1984), which covered the years between 1931 and 1966 and revealed how much the reclusive author cared about her writing. Seymour’s portrait is less vivid than what emerges from the letters: she mines them for facts and explanations but hesitates to let Rhys speak for herself at any length. This is a pity, because Rhys’s voice, self-absorbed but also self-knowing, makes sense of both her chaotic life and her commitment to work. In Seymour’s summarising hands, the focus sometimes falters.
Rhys’s most productive period was the 1930s, during her second marriage, to Leslie Tilden Smith, a publisher’s reader who believed in her genius, cooked her meals and typed up her manuscripts when the couple weren’t too busy brawling in the street. For Rhys, drinking and writing were always closely entwined.
The war did for the second marriage. Rhys was in agony not knowing what had happened to her daughter in Holland and drank heavily while Tilden Smith was away working for the RAF. When they went on holiday to Devon in 1945, his heart gave out. Years later, Rhys wrote a story called ‘The Sound of the River’, in which the husband has a heart attack in a holiday cottage and the police question the wife as though she had killed him. Perhaps she had. Shortly afterwards, Rhys took up with Max Hamer, a solicitor cousin of Tilden Smith and his executor, who had come to her London flat to tell her there was no money. They married shortly afterwards.
The Hamers moved to Beckenham in south London. Hamer was often absent and Rhys fell out with everyone in shouting distance. Her frequent brushes with the law for being drunk and disorderly are acknowledged with regret by Seymour rather than analysed or imagined. Earlier episodes – such as the death of her baby son or her failure to provide a home for her daughter – are treated in a similar vein of not unsympathetic dispatch. Seymour is more interested in Rhys’s reading – she was steeped in French modernists, Russian giants, Dickens and George Moore – than in her drinking. This sometimes leaves her nonplussed when it comes to explaining the sudden endings of Rhys’s friendships or the way she turned on the devoted Tilden Smith.
Seymour is content that much in Rhys’s life ‘remains unclear’, while being dogged about the ways in which the early novels, in particular, are unreliable guides to the life. Rhys’s third novel, Voyage in the Dark (1934), is an account of a young woman’s descent into prostitution after a love affair that bears some similarities to Rhys’s first love affair, with a rich stockbroker named Lancelot Hugh Smith, during her time as a chorus girl. Seymour points out that the heroine is taken to ‘a London brothel masquerading as a plush-mantled restaurant’ – the sort of place which ‘had almost vanished from view by 1911’. So the encounter between heroine and lover is dismissed as ‘a biographical red herring’ and Rhys is described as having been ‘carefully misleading’ about her first meeting with Hugh Smith, for all the world as though novels were traps for future biographers to fall into.
It is true that there is an interesting gulf between Rhys’s circumstances and those of the women she wrote about. Her heroines are always beached and alone, while Rhys had husbands until her mid-seventies. Two of the three, admittedly, served prison sentences for fraud but two of them were deeply supportive and admiring of her work. She also had a startling effect on men of the cloth. Two Anglican vicars took her in to put her back on her writing feet. None of this makes it into her fictional studies of alienation and passive isolation.
Yet Rhys too was passive, to a degree. She burned with humiliation when Hugh Smith cast her off with an allowance, but took the money anyway. She let Ford dominate her while seeing clearly how it would end. She only completed Wide Sargasso Sea, a book that first occurred to her in 1938, in response to others demanding to see a manuscript.
‘I’m lazy and hopeless’, she wrote to a friend in 1950 ,‘but honestly I do have a rum time.’ Yet, as her editor Diana Athill wrote in her introduction to the reissue of the early books, ‘Her novels do not say “this is what happened to me” but “this is how things happen”.’ This is the gap, surely, between the art and the life that calls out to be quarried. The rest, arguably, is biographical red herring.