I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.
HAUNTED BY DOMINICA
The book begins with an account of Rhys’ childhood in Dominica where we are given a flavour of how her yearning for her homeland and Creole roots played a crucial role in the way her novels and stories shaped up. And yet Rhys’s childhood on this stunning Caribbean island wasn’t exactly a fairytale. Born as Ella Gwendoline, she was the fourth child and the second daughter to parents William Rees Williams, a ship doctor with Welsh-Irish roots and Minna Lockhart, a white Creole and the daughter of a wealthy plantation owning family. Gwen was a bright, intelligent child, a firm favourite of her father’s but had an extremely difficult relationship with her mother.
In Rhys’ memories, her father had always been gently encouraging, unjudgemental, trying to do what was best for his favourite child, while her mother missed no opportunity to crush and humiliate a daughter of whom she was perhaps a little jealous.
But the sense of being an outsider often tormented Gwen accentuating her feeling of alienation. Gwen would later yearn to leave the island to begin life anew in Europe, but the spell and magic of the place was always deeply ingrained within her – bathing in rainforest pools, sweeping vistas of the sea, the family’s holiday retreats, raging thunderstorms and the overall mercurial beauty of the island.
The island held a more powerful grasp on her imagination through the enduring presence in her mind of an unforgettable landscape: the green and densely mantled mountains that Rhys knew from childhood. They offered a majestic presence, along with a rich stew of gossip, island stories and family stories that would nourish Jean Rhys’s fiction.
Driven by a frenzy to pursue drama, Rhys landed in London in the summer of 1907 and adopted the stage name Ella to kickstart her acting career.
Aged just seventeen in August 1907, Gwen suffered from crippling self-consciousness and fits of anger and despair that she did not know how to control. The compensation came in the moments when, however briefly, she could believe in a glorious future.
Her first impressions of London, a dank, grey city, pretty much mirrored what her naïve protagonist Anna Morgan experienced in Voyage in the Dark. Rhys’s early London years were marked by a series of small roles as a chorus girl in various theatre productions; it was soon obvious that her chances of moving on to the next level were rather slim. A period marked by barely making ends meet, residing in dreary bedsits, a stagnating career and her heightened sense of being an outsider in a foreign city, Rhys still displayed a remarkable flair for resilience and initiative that was to sustain her in her later difficult years.
THE UNRELIABLE MEN IN RHYS’S LIFE
Like the women in her novels, Rhys had love affairs and even married thrice, but unlike her creations, Rhys never came across as a hapless victim. And yet these relationships were volatile – happy times punctuated with moments of tragedy. From the ultra-wealthy and ultra-conservative banker Lancelot Smith (her first lover) to the influential and controlling author Ford Madox Ford, from her bigamous first husband Jean Lenglet, to her gullible, undependable third husband Max Hamer, Rhys’ relationships had all the makings of a roller coaster journey forcing her to sharpen her survival skills. Ironically, of all her relationships only Lancey was reliable when it came to money, her husbands caused her much heartache on this front. And yet it can’t be denied that despite their faults Rhys deeply cared for Lenglet and Hamer till the very end.
Her initial love affairs were doomed too. When pregnant with Lancey’s child, Rhys was compelled to go in for an abortion since Lancey refused to bear the burden of a scandal given his wealth and position. In return, Lancey opted to provide her with a regular allowance. Ford Madox Ford was a different kettle of fish. Besotted with Rhys, he was instrumental in bolstering Rhys’ writing career, but he wielded a dominance and spell over her which she found hard to break away from.
Rhys’ married life was equally chaotic. Her first husband Jean Lenglet was already married when he wed Rhys (she was kept in the dark) and he had an astonishing capacity to fall foul of the law by cheating regularly, a tendency which a series of prison terms failed to diminish. And yet Seymour goes on to show how Rhys always maintained a soft spot for Lenglet. Despite Lancey’s warnings, Rhys remained undeterred, excited by the prospect of an adventurous life with Lenglet filled with Paris and poetry.
Risks, as she calmly reminded him (Lancey), were what she most enjoyed. Didn’t he remember that she thrived on danger?
Rhys’ marriage with Lenglet was not always hunky dory – the couple fought, Rhys’ first child, a baby boy, died within months of being born, an incident which caused her deep misery. Her marriage to Lenglet also saw Rhys experience the zenith and nadir when it came to money – Lenglet’s job as an interpreter and his successful foray into currency trading post war saw him amass quite a bit of wealth giving Rhys her first taste of luxury and the inclination towards the finer things in life. Rhys had her only daughter – Maryvonne – with Lenglet, a mother-daughter bond that remained strong through the years despite Rhys’ guilt of having left Maryvonne in a slew of orphanages when she was growing up.
Rhys’ second husband Leslie Tilden Smith, a freelance editor, is depicted as a kind, generous man. With his connections in publishing, Tilden Smith would turn out to be an ardent champion of Rhys’ work despite the constant bickering between the couple and the sense that Rhys never harboured deep feelings for Smith although she remained loyal to him.
Fearing the spectre of loneliness after Tilden Smith’s death, Rhys went on to marry his friend Max Hamer. Rhys, prone to bouts of depression and melancholy, was charmed by Hamer’s bonhomie and his positive outlook on life. But that came with a caveat – he became easily beguiled by harebrained schemes and ideas put forth by friends and acquaintances, often investing sums of money into losing ventures. This would culminate in a prison stint that would cause Rhys much anxiety, forcing her to fend for herself. Her fear, paranoia and loneliness having reached fever pitch, she often relied on friends and family for moral and financial support.
WRITING – A VOCATION AND AN ANCHOR
Ford Madox Ford played a crucial role in catapulting Rhys’ writing career though not without compromise. Her first collection of Paris stories called The Left Bank Sketches and Studies of present-Day Bohemian Paris was published by Jonathan Cape in 1927 to generally favourable reviews. Given that Ford was a well-regarded writer at the time and Rhys was barely a novice, Rhys was powerless to do anything about his lengthy introduction to her collection of stories which hardly added any value. Her next novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, which Rhys considered her best novel, was critically praised. The dual and time shifting perspectives in Voyage in the Dark, between present London and Anna Morgan’s past in Dominica was fuelled by Rhys’ nostalgia for Dominica and her desire to revisit her homeland (which she would in 1936 and find it much changed to her dismay). Critical reception for Voyage in the Dark was mixed, the abject bleakness in the book and its dark ending did not find much of an audience. Despite hints to produce a book less harsh in tone and subject matter, Rhys refused to relent and went on to write what many consider her finest work today – Good Morning, Midnight. And yet ironically, Good Morning Midnight when published in 1939 received dismal reviews. By then, reviewers and audiences had had enough of the sordid milieu that formed the essence of Rhys’s work and the timing also worked against her – 1939 was a year of fear and uncertainty when the spectre of the Second World War loomed large.
What stands out though is the fact that the only two people who recognised the genius in Good Morning, Midnight at the time were her husbands – Lenglet and Tilden Smith.
The next twenty five years would see Rhys vanish without a trace as far as the literary world was concerned, and yet the biography goes on to show that Rhys wasn’t entirely out of touch with friends in the publishing industry.
Disheartened by the cold reception to Good Morning Midnight, Rhys struggled to pen her next novel Wide Sargasso Sea over the next few decades, an enterprise that would require much coaxing, encouragement and patience from her ardent supporter Francis Wyndham (the man responsible for reigniting interest in her work) and her editor Diana Athill. The post war years were also particularly challenging for Rhys – her drinking had significantly increased exacerbating her spats with Tilden Smith, his subsequent death, her marriage to the increasingly unreliable Max Hamer, his imprisonment, mounting paranoia, uncontrollable rages and assaults against neighbours that resulted in some time in an asylum and a stint in prison.
RHYS IS NOT THE ‘RHYS WOMAN’
Today the enduring appeal of the classic ‘Rhys woman’ is unmistakable – the self-aware, sometimes mocking but helpless woman who is compelled to depend on men and money for survival. However, one of Rhys’ biggest gripe was how often she was associated with the women she created, although the truth could not be more different. Seymour eloquently makes her point…
Self-knowledge meant everything to Rhys. Each of those fictional women was granted elements of their author’s pitilessly scrutinized personality. As painfully self-aware as their creator, they, too, can be by turns watchful; shocking; angry; witty, and ruthless. Like Rhys herself, they learn to rely on drink for courage and consolation. Unlike her, they neither read much – Rhys was an avid and discerning reader – nor do they write.
Deprived of their author’s critical sense of purpose, the women who belong to the world of Rhys’s bleak and often savagely comic fictions are more helpless than their strong-willed – and often downright willful – maker ever was.
For Rhys, writing was the salve when she was often helpless against forces outside her control and even those which she could have avoided. Seymour makes a vital case for how Rhys’ work was a blend of fact and fiction – many elements of these real time incidents and episodes would form the kernel of her stories and novels, but they were just pointers and while they offered a tiny glimpse into the life of a very private woman, they weren’t entirely accurate in portraying Rhys’ real personality. Having said that, Seymour does state that those looking for more colour on her personal life would do well to delve into her stories which showcase many facets of notable episodes that marked Rhys’s life.
Rhys had the self-awareness and a flair for mordant wit a la Sasha Jensen in Good Morning Midnight, but unlike her or Julia Martin or Anna Morgan who were pretty much on a downward spiral, Rhys had her writing to sustain her. Plus, Rhys exhibited a remarkable will and spirit right from her early years to soldier on despite mounting difficulties.
A FASCINATING BIOGRAPHY OF A FASCINATING WRITER
Seymour’s biography is a meticulously researched, wonderfully written, engrossing biography painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys really comes alive through these pages – cultured, a perfectionist in her art, witty, self-mocking, temperamental yet vulnerable. I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.
Given the tumultuous life she led, it is extraordinary that Rhys managed to write her novels with her customary focus, drive and unflinching determination which involved frequent revisions, chiseling her craft, fine tuning the perfect sentence. Drama school dreams cut short, abortion, death of her first child, financially unreliable husbands, heavy drinking, rages, depression, loneliness, poverty were elements that dotted the landscape of her existence, but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Fame and critical success, which should have been hers during the prime of her life, were destined to grace her doorstep when she was a much older woman, but that recognition, however late, was well deserved and it’s heartening to know that it’s a success Rhys could finally enjoy.
Writing from pitiless self-knowledge, Jean Rhys addresses the watchful and lonely outsider who lurks within us all. And here, I believe, lies the answer to the enduring power of a novelist whose softly insistent, knowing and sui generis voice speaks with more power to our times even than to her own.