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The American Scholar: What a long and strange journey it has been

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Jean Rhys, left, and Mollie Stoner, in the 1970s (Wikimedia Commons)

I Used to Live Here: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour; WW Norton, 448 pages, $32.50

Born in 1890, Jean Rhys (baptized Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams) lived through two world wars and over her long life witnessed the many changes brought by the 20th century. She rubbed shoulders with the literati of the Lost Generation in 1920s Paris, including Ford Madox Ford, and again with those of the late 20th century, including the American novelist David Plante. Marrying Ford may have gotten her pregnant, but Rhys was so protective of her privacy that even Miranda Seymour, in this comprehensive biography, can’t say for sure.

Rhys spent her childhood in Dominica, a speckled island in the Eastern Caribbean between Martinique and Guadeloupe that was a British colony at the time of her birth. English was and remains the official language of the island, but a French-based Kweyol, in which Rhys had some fluency, is spoken by the black inhabitants, some of whom also practice Obeah, one of the many religions of African descent in the Caribbean.

The daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole, Rhys spent her childhood among the declining colonial aristocracy of Dominica. A stay at a convent school inspired her with a relatively brief bout of religiosity and also awakened her to the beauty and power of nature. At 17, she was taken by an aunt to England to attend Persia High School for Girls, which she hated. She moved on to the new acting school at Herbert Tree, now the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and when that was no longer possible she auditioned with Blackmore’s theatrical agency and became an actress in toured as Ella Gray. She returned to Dominica only once, in 1936; his feeling of being an outsider in English society contributed a lot to his work.

Rhys usually had a man in her life. In 1911, she became friends with Lancelot Hugh Smith, who was good to her in many ways but kept her at a distance, keeping her in her own apartment, according to the taste of the time. Marriage to “Lancy” (a longtime bachelor) was not in the cards, so eventually the couple broke up, after which they nevertheless continued to support Rhys financially.

In 1919, Rhys traveled to The Hague to marry Willem Johan Marie Lenglet, a romantic but sleazy figure who fathered his child who lived to adulthood, Maryvonne – born in Belgium in 1922 – but ended up winning and losing a fortune in currency trading during marriage. The recovered Lenglets went bankrupt in Paris in 1924, where Rhys, attempting to sell some anecdotal pieces to the daily mail, eventually came to the attention of Ford Madox Ford, who published many of his early fragmentary fictions in his transatlantic review. (Ford’s companion, Stella Bowen, found the work “unpublished sordid.”) Rhys’ marriage to Lenglet began to crumble when he was sent to prison for embezzlement, and she became known as “Ford’s daughter” – a bashing of Bowen, although Seymour suggests the three of them probably had some sort of housework. (Rhys lived with Ford and Bowen for a time while Lenglet served his sentence.) An inveterate womanizer, Ford tirelessly supported writers he admired. In Rhys’ case, his motives were mixed, but like Lancy, he and Bowen paid for Rhys’ expenses after she left home. Ford also helped Rhys get a writing job and introduced her to influential people in publishing, including literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith. It was Smith who facilitated Jonathan Cape’s 1927 publication of Rhys’ first book, a collection of stories titled The left Bank, and in 1934, became Rhys’ second husband.

Rhys’ work is autobiographical, to a degree. Seymour meticulously stitches Rhys’ stories to the events of her life, while scrupulously maintaining the distinction Rhys herself insisted on: the women who populate her fiction are not self-portraits. Her first published novel, Quartet (1928), builds on his connections with Ford, Bowen and Lenglet, and his second, After leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), does something similar with Lancy, but these works should not be read as romans à clef. For Journey in the dark (1934), Rhys tapped into his Dominican childhood and early experience as a colonial foreigner in England. In Hello, midnight (1939), writes Seymour, “Rhys endowed Sasha Jensen with her own paranoia” as the character goes through chronic instability, similar to what Rhys endured during his own dismal demise after the economic crash of 1929.

Seymour claims that these 1930s novels developed Rhys’ “unerring ability to create…a world that is both peculiarly alien and patently mundane” while serving “his growing conviction that the dream world of the past and the activity of the present coexist, simultaneously, within the same conscious realm. By the time she reached her late 40s, Rhys had fully matured as an artist, but the grim effect of these works earned her comments in the press as “sleazy” (again!) and “sleazy” . The books did not sell well.

Financially ruined by the Great Depression, Leslie Tilden Smith died in 1945. Broken and alone, Rhys depended on the wavering support of friends and family until she married Leslie’s cousin, Max Hamer, in 1947. Hamer, like Lenglet, was caught up in an embezzlement scheme. and in 1950 began a two-year sentence at Maidstone Prison. By then, the writer Jean Rhys had vanished into Mrs. Hamer, struggling to survive in increasingly poor circumstances and dingy lodgings, rowing frequently and sometimes violently with his neighbors, often drunk – episodes that sometimes ended in police and legal pursuits. In such a state, she disappeared from the public eye for the better part of a decade.

Rhys’ isolation was so complete that it wasn’t until he placed an ad in the new statesman, did actress Selma Vaz Dias find out that the writer was still alive. An avid fan of Rhys’ first four novels, Dias wanted to play Hello, midnight as an audio piece for the BBC, which she finally did in 1956. But her interest soon fell on one of Rhys’s very intermittently progressing works, which the writer then called ‘Mrs. Rochester. Rhys was initially grateful for the renewed attention to herself and her work that Dias’ efforts garnered, but the actress’ growing possessiveness over Ms. Rochester’s project eventually caused a stir. break between them.

Rhys wrote impenetrably by hand (increasingly hampered by arthritis) and had a habit of destroying what she had written during the day during the alcoholic rages of the night.

Seymour’s book develops a certain teleology around the completion of this novel, Rhys’ best-known work (published in 1966 as Wide Sargasso Sea), which she might never have finished without the input of her friends and colleagues. Rhys still lived in poverty, with and then without Hamer, who was in poor health and unemployable after his imprisonment. She wrote impenetrably by hand (increasingly hampered by arthritis) and had a habit of destroying what she had written during the day during the alcoholic rages of the night. But in 1957 she accepted a small advance from publisher André Deutsch for the far from complete novel, and now publisher Diana Athill is committed to completing it. Improvements were made to Rhys’ living situation, and people were found to try to decipher and type the scattered pages or take dictation, for which David Plante was hired. Rhys was not easy to work with; Plante’s idea that he would in fact be her co-author particularly (and understandably) infuriated her, though she could also explode for lesser provocations.

The publication of Wide Sargasso Sea brought Rhys, then in his mid-70s, the greatest recognition she had ever had, and she enjoyed his sudden stardom considerably, but not without reservations. At that time, a successful novelist was expected to project a cult of personality, but Rhys did not want his work to be equated with his person at all. Here, the autobiographical elements of his fiction could sow confusion and distress; some of Rhys’ heroines may have been prostitutes, but that didn’t mean the writer had been one too. She was fierce (and fair) in her insistence that her work be self-contained, apart from her equally extraordinary life.

Rhys designed Wide Sargasso Sea, in part, as a rebuttal of Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre– to its demeaning portrayal of the island-born Mrs. Rochester as deranged. Ironically, Rhys herself had played this role quite often: in her drunken altercations with various neighbors, she fought like a hellcat, scratching and biting and sometimes landing in jail or a mental institution. She often wrestled with the demon of English respectability and usually lost. At the end of her life, no longer able to take care of herself, she was installed by friends in a pink boudoir of their London house; after a first romance, she became so disagreeable that these friends started calling her Johnny Rotten. Crazy in the attic, indeed.

Beyond Rhys’ feud with Brontë, Wide Sargasso Sea is fundamentally about cultural misunderstanding: all the ways in which the European spirit is threatened by this other insular way of being. Obeah comes in, obliquely. Rhys, still at odds with the British society she’s been encysted in for most of her life, captured the same idea in the short story “Let Them Call It Jazz,” based on her own brief 1949 sojourn in the Holloway Prison infirmary, although in this case she clearly differentiated the narrator from herself by making her a woman of color. “I don’t belong anywhere, really,” the character says, “and I don’t have the money to buy my way to belonging. Neither do I want to. Neither does Rhys, who despite his long exile in a strange and often unwelcoming country, has always remained resolutely herself.

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