I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys
(W.W. Norton , 2022)
Biography is a supremely difficult genre. The biographer must on some level capture the subject (capture is exactly the right idea here), maybe in the process identifying with them, sustaining through long years of research, often including travel, and writing. But that affinity can be dangerous if it causes a biographer to cherry-pick aspects of a life which are close to their own experience and ignore or downplay the rest. The opposite is also a challenge if not enough common ground is found with a subject to give the narrative energy and excitement. The biographer’s voice is dominant, whether or not it sounds that way (some recent work makes that visible to the reader, biographer as up-front character). There are always buried judgments and prejudices in the way the story is told, coming from the teller, so the subject is shaped in particular ways. Then even the most sensitive biographer takes on the intrusive job of mediating the subject’s life experience, down to intimate details if those are accessible.
This is why the biographer hangs as a sort of spirit presence in the story of somebody else, whom they picked and spent years of time studying. It gets even more interesting if the biographer is also a successful fiction writer and memoirist, as is Miranda Seymour. Because whilst the memoir utilizes machinery of fiction (dialogue, setting, chronology, character), it must engineer the randomness of actual life into the order of a story other people might want to read. Whilst fiction is by definition imagined reality, a novel might have a narrator who controls the telling just as much as the biographer, only that is an evident part of the enjoyment if the writer pulls it off.
Seymour has much experience in navigating the intersection of life and art, as well as writing biographies of other writers (Robert Graves and Mary Shelley). That kind of biography is a special case, of course, for when a writer works on another writer, there’s common ground in terms of the nature of the job of writing, even maybe the ups and downs of trying to make that your main occupation. But even the successful contemporary writer trying to capture a writer of great stature risks ending up in their subject’s shadow (think A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy or Andrew Motion’s Keats and Philip Larkin.) Perhaps such a task is taken on to answer some questions the biographer has about their own work? Does the biographer seek to find explanation of their attachment to their chosen writer? Creators of wonderful books might be anything from shy retreater from the world to savagely ambitious manipulator of public attention (or both at different times). Does it matter to us what the writer is like as a person unless we are writers ourselves with a natural curiosity about how something we admire got done? If we enjoy Byron’s Don Juan does it contribute anything to be shocked at his sexual romps with his half-sister and a multitude of other women? So when we read a biography should we realize we get to know two people: the one written about and the one doing the writing, through the choices of stories told?
Let me first say this is a very readable biography and Seymour has dedicated a great deal of time and energy to the research, travel, and writing—in sum painstaking and patient attention to Jean Rhys. She is deeply interested in Rhys as a writer, and the parts of the biography I found most interesting and absorbing are about moments when Rhys’s writerly life has the stuff of high drama. The affair with Ford Madox Ford which seems to have been driven by literary fascination between gifted ingénue and much older roué, the one looking forward, the other trying to maintain momentum as aging ominously appears. That each later wrote arguably their weakest novel partly out of spite towards the other is a literary morality tale to warn the unwary that strong emotions are treacherous allies in writing, good to get the mood, terrible mortar for building something useful. In this part of the story, Seymour also helpfully provides evidence that Ford’s caricature of Rhys as Lola Porter was his only version of her in the novel (Carole Angier, Rhys’s first biographer, had suggested another, more amenable character was also based on Rhys). Seymour follows Rhys’s evolution as a writer carefully, as when she traces the development of Wide Sargasso Sea, (mentioning Le Revenant and other trial runs). Her chapter “The Madness of Perfection” takes us, sensitively, to the winter landscape of Devon, Rhys coping with the declining health of her elderly husband Max. Francis Wyndham, her outstanding editor/friend, typed the manuscript of “Let Them Call It Jazz” himself to spare her fearing the consequences of looking for a typist in Cheriton Fitzpaine, where she felt seen as eccentric or worse.
It is good that Seymour quotes the uncharacteristically warm tribute paid by V.S. Naipaul, because it does exactly what the best of Seymour’s attention to Rhys achieves—uncovers the stubborn endurance of the writer. “What a stoic thing she makes the act of writing appear,” and Seymour wonderfully reports Rhys’s response “marvellous and nearly complete understanding of my life.” No serious writer likes other people messing with their work, so of course when David Plante did his own revisions to the rough draft of Smile Please, Rhys became furious (though Seymour makes it sound over the top). Writers know that everything depends on the placement of a word or a comma and the small quiddities which shape a fictional voice.
There are many other examples of this care towards Rhys the writer and the biography is a richly detailed record of Seymour’s immersion in the Rhys archives, visits to places important in her life and interviews with some of those left who knew her.
But at times Rhys and Seymour seem to occupy entirely different worlds. Take the issue of class, for Seymour has also written a prize-winning memoir, Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life In My Father’s House, with a cover endorsement from the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes. She is a member of the English upper-class, which still has real power in the world of the arts on both sides of the North Atlantic. But though Rhys did go to the Crabtree Club in London, Seymour imagining a scene of “seductive Ella whirling around the floor with my grandfather, the generous, art-loving peer whose deep pockets helped to keep that jolly little club afloat” is wincing off-key with Rhys’s declassé position. The biography spends detailed time on Elma Napier and Lancelot (Lancey), who broke Rhys’s heart: both are of course securely upper-class. Seymour is much surer about that world and often tone-deaf about the class insecurity into which Rhys was pitched after her arrival in London, not much alleviated by limited experiences of luxury with Lancey. That insecurity remained with Rhys, through three marriages to men who couldn’t get a solid income together and her own undependable writing income.
Seymour represents the older Rhys as temperamental, sometimes inscrutable, often apparently unappreciative of the gestures made by kindly, comfortably-off women who wanted to send her books or visit or to give her professional attention (like a journalist who interviewed her). But isn’t it to Rhys’s credit that she couldn’t always sustain being nice to those who operated out of a secure financial and social world, exactly what she did not have.
Also Seymour takes the side (at least at first) of Selma vaz Dias and then of the gossipy, waspish David Plante, the worst sort of person to let into your private space if you don’t want to be written about maliciously. In the Caribbean, “too malicious” means a person who tells stories which demean someone else and make them look good: small islands know the only privacy you ever have is not telling people things. It is good to hear the other side of the story of vaz Dias (who got Rhys to agree to share income from her work with vaz Dias in perpetuity) until it becomes impossible to defend her. Though Plante helped Rhys work on Smile Please, Seymour degrades her biography by including his nasty story about an embarrassing accident during which she needed his help.
The last section of the book is too much weighed down by stories at the aging Rhys’s expense, often divulging what was clearly private. André Brink once said that “While the ladies of society cover themselves with the bones of dead whales and the furs of dead foxes, the writer performs a striptease.” Yes, but it is the writer’s choice what to take off and how: Rhys bravely gave up some of her most important secrets and should have been entitled to the rest; except biographers showed up (Seymour is the third). She tells us of a villager (very young at the time) snooping at Rhys’s cottage window, willing to share that invasionary gossip with Seymour, who also records tales of Rhys’s very personal screwups, the sort of thing you want to tell the world yourself. Seymour says, “For a biographer, part of the fascination of Smile Please lies in the memoir’s conspicuous absences.” The omissions in this biography fill in Seymour for us.
For example, whilst she catches some moments where race is explicit in Rhys’s work, she misses others. Rhys recalls in Smile Please “why was I singled out to be the only fair one, to be called Gwendolyn, which means white in Welsh I was told?” Also in Smile Please Rhys tells how she was given the “fair one” of two dolls arriving from “Irish Granny” in England, “the dark one” going to her little sister. So she smashes the fair one’s face in with a big stone, a pretty obvious reinforcement of her rejection of being pale herself. Seymour says only “a weeping Gwen confessed to having smashed a coveted doll that had been bestowed on her little sister.” Then Seymour offers this about the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline (whose first novel Rhys apparently kept with her “always”): his “reputation as a racist bigot has obscured the wit, humanity and elan of his earliest work.” So was the earlier work not racist? Is Seymour saying the racism doesn’t matter if you manage to sound clever and warm?
Race and class were enmeshed at the deepest level of Rhys’s consciousness—she began as an elite white child and went on to be a poor white woman, slightly odd, exotic, even maybe not quite white to some in England. “The Imperial Road” is full of observations about race, an honest attempt to record low-level tensions, but Seymour’s account of the story omits all of that. Perhaps this is outside Seymour’s experience and that of her expected audience, which is also suggested by her conflation of obeah with voudoun (she calls it voodoo). Obeah is single practitioner consultation and voudoun a syncretic religion which developed as enslaved peoples from different cultures found ways to recreate something culturally and spiritually sustaining amidst bondage and abuse.
There’s a missing piece in the account of the connection between the French writer Colette and Rhys, namely the similarity between their accounts of the beginning of writing as a consuming passion: in Mes Apprentissages, Colette describes filling exercise books, the way Rhys does. Another concerning moment is the statement that Phyllis Shand Allfrey “never forgot the social superiority of Sir Henry Alford Nicholls to a mere Dr. Rees Williams” when both Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s biography of Allfrey and her work on Allfrey and Rhys’s environmental activism to help save Dominica’s forests affirm a strong bond of friendship between them. Paravisini-Gebert writes about their correspondence after a period of not being in touch, “At times the feelings transcended the words. ‘Dear Phyllis,’ Jean once wrote …‘ this humdrum letter is not at all what I am really thinking….anyway it’s to send you my very best love.” (Phyllis Shand Allfrey, 1996). Both Allfrey and Rhys knew the plunge from material comfort to sustained poverty, Allfrey and her husband living a simple life committed to Dominica, where for some time she was politically active as a social democrat, a white woman committed to Black majority rule.
Seymour’s hard work and fundamental respect for Rhys is evident all through this biography, but so also are her judgements, omissions, and preferences (in this she is no different than most biographers). But it is good to see Rhys come alive at times as if she could speak back for herself. We are only interested in her because of her writing, so any and all of her failings and complications fade for us, her readers, by her surrender to her calling and the marvelous results it brought. This biography does deliver Rhys the working writer, the part of her we are so fascinated to know.