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15May

I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour review – the troubled life of Jean Rhys

The author emerges from this compelling biography as a difficult outsider whose twin passions were feckless men and drink

In 1907, Ella Gwendoline (“Gwen”) Rees Williams sailed to England from Dominica, the Caribbean island of her birth, to attend school in Cambridge. Gwen, who was 16, had long dreamed of the motherland, but from the moment she landed at Southampton, her mood began to darken. If London, her first stop, was sooty and drab and populated by permanently indignant landladies, school was little better. She was mocked for her lilting accent by her classmates, who took particular pleasure in the fact that the maniac who is Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was a white Creole just like her. On Saturdays, she would cycle to the house of a kindly great aunt. Even there, though, the atmosphere was cautionary. Her aunt told her that she’d once been planning to leave her husband for a lover – until, that is, she looked in the mirror and saw the devil leering over her shoulder.

Did the devil ever perch on Gwen’s shoulder? Read Miranda Seymour’s slyly compelling new biography of Jean Rhys – the pen name was adopted in 1924, at the behest of her patron, Ford Madox Ford – and you will feel that it surely did, usually more than once a year. Unlike her aunt, however, she was not one to turn from temptation. The author of Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight was all feeling: a human bagatelle ball whizzing from one crisis to another, lured not only by all the usual siren songs (men, money, booze), but by any number of other, less appealing tunes (“disaster is her element,” said her last editor, Diana Athill). Was she, to use the old word, mad? Sometimes, perhaps. But if so, she was hardly alone. I Used to Live Here Oncethe biography takes its brilliantly apt title from one of Rhys’s ghost stories – is shot through with madness. Half its cast are half crazy, and most of the rest are as creepy as hell. Liars and fraudsters, bigamists and bolters, grifters and gropers: they’re all here, though Seymour has a special line (because her subject attracted them) in the kind of literary stalker whose pulse races furtively at the sight of an old woman with a bad wig, a whisky habit and (just perhaps) a half-finished manuscript in a drawer.

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