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26May

I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour – beyond the Sargasso Sea

A new biography of Jean Rhys explores the relationship between her turbulent life and her brilliant work

In a late short story by Jean Rhys, a woman sees a pair of children standing near a house that is very familiar to her, by an exotic, flowering tree. “I used to live here once,” she tells them. They can’t see that she’s there; she is a ghost, haunting her old home. This story lends its title to Miranda Seymour’s new biography, which places Rhys’s upbringing in the Caribbean at the centre of the narrative. She was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother descended from slaveowners on the island of Dominica, “[t]he island which haunted her mind and almost everything that she wrote” and “the wellspring of Rhys’s art”. For the rest of her life Rhys would feel as though she belonged nowhere – not on the island where she felt so at home, and not in England, where she would always be seen as an outsider, her very voice, with its “seemingly ineradicable island lilt” betraying her origins.

This is not the first big biography of Rhys; Carole Angier’s 1990 study is richly detailed and still holds up. But as one of the major writers of the 20th century, Rhys deserves as many biographies as people want to write (or read). So long, that is, as they sensitively and rigorously attempt to understand this complex woman – particularly the relationship between her turbulent life and her brilliant work.

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