Eleven years after Jean Rhys’s death in 1979, Carole Angier published a monumental biography, a model of its kind, with 70 pages of notes and seven of bibliography. Lilian Pizzichini’s ‘portrait’ of Rhys is a book of a wholly different kind. The best way to describe it is that it bears the same relationship to Angier’s work as Beryl Bainbridge’s novel According to Queeney to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Both Pizzichini’s and Bainbridge’s books rely for their potent fascination not on extensive research but, to a remarkable degree, on empathy and imagination.
Pizzichini shows herself at her best when she writes of the 17 years spent by Rhys in her birthplace Dominica, before her parents abruptly decided that she should be despatched to England to be ‘finished’. In skilfully evoking the languorous, lush, steamy island in which, at the age of 12 — Rhys both suffered and enjoyed (the two emotions were all too often disastrously linked for her) sexual abuse at the hands of an elderly family friend, she relies to a large extent on Rhys’s own luminous accounts.
Repeatedly Pizzichini demonstrates that, apart from an all-powerful obsession with her writing, the two dominant emotions of Rhys’s life were rage and desperation. Here is one of those people for whom the key to being happy is, paradoxically, to be unhappy. Here also is the perfect paradigm of the victim as exploiter. Rhys’s physical and emotional fragility and her seeming inability to deal with any practical problem attracted to her a succession of patrons. But having availed herself of their kindnesses, she would then wantonly terminate a relationship by some act of pique, negligence or ingratitude.
In London she had soon abandoned a conventional education and her family to become a chorus girl and the mistress of a rich and well-connected man much older than herself. In Paris her nostalgie de la boue impelled her to be a drunken frequenter of boîtes haunted by tarts and apaches, while at the same time carrying on a three-sided affair with Ford Maddox Ford, the most important literary influence in her life. Of her three husbands two went to prison for fraud, and her stepdaughter was suspected of having murdered the third. Rhys herself, when once more back in England in late middle age, also did time, for repeated assaults on neighbours. After earning plaudits for a number of ‘daring’ novels largely based on her own experiences, there was a long silence of some 15 years in obscurity and poverty before she was rediscovered and went on to produce her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea.
That book brought her even more patrons than her early successes. When I was living in Brighton, one of these, Sonia Orwell, asked me to ‘keep an eye on Jean’, while the old girl was ‘resting’ in an expensive hotel at Orwell’s expense. After Rhys had rejected my telephone suggestions of a car excursion or a meal at my house, I found myself in her hotel bedroom, where at midday, her still pretty face heavily made up, she lay propped on a mound of pillows in bed, glass in hand. I did not mind being at once asked to go out for a bottle of whisky — at my own expense, and without myself being offered a drink after I had poured out another one for her — or watching her eat the early lunch that she had instructed me to order from room- ervices. But as our conversation jolted along in fits and starts at my constant nudging, I was increasingly overwhelmed by boredom — and so, all too obviously, was she.
Released into a reviving sea breeze on the front, I thought of all the other vain, faded, befuddled, demanding old women that Brighton contained and wondered why on earth I had let myself be persuaded to join, albeit so briefly, the little group that had so gallantly and generously assumed responsibility for this one.
But then at once I felt ashamed. To be bored for an hour or two was surely minuscule repayment for a lifelong enthraldom to a unique talent. q