In 1979, some months after Jean Rhys died at 88, her unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, was published. It is fractured and elliptical, emblematic of her life, which was as complicated as it was compelling. The autobiography ends in 1919, when Rhys, aged 29, is about to travel from London to Paris. This work was how Miranda Seymour first encountered her, and which accounts for her thinking of Rhys as a young woman, recounting her life “in a voice as clear as though she were recalling yesterday’s events”.
Seymour’s approach to the celebrated author of novels such as Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea is rooted in similar clarity, yet underpinned by an acute empathy that drives her into less obvious corners. The result is an exhaustive, definitive ride around both the idea and the reality of Jean Rhys, and what emerges is a portrait of a contrarian woman, with “the haunted life” that Seymour writes of brought on by tragic and transformative experiences, and Rhys’s own sense of being a ghost haunting her own life.
Much has been written about her time as an exile in 1920s Paris and later, England, but through the biography’s eight sections, which almost mirror movements in a symphony, and provide a chronological thread, Seymour recontextualises her. Rhys has often been cast in melancholy tones, with a focus on her experiences of poverty, alcohol and drug-dependency, and tormented emotional life, and while Seymour is unstinting in her exploration of these factors, she doesn’t let it define the woman who gave us iconic protagonists such as Antoinette Cosway.
Authoritatively woven together, Seymour addresses a writer and woman who is at once self-absorbed and thoughtful, sardonic and sensitive, harnessing an independence that was created and sustained by circumstance, and deftly draws out the wildness of Rhys that threatened to break as well as make her.
This is also a love letter to the different ways that writers work, and how they are not always disciples of discipline, how sometimes great work comes piecemeal and from the messy brutality of living. While Rhys herself wrote that she “would never really belong anywhere”, somehow, Seymour has brought her home.