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Jean Rhys: Prostitution, alcoholism and the mad woman in the attic

Alcoholic, often destitute, and abandoned by a series of men, Jean Rhys led a tortured life, according to a new biography. Yet it was these very hardships, says Lesley McDowell, which made her the writer she was

It was in old age that Jean Rhys said, "It seems to me now that the whole business of money and sex is mixed up with something very primitive and deep." If anyone should have discovered that, she should have. Because Jean Rhys was a woman who took money from men for sex, at one very low point in her life; she allowed past lovers to carry on financing her, long after they had left her. Something primitive, and something deep, allowed her to need men and what they could offer, regardless of social taboos or her own autonomy.

The narrative of Jean Rhys's life – her "showgirl" career, her brief stint as a prostitute, her abortion paid for by an ex-lover, her three disastrous marriages, her alcoholism, her stay in Holloway prison for assault, her short sojourns in asylums – makes for unsettling reading. She turned to men to prop her up and pay for her, and it is the kind of narrative we don't really want to read in a post-feminist age.

Yet there's a fascinating truth at the heart of Jean Rhys, a truth that she herself often covered up. Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams on the island of Dominica in 1890, to a Welsh father and white Creole mother, she was, her latest biographer Lilian Pizzichini writes in her sympathetic but clear-eyed account, forever searching for a mother to love her. Her elder sister died nine months before Ella was born: the sense of being a replacement for a lost child was palpable to her from an early age. And so she played the girl all her life: a passive, yearning-for-love little girl, powerless but charming, pretty without being intimidatingly beautiful.

When she was 17, she came to England for the first time, and her shock at the cold was never to leave her. After a short time at boarding school, she decided to become an actress and was accepted into the Academy of Dramatic Art. She couldn't complete her degree there, alas, because the principal wrote to her father complaining that her West Indies accent would never allow her to win the best roles, and her father subsequently took her out of school. Ella refused to give up, and joined chorus lines, travelling companies, took bit parts to stay in the acting world. An aristocratic financier, Lancelot Hugh Grey Smith, fell for her. He was the first of the men she came to depend upon.

When Smith finally cast her off, Ella was left to fend for herself, and, in a deep depression and without any acting work, she sank into prostitution and alcoholism. She soon became pregnant. Smith, who wasn't the father, paid for an abortion. He subsequently sent her a cheque every month to keep her off the streets, but it wasn't until she roused herself from this awful period that she took up a habit she'd had in her childhood: she began writing.

Writing about her life in notebooks didn't bring in money either, but at the start of the First World War, two more abortive love affairs later, she met the Belgian refugee Jean Lenglet. He was an exciting but untrustworthy type, working at that time for the French government, but when he proposed marriage, she said yes. She worked on in London, alone, for a year, until she could join him in Paris. Here, she gave birth to her first child, William, who soon died. Lenglet got work in Vienna, and they moved on. Ella became pregnant a second time and gave birth to a girl called Maryvonne. By this time, though, Lenglet was in trouble with the authorities and they scampered back to Paris, where he went into hiding. Eventually, he was arrested and imprisoned.

She was alone and abandoned again, but not for long. It was at this point that the writer Ford Madox Ford entered her life. Ford was in Paris with his partner, Stella Bowen, running The Transatlantic Review, which was publishing the likes of Hemingway, Joyce and Stein. But Ford was past his best and he knew it – his greatest work, The Good Soldier, had been published in 1915. It was now 1923, and riches and accolades weren't his. Taking up with the vivacious, sparkling, stylish Ella Lenglet revivified him.

It was Ford who gave her the name Jean Rhys, and it was Ford who taught her how to channel her experiences into publishable prose. Feminism doesn't like to think of women writers owing their success to a male partner. It's been a feminist project, quite rightly, to see them as autonomous subjects who forged their own paths through a male-dominated world. Patriarchal oppression made it necessary to ignore the contributions the men in those women's lives had made; never should we voice the suggestion that, without that male partner, a woman writer might never have been published. Yet, in Rhys's case, it's substantially true. Without Ford's help, it's possible that she would never have been published at all. Her dependence on men, her pose in Paris as the helpless ingénue, when she was actually a 34-year-old wife and mother, came naturally to Rhys, and however uncomfortable that is for feminism, it's what helped to make her a literary success so many years later.

That contradiction between the ingénue and the experienced woman proved too much for Ford. Their affair came to a sticky end: Rhys resented being cast off, and struck him across the face at a café. Then she did what she'd been taught to do: she wrote, and wrote about the affair, in a 1928 novel called Quartet. She returned to England, alone, and married her second husband, the literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith, who had, ironically enough, been recommended to her by Ford.

More books followed: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), which wove in her abandonments by both Lancelot Grey Smith and Ford, Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). She was ahead of her time, though – critics abhorred the underworld of her novels, the twilight of the demi-monde, and didn't appreciate the sparseness of her writing style. She carried on, in a third unhappy marriage and drinking ever more heavily, until 1949, when a writer and actress called Selma Vaz Dias placed an ad in a newspaper looking for her. She wanted to adapt some of Rhys's work for the BBC; an editor, Francis Wyndham, wanted more work from Rhys. She had, she told him, a novel under way. It was Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

It's perhaps not surprising that Rhys's greatest work was about a woman who is rejected by the man she loves and goes on to destroy herself. Rhys constantly felt abandoned, yet was constantly searching for the man who could take care of her and, finally, make it all right. Yet, as Pizzichini rightly says, her writing was her true partner. It is possible that Rhys never fully realised this, or didn't want to realise it, perhaps: the path of the artist is often by necessity a lonely one, and Rhys drank not to feel lonely.

And so, her response to the sudden fame and fortune that Wide Sargasso Sea brought was classically self-pitying and the lament of the ingénue: "It has come too late." Rhys, ever the contradiction, wouldn't let it happen for her, however much she wanted it to. The truth of Jean Rhys's genius is contained within that contradiction, however: the little girl who wouldn't grow up, yet whose work depended, ultimately, upon the maturity of experience. I believe that she understood that contradiction. She knew what lay "deep and primitive" in her own soul. In her writing she was able to use it, and it was a relationship with a male writer that taught her how.

The extract

The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, By Lilian Pizzichini (Bloomsbury £18.99)

"She returned her gaze to her pens and notebooks and then it started. Her palms and fingertips were tingling. She opened an exercise book, and wrote down everything that had happened to her in the last year and a half: 'what he'd said, what I felt'... The feeling was one of torture: knowing the feeling but not the words to describe it"

Lesley McDowell is currently writing a book about literary partnerships, to be published by Overlook Press next year