The story of Jean Rhys's life - unrequited love, penury, alcoholism - is not for the faint-hearted. All credit to Lilian Pizzichini for giving this uncompromising and disturbing portrait of her. Rhys, throughout her long life - she was 88 when she died in 1979 - kept unswerving allegiance to her doomed childhood: to its fears, lovelessness and abuse, and to the exotic landscape of Dominica where she lived until she was 15.
She took this allegiance into her relationships and writing. Like her own mother, she was hopeless at parenting. Her three-week-old son died of pneumonia after she left him in a hospice because she had no money. Her daughter Maryvonne survived, but spent her childhood either in care or with her father. Rhys's pattern was to fall in love with older men who did not countenance her as a wife and to marry inadequate men of doubtful morals. Her alcoholism led to five police charges. And yet, beyond all that was a mesmeric woman and an exceptional writer. She seemed to measure love by her yearning for it and in the alchemy of her writing to transmute pain and humiliation into beauty. Lilian Pizzichini acknowledges her debt to Carole Angier's formal biography published in 1990. For her own portrait, she prefaces each chapter with an orientation of time, place and event which she then colours. She moves from Jean Rhys's haunting childhood in Dominica: her unloving mother, voodoo nanny and Mr Howard her elderly abuser to the repression of a Catholic boarding school in Cambridge, then to her dependence on men for sex, money and humiliation.
In 1930s Paris, Rhys was encouraged by her lover Ford Madox Ford and reviewed as one of the finest new writers. By then, her daughter was in care, her baby son dead, her husband in prison, she had no home and was having an affair with a man who had a partner he was never going to leave. "I am drunk mostly all the time," she wrote.
After the outbreak of the Second World War she almost disappeared as a writer until 1957, when Francis Wyndham, then an editor at Andre Deutsch, wrote her a letter of praise and commissioned Wide Sargasso Sea. It took her nine years to write. Pizzichini's main research material is Jean Rhys's own work, all autobiographical. If in The Blue Hour there are occasional oddities and flurries of style, these can be seen as the portraitist's brushmarks. Beyond them, by an accretion of detail and with unrelenting care, she brings Jean Rhys to life. Perhaps what is missing is the refined sensibility of the letters.
Somewhere in those, Jean Rhys writes of how, when reading, she looks for "that knock on the heart which means, That is the truth, that is final. That comes from au delà." Part of her resistance to anyone writing about her (in her will she said she wanted no posthumous biography) was the belief that no one, not even herself, could reach that truth from au delà. "I am a tormented person and even writing is clutching at clouds and shadows," she wrote. Lilian Pizzichini makes no claim to definitive biography. But she gives a haunting, persuasive portrait that illuminates and complements Jean Rhys's wonderful work.
Diana Souhami's 'Wild Girls' is published by PhoenixReuse content