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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Miranda Seymour

Where to start with: Jean Rhys

A haphazard life … Jean Rhys.
A haphazard life … Jean Rhys. Illustration: Guardian Design/Alamy, BBC, Bloomsbury

Most people know Jean Rhys as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, a title often featured on school and university reading lists. But that prequel to Jane Eyre was actually the Dominica-born author’s last book, and there are riches in store for those who haven’t yet explored the rest of her work. Her biographer Miranda Seymour suggests some good places to start.


The entry point

“‘Smile please,’ the man said. ‘Not quite so serious.’” It is this opening line that gives the autobiography Smile Please its title, as a young Rhys fails to do as she’s told when posing for a photo. The biggest surprise when reading this luminous memoir of the author’s early life in the Caribbean, London and Paris, is that she started writing it in her 70s. It was the first thing by Rhys that I read and I fell in love with her voice on the spot. I can’t imagine a better way to get to know her.

Rebecca Hall as Antoinette Cosway
Rebecca Hall as Antoinette Cosway, first wife of Mr Rochester, in the BBC adaptation of Wide Sargasso Sea. Photograph: BBC/Kudos Film and Television


If you only read one more

I’d go straight from the memoir into Voyage in the Dark. Told by a vulnerable newcomer to London from the Caribbean, Rhys’s third novel draws on her own experience of love, heartbreak, hope and loneliness to create an unforgettable portrait of its protagonist Anna Morgan. This novel is a great example of Rhys’s talent for capturing the way alienated and victimised women feel.


The one to make you laugh out loud

Good Morning, Midnight is my favourite of Rhys’s five slender novels and her masterpiece. Set in Paris in 1937, it is whispered into our ears by Sasha Jansen, another outsider and a woman with a black sense of humour about her own misfortunes. Moments of mad comedy punctuate Sasha’s dreadful, knowing journey towards one of the most powerful endings in the history of fiction.


The one that deserves more attention

Several of Rhys’s short stories deserve more attention. A Solid House, I Spy a Stranger, The Sound of the River and Temps Perdu were all rejected by publishers in 1947 as too depressing for war-weary readers to stomach. Based on – as ever with Rhys – her own raw sense of being an outsider, these disquieting stories of civilian life show an exceptionally truthful writer at her most courageous, working in the genre she most enjoyed. William Trevor thought Rhys’s I Used to Live Here Once was the finest short ghost story yet written. I think he was right. But these others are brilliant, too.


Rhys’s mentor and lover Ford Madox Ford.
Rhys’s mentor and lover Ford Madox Ford. Photograph: CSU Archv/Everett/Rex Features

The odd one out

Rhys often said that she regretted having written Quartet out of spite, fuelled by the sense that her lover and mentor, Ford Madox Ford, had betrayed both her and her first, adored husband, Jean Lenglet. Though fascinating for the light it sheds on Rhys’s haphazard life in Paris in the 1920s, Quartet isn’t in quite the same league as its astonishing successors.


The one you’ll learn from

Funny, sad and unforgettable, the story Let Them Call it Jazz is Rhys’s unique contribution to the vision of London as seen by the Caribbean newcomers who settled in bedsits and boarding houses around Notting Hill during the postwar years. Narrator Selina Davis shares Rhys’s own grim experiences of prison, poverty and loneliness. Her voice is a powerful one – you don’t doubt Selina when she says: “Believe me, if I aim at your wife I hit your wife – that’s certain.”


The book club pick

Rhys fans should go for Good Morning, Midnight or a group of her astonishing stories (I’d suggest Vienne, Till September Petronella, and Tigers Are Better-Looking.) But those new to Rhys will enjoy discussing Wide Sargasso Sea, the heartbreaking prequel to Jane Eyre which was published in 1966. Rhys was 76 and had almost given up hope of literary recognition until it won the WH Smith literary award and she was propelled into the limelight. Set in Jamaica and on another unnamed Caribbean island, Sargasso draws on Rhys’s intense memories of Dominica, where she told friends that she wanted to be buried, “under a flamboyant tree”. And that – if you really want to understand what made Jean Rhys the great writer she would become – is where to go and look for her.

• I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour is published by William Collins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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