Atmospheric but sloppily written, skimpily researched biography of the British novelist whose depressed, dependent heroines echoed her own neurasthenia.
Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in the West Indian colony of Dominica, Jean Rhys (1890–1979) apparently sustained lifelong damage from her mother’s indifference and the terrifying tales of zombies and werewolves related by a nursemaid. She rarely had close female friends after moving to England in 1907, and felt hardly any better about the men who both supported and demeaned her once she quit an uncertain career as a chorus girl and began years of passively living on the chancy largesse of her lovers and three husbands (two shady operators and one failed literary agent). She began chronicling blank, bleak existences like hers in fiction in the mid-’20s, when novelist Ford Madox Ford published her in the Transatlantic Review under the name Jean Rhys. (He also entangled her in a ménage à trois.) “She writes about long periods of nothingness with an insight born of bitter experience,” writes British literary journalist Pizzichini (Dead Men’s Wages, 2002). “Textual elisions punctuate her words, reflecting her blankness.” The biography has a similarly flat affect, noting with no moral judgments Rhys’s heavy drinking, fits of rage and seemingly total inability to take care of herself. The productive decade that produced Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie and two other novels, equally notable for their stark prose and sordid subject matter, ended in 1939. Rhys would not publish another book until 1966, when Wide Sargasso Sea brought her late-life fame with a fictional reimagining of the mad wife from Jane Eyre. Aiming to write about her subject “on her own terms,” Pizzichini essentially relies on Rhys’ autobiographical novels and Carole Angier’s more thorough Jean Rhys (1990) for factual details, concentrating on limning her precarious emotional states with cringe-inducing empathy.
Pizzichini’s indulgent wallowing in her subject’s excesses leaves the impression that Rhys was little more than the crazy drunk people often took her for.