Thursday, August 18, 2022

Q&A with Miranda Seymour




Miranda Seymour is the author of the new biography I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys. Seymour is also a novelist and critic, and her other books include In Byron's Wake. She is based in England.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of writer Jean Rhys (1890-1979)?


A: I like writing about women who have been misunderstood or misread. Rhys is a prime example. Even now, in 2022, readers are still being encouraged to connect her to “the Rhys woman” of her fictions, and to judge her failings as a person against her writing.


Do we do this with male writers? Of course not. And yet we still judge Rhys as if her drinking habits and her unquestionable flaws – her tantrums were legendary - were to be held against her as a writer.


What I wanted to demonstrate was that she was an exceptionally disciplined and well-read writer whose binges and rages shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the dedication with which she worked.


I also wanted to demonstrate the importance of her upbringing in a French island in the Caribbean – Dominica – to her life and her work. Before me, no biographer had visited Dominica before writing about her. Yet Dominica holds the key to much of her finest writing, including Voyage in the Dark and, of course, her fifth and most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I chose the title to emphasise the importance of Dominica to her work. It’s the title of a remarkable short – very short – story Rhys wrote in her 80s. Described by William Trevor as the finest short ghost story ever written, it describes a visitor’s dream return to a house from the past. The place described is Rhys’s own home in the Caribbean, and in the dream she is excluded from it.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls Rhys “a mysterious, fragmented, complicated literary figure.” How difficult was it to research her life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: Rhys’s papers are held at Tulsa and I live in London, so that required a long, serious research trip, during which I was lucky enough also to have access to the archives at Tulsa belonging to her publisher, including many letters from Rhys’s last editor, Diana Athill, and a third collection of papers which showed how closely she worked with David Plante, who worked as her typist when she could no longer hold a pen.


One of the biggest surprises was to find that one of Plante’s seemingly treacherous accounts of Rhys in Difficult Women (he tells of her getting drunk and falling into a lavatory bowl’s well, from which he fished her out) had delighted Rhys herself so much that she wanted to collaborate on a story version of it and wrote out her own version.


Plante’s book was published after Rhys’s death and readers assumed that it was a betrayal. It tells us a lot about the loyalty that Rhys herself inspired that many of her friends, including Antonia Fraser, never spoke to Plante again after he published that book.


I talked a lot with Diana Melly about Rhys. Melly suffered a lot from Rhys’s behaviour while living with the Mellys in her late 80s. Remembering her, Diana said that she would still love Rhys just as much if she had never written a single word. She bewitched people.


I was also struck by Rhys’s loyalty. Two of her husbands served long sentences in jail. Rhys paid regularly visits to Jean Lenglet at Fresnes in the 1920s and later worked on his own account of the breakdown of their marriage (as described by her in Quartet and by him in Barred, for which Jean found a publisher). He continued to find publishers for her and to endorse and support her work, until his own death.


When Rhys’s third husband, Max Hamer, was sent to Maidstone prison for two years, Rhys told nobody. She took rooms in a Maidstone pub, visited him every week and entered upon a life of extreme poverty and hardship with him after his release.


Q: What do you see as her legacy today?


A: Rhys is the most undated and perfect writer I’ve read. Compare her to her contemporaries and her work still speaks to us in ways that the novels of Woolf, Mansfield, and Elizabeth Bowen do not.


One of the reasons is that she cut out all the background detail and focused on the mind of the narrator, most strikingly in her finest and blackest work, Good Morning Midnight. Talking to David Plante, she once said that she tried to create a space around every word. It’s that clarity and pared-down style that make her feel so modern.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a book that emerged from writing about Rhys.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m hoping that her books will be put on audio. They should be. If you want to experience Rhys’s writing at its best, read it aloud.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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