In 1907, Ella Gwendoline (“Gwen”) Rees Williams sailed to England from Dominica, the Caribbean island of her birth, to attend school in Cambridge. Gwen, who was 16, had long dreamed of the motherland, but from the moment she landed at Southampton, her mood began to darken. If London, her first stop, was sooty and drab and populated by permanently indignant landladies, school was little better. She was mocked for her lilting accent by her classmates, who took particular pleasure in the fact that the maniac who is Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was a white Creole just like her. On Saturdays, she would cycle to the house of a kindly great aunt. Even there, though, the atmosphere was cautionary. Her aunt told her that she’d once been planning to leave her husband for a lover – until, that is, she looked in the mirror and saw the devil leering over her shoulder.
Did the devil ever perch on Gwen’s shoulder? Read Miranda Seymour’s slyly compelling new biography of Jean Rhys – the pen name was adopted in 1924, at the behest of her patron, Ford Madox Ford – and you will feel that it surely did, usually more than once a year. Unlike her aunt, however, she was not one to turn from temptation. The author of Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight was all feeling: a human bagatelle ball whizzing from one crisis to another, lured not only by all the usual siren songs (men, money, booze), but by any number of other, less appealing tunes (“disaster is her element,” said her last editor, Diana Athill). Was she, to use the old word, mad? Sometimes, perhaps. But if so, she was hardly alone. I Used to Live Here Once – the biography takes its brilliantly apt title from one of Rhys’s ghost stories – is shot through with madness. Half its cast are half crazy, and most of the rest are as creepy as hell. Liars and fraudsters, bigamists and bolters, grifters and gropers: they’re all here, though Seymour has a special line (because her subject attracted them) in the kind of literary stalker whose pulse races furtively at the sight of an old woman with a bad wig, a whisky habit and (just perhaps) a half-finished manuscript in a drawer.
It’s the second half of the book, in which she is old and ‘potty’ and half-cut, that is Seymour’s triumph
The die for all this was cast in Rhys’s childhood on the island that inspired her 1966 Jane Eyre prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea. By then a British colony, of its population of 29,000, fewer than 100 were white (her mother, who whipped her until she was 12, was Creole; her father was a Welshman), and she always felt like an outsider, “a changeling, a ghostly revenant”. Dominica was not an entirely hospitable place for a girl like her, taunted on the streets, felt up at home. Voodoo was practised, and Rhys’s nursemaid spoke of zombies that could open any door – stories that foreshadow the final years of her life when, figuratively speaking, reanimated corpses were indeed all around, and she was persecuted as a witch by the children in her Devon village.
After school, she became an actor; she once played a hen, laying her egg to the disconcerting thump of the clogs of the dissatisfied miners watching. But her lack of talent meant that she was soon in need of a protector. Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith set her up in a flat, and later paid for an abortion. But if he was never going to marry her, those who eventually did were never going to be as reliable as him. Her Belgian first husband, Jean Lenglet, married her bigamously. Her second, Leslie Tilden-Smith, died suddenly. Her third, Max Hamer, was sent to prison for fraud. Rhys had two children with Lenglet. The first, a son, died as a baby while she was out drinking. The second, a daughter, was at first sent by her broke, itinerant parents to an orphanage. Meanwhile, the poky, rat-infested places she called home – suburban bungalows with deceptively charming names – grew ever worse and so did her behaviour. She slapped other tenants, shouted antisemitic insults and abused the kindness of those who cared for her.
All this is exhausting to read about: quite how she managed to write anything at all is a mystery. But somehow, she did. Rhys’s career divides in two. Encouraged by Ford, with whom she had an affair, she published her first novel, Quartet, in 1928. Others followed, but after dismal reviews for Good Morning, Midnight in 1939, she was silent for 30 years. She was only saved by her ardent fans: Francis Wyndham, then working at Andre Deutsch, and his colleague, Diana Athill, who between them – with assistance from a priest who’d previously been chaplain to an asylum – teased Wide Sargasso Sea out of her.
Some readers will relish it when Rhys is to be found in Paris, hanging out with notable bohemians. But it’s the second half of the book, in which she is old and “potty” and half-cut, that is Seymour’s triumph. The narrative has the tension of a thriller as Rhys struggles to finish Wide Sargasso Sea, and once she has been rediscovered, there are the shabby hotels she haunts; the jaunts with Sonia Orwell and Diana Melly; the literary hangers-on who call for tea. Here is the poet Al Alvarez flirting with her, and here is the memoirist David Plante preparing to stitch her up (the portrait of a sodden Rhys in his book Difficult Women is among the most chilling things I’ve ever read).
You cannot work her out: the violent ingratitude, the fondness for Ronnie Corbett, the fact that she has read George Moore’s dreadful 1894 novel Esther Waters 60 times. And yet Seymour does not make the mistake of portraying her as a victim (Rhys died in 1979, aged 88). However precarious her existence, as she appears in this biography Rhys always maintains an obscure dominion, if not over herself, then over other people. Her intransigence, capriciousness and abiding selfishness may not be pretty, but it’s these qualities that kept her going against all the odds.
• 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 guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply