The Wild Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys completely stunned and enthralled me with its sheer beauty when I read it for the first time in January of last year. (I would welcome any comments on my post on the book. The biggest issue in the book blog world is whether or not Rhys is fair to Rochester.)
The Wild Sargasso Sea is sort of a prequel to Jane Eyre. It is the story of the first wife of Edward Rochester, the mad woman in the attic. I like to know something about the backgrounds of the authors of the books I read, especially of the books that move me as deeply as The Wide Sargasso Sea did. I have come to rely on Wikipedia as my first resource in learning about authors and it has a good article on Jean Rhys. There was also some biographical data in the edition of the novel I read. I wanted to know more and thanks to the biography of Lillian Pizzichini I do.
I do not want to retell much of the life of Rhys here. It is a tragic heartbreaking story. Jean had a lot of problems! I knew that for long period of her life Rhys had lived off the kindness of her admirers, that she worked as a chorus girl and a nude model. I knew she was a prostitute for a period of her life. I thought she must have just met a wealthy man or three who kept her. In fact she did meet several wealthy men who would have been happy to do just that if only Rhys could act half way decent. Rhys really seems to me to have preferred the excitement and real danger of being a street walker to a comfortable but dull to her life. The only men she could find any love for were parasitic bad boys. She drank and drank and then when she remembered where she left the bottle she drank some more. She wrote four pretty successful novels, had a couple of office jobs during WWII, but she was a sex worker on and off for years. Sometimes it was with a baron or such an old chorus girl friend introduced her to over dinner but a lot of the time it was with a nameless stranger met in the roughest bars in Paris or London. Rhys could have lived in comfort but she loved the excitement of the bars and the streets.
I liked the descriptions in the book of the wild life in Paris among the apaches and the scenes out on the town with Ford Madox Ford. I was fascinated by Pizzichini's treatment of Ford Madox Ford, one of the lovers of Rhys. I really liked it when I found out one of the admirers of Rhys was the unpaid English agent for the great Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore. Rhys was deeply into the reading life and loved to lose her self in what she read.
For about 20 years she lived from the marginal earnings of her husbands. She had a daughter who she did not really have much part in raising. I think part of Rhys problem was that she saw so deeply into things that so called "normal" people bored her. She was also supported by other family members. She was in and out of jail for public drunkenness and brawling (OK she was a mess!). Then in one magic moment she finds a classified advertisement in the newspaper asking anyone who knows the whereabouts of the author of Jean Rhys to please get in touch with the BBC as they wanted to produce one of her books. Rhys still has her issues (she was not a quiet drinker-she was given to screaming in the streets etc-if you saw her you would have said "bag lady" and looked away) but long story short she was encouraged by the contacts she made at the BBC to write another novel (it had been twenty years since her last one) and the world was given a great master work, The Wide Sargasso Sea.
If you want to learn more about Rhys life than you can find on the internet, then The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys will suit your purpose. I must say as a biography it appears that Pizzichini read all the novels and short stories of her subject but most all of her facts, she acknowledges this, pretty much come from an earlier biography of Rhys. There are also a lot of projections of ideas and feelings into the mind of Rhys that are pure speculation. It is decently written and a fast read. As a literary biography, this book is way below the standards set in Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller by Kathleen Jones. I am glad I read this book but I endorse it only to those really interested in Jean Rhys and even then I would say you probably should first read Jean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier. It is from this book that Pizzichini gets her facts though she does have a lot of interesting things to say. I am glad I read this book. Most people on Goodreads say it is an OK biography but not at all an original work. It almost seems exploitive to write a book this like this but that is a different question than whether or not it is worth reading.
It is funny, Rhys had plenty of chances to have a room of her own with steady money but she ran from this to the bars and the after hours clubs to live in seedy hotels. Maybe she needed this to create. A lot of 100 best novels or feminist classics lists contain The Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys lived from 1890 to 1979, she was 76 when her most famous work was published. She was approached to speak in conferences and such on feminist causes but she was not at all interested. Rhys became pretty well off in her final years (she lived to 89) and lots of people who loved her books came to see her but she said it was to late to matter.