Cover Image: I Used to Live Here Once

I Used to Live Here Once

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For years, I kept hearing about this Jean Rhys and this novel Wide Sargasso Sea. I found a copy of the novel and finally read it, riveted. I loved her reimagining of the ‘mad wife’ in Jane Eyre, Bronte’s story turned into a social commentary about colonialism and the rejection of female sexuality.

That was twenty years or so ago. I knew nothing more about Rhys when I picked up this new biography, I Used To Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour. Her portrait of Rhys is unforgettable and complex, the story of a woman born too soon, who lived passionately and in seclusion, married unwisely for love, plummeted from wealth to poverty, and rose to fame to forgotten to lionized.

Seymour writes that “Rhys often said that she wrote about herself because that was all she knew,” and throughout the biography she demonstrates how Rhys’ characters were born of her experience, but also that they are born of Rhys’ imagination, and are not autobiographical clones. Rhys took what she knew, her Dominican childhood, her young adulthood as a chorus girl on tour, her bohemian life in Paris, her love affairs and marriages, and turned it into dark stories that publishers found too raw, unfit for a woman writer’s pen.

We met a woman who is damaged but determined, who bends to her weaknesses and shows incredible strength. Her beauty and charm lured men to want to possess her, then her violent temper dealt out blows. She walked away from an education to pursue the stage and yet wrote what the BBC identified as one of the ‘top 100 most influential novels.’

Her life was almost incomprehensibly complicated! If anyone truly lived, it was Rhys. Over her long life she went mad and discarded friends and men, hobnobbed with so many important people! Like so many Lost Generation writers she struggled with alcoholism, drug dependency and depression. She suffered accidents, underwent abortions, and was hospitalized for mental breakdown. No wonder she created unforgettable characters, women who contended with so much.

She was seventy-five years old when she published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. Rhys was ‘rediscovered’ by a new generation, finally found financial security, and unwelcomed fame. To the end of her life, she took care of her appearance, this petit blue-eyed, once blond-haired octogenarian, with her pink and white wigs and fashionable colorful clothes.

You won’t always like Jean Rhys. But you will be impressed by her resilience and determination.

Now, to read the rest of her work…

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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A stunningly well-written and researched biography on the great writer Jean Rhys—and very sadly due to the fact that I can't find digital copies of Rhys' writings anywhere, my knowledge of her work is limited to her brilliantly original retelling of Jane Eyre from the point of view of the "mad woman in the attic" —Rochester's wife, "Bertha." With that book, I found it in a used bookstore and read it even though it was extremely difficult on my poor vision. ( I can't read paperbacks anymore due to an eye condition. I rely on digital so I can adjust the font.) Why aren't Jean's books in electronic form? It's a disgrace. But I digress...

Jean is an extremely complex woman who had a difficult life. She also had a natural ability. It's quite astonishing, given her lack of formal education, what a profound ability she had—but she also worked very hard at it, and had some extremely talented mentors.

So here is where I take off a star... the author doesn't seem to acknowledge that many times it appears as if what the author refers to as "love" relationships were really little more than Jean being forced to exchange sex for anything, whether it was a place to live, a job, a publishing deal, or even her literary agent! Many times I'd start to think "Okay, well, at least she didn't have to sleep with this one..." and then the author would blithely mention that Jean started a physical relationship with this one too. They could not have all been willingly reciprocal relationships given they always seemed to start when Jean either had no money or was desperately striving for a career, or both. I would have loved to have seen the author take on this topic a bit more.

That said, if you are a fan of Jean's writing, and I am definitely am, then you need to pick up this biography. And I hope her estate or publisher or whomever is controlling her copyrights will make her works available in digital form.

Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher, and Miranda Seymour for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

I just reviewed I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour. #IUsedtoLiveHereOnce #NetGalley
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A fascinating and intimate look at the author of the beloved WIDE SARGASSO SEA, Miranda Seymour's I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE paints a rich portrait of a complex and fiercely talented writer, as well as the times in which she lived.  Deeply researched and vivid, this is a finely crafted biography which reads as compellingly as a novel.
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I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a fascinating biography about Jean Rhys, a writer who grew up in the Caribbean, and how her early life was woven into her stories. 

I loved all the old pictures. The story was full of interesting facts, and it seems so much research went into writing this account of Jean Rhys's life. I enjoyed reading this book and getting to know Jean and the people she met along her journey in life.

#IUsedtoLiveHereOnce #NetGalley @wwnorton
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