If you haven’t read Jean Rhys’s Wide Saragossa Sea, you should. It’s a “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and while Rhys’s 1966 take on Mr. Rochester’s marriage to his first wife (who goes insane and is kept in the attic in Jane Eyre) is a tad heavy-handed, it is still an excellent if depressing read.

Rhys’s life, it turns out, also makes for depressing reading. In the latest issue of Literary Review, Claudia Fitzherbert reviews Miranda Seymour’s biography of the novelist, I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys:

“In 1974, at the age of eighty-four, Jean Rhys was asked in a television interview whether she would prefer to write or be happy were she to live her life over again. ‘Oh, happiness!’ she replied without missing a beat.

Rhys had been channelling unhappiness since the publication of her first volume of short stories in 1927. The four novels she published before the war chart journeys that go from bad to worse for heroines who end up alone in dreary hotel rooms. Ford Madox Ford, her much older mentor and unfaithful lover, said she had a “terrific – an almost lurid! – passion for stating the case of the underdog” as well as a “singular instinct for form”. The novels are spare, witty and completely unsentimental. Her protagonists sometimes dwell on who they were or might have been if their looks hadn’t faded or their lovers had been kinder or their babies hadn’t died. Their creator never falters in her acknowledgement that they are who they’ve become.

After years of neglect and obscurity, Rhys emerged as a grand old lady of English letters. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) marked the change. In the wake of its success, her prewar novels were republished and her wartime stories appeared for the first time. Money was no longer a problem. Rhys enjoyed annual London breaks from her solitary life in the Devon village of Cheriton Fitzpaine, where she had long been taken for a witch. She was pin-thin, often drunk by lunchtime and sometimes sported a wonky wig.

This isn’t the first biography of Rhys, and Fitzherbert notes that Seymour “takes fewer liberties than her predecessors and presents a more industrious, less delinquent Rhys,” but her portrait of the writer is “less vivid.”

Fitzherbert goes on to discuss to what degree we (or her biographers, which Seymour carefully avoids) should read the novelist into her novels:

It is true that there is an interesting gulf between Rhys’s circumstances and those of the women she wrote about. Her heroines are always beached and alone, while Rhys had husbands until her mid-seventies. Two of the three, admittedly, served prison sentences for fraud but two of them were deeply supportive and admiring of her work. She also had a startling effect on men of the cloth. Two Anglican vicars took her in to put her back on her writing feet. None of this makes it into her fictional studies of alienation and passive isolation.

Yet Rhys too was passive, to a degree. She burned with humiliation when Hugh Smith cast her off with an allowance, but took the money anyway. She let Ford dominate her while seeing clearly how it would end. She only completed Wide Sargasso Sea, a book that first occurred to her in 1938, in response to others demanding to see a manuscript.

In other news

In praise of paper:

In 1391, 2.3 million sheets of paper arrived at the port of London: a page for every person in England. Most of it was probably low-quality brown paper used as a packing material to protect foodstuffs and ceramics as they juddered along cartways into the city. A small amount, some 3500 sheets, was the ornamental paper used for decorations at feasts and known as papiri depicti (Chaucer refers to elaborate “bake-metes and dish-metes … peynted and castelled with papir” in ‘The Parson’s Tale’). The rest – hundreds of thousands of sheets – was writing paper. Only a hundred years earlier, paper was hardly known in England.

Ben Sixsmith reads Dave Rubin’s new book so you don’t have to: “I didn’t want to review Dave Rubin’s Don’t Burn This Country. One Dave Rubin book seemed like enough — arguably too many — for a lifetime. Yet like a burglar who retires from his life of crime only to pass a mansion with its doors wide open and the glint of jewels beyond the hallway, I was pulled in again. Just one more job.

Carl Rollyson reviews a new book about Marilyn Monroe in England: “How to build a book around a meeting between a queen and a movie star that lasted a few minutes? Dig deeply into records that correct errors in a seemingly familiar story and interview those still alive who witnessed Monroe’s entrance into a world alien to her, presided over by the world’s greatest actor who condescended to be her co-star.”

A new foundation for the arts: “Gordon Getty, 88, today announced formation of the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation for the Arts, to be supported by the expected multi-million dollar proceeds from the sale of his late wife’s art collection.”

An English translation of the only biography of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky will be published in July.

John Wilson reviews Dominic Green’s The Religious Revolution:

A Jewish skeptic, Green distinguishes between what he calls “religiosity” and “religion”: “Crudely, the difference between religiosity and religion is the difference between hunger and lunch. Hunger is a biological inheritance, its pangs inescapable proof of our nature. Lunch is a result of recent cultural evolution. The menu varies and is shaped by environment and appetite. Religion explains and organizes the experience of life, and when that experience changes, so does its explanation.” But it is not necessary to share Green’s understanding of religion in order to profit from his book; religious believers (such as myself) can learn from it and relish it even as they disagree with his framing.

Dave Chappelle was attacked by man with replica gun at Los Angeles comedy festival: “Chris Rock, who performed earlier, came on stage w/ him & joked: ‘Was that Will Smith?’”

Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions has been translated into English and illustrated for children: “In Latin America — especially in Chile — many kids grow up well acquainted with these question poemsIn fact, Valdivia herself learned to read through the poetry of Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, and she was made to memorize some of these questions, with melodies added to help. Valdivia said this new bilingual version, which took almost five years to make, can bring a new generation of children closer to poetry.”