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  • I Used to Live Here Once

  • The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys
  • By: Miranda Seymour
  • Narrated by: Diana Quick
  • Length: 14 hrs and 10 mins
  • 5.0 out of 5 stars (9 ratings)

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Summary

An intimate, revealing and profoundly moving biography of Jean Rhys, acclaimed author of Wide Sargasso Sea.  

An obsessive and troubled genius, Jean Rhys is one of the most compelling and unnerving writers of the 20th century. Memories of a conflicted Caribbean childhood haunt the four fictions that Rhys wrote during her extraordinary years as an exile in 1920s Paris and later in England. Rhys’ experiences of heartbreak, poverty, notoriety, breakdowns and even imprisonment all became grist for her writing, forming an iconic ‘Rhys woman’ whose personality—vulnerable, witty, watchful and angry—was often mistaken, and still is, for a self-portrait.

Many details of Rhys’ life emerge from her memoir, Smile Please and the stories she wrote throughout her long and challenging career. But it’s a shock to discover that no biographer—until now—has researched the crucial 17 years that Rhys spent living on the remote Caribbean island of Dominica, the island that haunted Rhys’ mind and her work for the rest of her life.

Luminous and penetrating, Seymour’s biography reveals a proud and fiercely independent artist, one who experienced tragedy and extreme poverty, alcohol and drug dependency, romantic and sexual turmoil—and yet was never a victim. I Used to Live Here Once enables one of our most excitingly intuitive biographers to uncover the hidden truth about a fascinatingly elusive woman. The figure who emerges for Seymour is powerful, cultured, self-mocking, self-absorbed, unpredictable and often darkly funny. Persuasive, surprising and compassionate, this unforgettable biography brings Jean Rhys to life as never before.

©2022 Miranda Seymour (P)2022 HarperCollins Publishers

Critic reviews

"Brilliantly written, compulsively readable and insightful, Miranda Seymour’s biography does full justice to a remarkable and complex life." (Pat Barker, author of The Silence of the Girls)

"It’s a high-wire act to hold so witty and eloquent a balance between this writer’s recklessness and diligence. The honesty, too, is appealing, the acknowledgement of dark places no one can fully visit." (Lyndall Gordon, author of Outsiders)

"Miranda Seymour’s illuminating and brilliant book shows how Jean’s life—and especially the island of Dominica—informed her genius. It goes a long way towards making the reader understand, forgive and even applaud her rage—more, it explains why so many of us loved Jean, and her books." (Diana Melly, author of Take a Girl Like Me)

What listeners say about I Used to Live Here Once

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A vasty deep, full of demons.

This biography has two main stories: the one you might expect- the life story of the subject- and an equally compelling one with broader cultural relevance. The second story reveals the workings of the team of individuals it took to ensure Jean Rhys' life's work came to completion and to the public eye.
The first story, Rhys' biography, is as satisfying as it can be in the face of the subject's devotion to privacy and with the wholesale destruction of much of her personal papers. What is glimpsed is deeply sad. It is also rather horrifying as Rhys' demons found frequent and ample expression fo the significant cost of those upon whom she depended. It is to the great credit of the author that no attempt is made to explsin Rhys, retrospectively to psychoanalyse or label her in language she would not have used of herself.
The story of the team of people to whom must go much credit for the eventual completion of Rhys' work, including Wide Sargasso Sea, which would never have appeared without them, is a lesson for the ages. No genius, however towering, stands entirely unsupported and while editors have long been recognised for the importance of their input, in Rhys's case they were far from alone. The 'biography' of Wide Sargasso Sea, and how nearly it came to being consigned to oblivion, calls for the phrase ' the edge of the seat'.
This is a gripping and memorable account of a gifted writer.
The narrator could not have been better chosen. The delicacy of her tone perfectly matches the respectful reserve and admiration of the author for her subject.

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Wonderful reading.

Cannot imagine a better reading or reader of this magnificent material than Diana Quick.

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"On the dark brink of madness"


‘I used to live here once’ is a line from one of Jean Rhys’s deeply unsettling ghost stories which encapsulates the haunted, at times demonic, personality of this uniquely gifted writer. Miranda Seymour draws on a huge archive of Rhys’s published and unpublished novels and stories, her end-of-life unfinished autobiography Smile, her many private notebooks in which she confided her fearful troubles, and her mass of letters. The result is this excellent compelling biography of a woman capable of superb disciplined writing whose chaotic personal life frequently “teetered on the dark brink of madness” , who longed for love and attention but whose volatile and violent outbursts, which could involve physical assault and spitting as well as screaming frequently exacerbated by her heavy drinking, ensured that she often experienced the rejection she feared.

The life of Jean Rhys (which was just one of the names she adopted) was both chaotic, at times intensely exciting and at times exceedingly miserable, penniless and lonely. Her childhood spent in Dominica with her Welsh father and white Creole mother who beat her gave her a deep seated feeling of being an outsider, a feeling which never left her. At the age of 16 in 1907 she was sent to school in Cambridge in England, to her a completely alien country where the other girls teased her for her lilting accent and when the class read Jane Eyre identified her with Bertha Mr Rochester’s mad wife in the attic. She had three marriages, many affairs including with Ford Madox Ford, worked as a chorus girl in London, lived also in Paris and Holland, all the time compulsively writing, writing writing what was boiling inside her. Her first baby died in hospital whilst she and her then husband were drinking champagne, something for which she never forgave herself and their daughter Maryvonne spent much of her life in children’s homes when her hopeless parents were unable to care for her. (Even so it was Maryonne she wrote to and who cared for her at the end of her life) . Detail, empathy for her subject, scrupulous fairness, awareness of the changing literary landscapes and tastes over the decades, and insightful academic analysis of Rhys’s writings abound in the Miranda Seymour’s life of Rhys which has made riveting and totally absorbing listening.

The last part of Rhys’s life from 1969 when her 30year period of reclusive seclusion came to an end is also meticulously detailed. It covers her painfully slow writing of Wild Sargasso Sea which was drawn out of her by the editorial midwives Diana Athill and Francis Wyndham over many years. They were determined to get the novel out of Rhys before she either died or became completely incapable but their persistence during all those years left me feeling very uneasy. There were more than a few equally determined literary stalkers in Rhys’s life from this point on as thanks to these editors, interest in her work grew. Athill and Wyndham were determined that Wide Sargasso Sea would be edited and published by THEIR tireless efforts but I do wonder how much they wanted it to make their own names. The public notice that Rhys finally ‘enjoyed’ even though she enjoyed the new clothes and visits to admirers, was also a fearful terror for her. She hated interviews and enjoyed her hermit life in Devon; she didn’t want the convenient all mod cons new home in Essex bought for her by her editor and I was pleased she turned it down and remained in her little retreat surrounded by the trees and flowers she loved.

Diana Quick is a superbly nuanced narrator, confident with the French phrases and speaking Rhys’s words in a voice and gentle accent conveying all her frailty, vulnerability and charm. A great achievement.

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Amazing biography

This is a fascinating book and led me to buy some of the subjects work. My 3 stars are given because Diana Quick - though magnificently narrating this book, just couldn’t help herself with the pretty camp accent when quoting Rhys herself. It got to the point where it was making me flinch.