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BOOK REVIEW : A Brilliant but Painful Biography of Jean Rhys : JEAN RHYS: Life and Work <i> by Carole Angier</i> ; Little, Brown and Co.; $35, 762 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“It is doubtful if one ought to open this volume unless one is happily married, immensely rich, and in robust health; for if one is not entirely free from misery when one opens the book one will be at the suicide point long before one closes it.”

The words are Rebecca West’s. They appeared in a 1931 review of a novel called “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie” by a relatively new author named Jean Rhys. Like so many other literary critics, West would admire Rhys, but find her novels darkly disturbing.

Something similar can be about the first full-fledged biography of this extraordinary writer, “Jean Rhys: Life and Work,” by English scholar Carole Angier. The reader should be forewarned: Although it is brilliant--beautifully written, highly perceptive, and well-organized--this biography is nonetheless a painful book to read.

Rhys’ life, it turns out, was as tragic and extreme as her fiction, something those of us familiar with her novels (“Wide Sargasso Sea,” “Good Morning, Midnight,” “Voyage in the Dark,” “Quartet”) might have guessed. Angier’s biography shows us that Rhys kept notebooks from the beginning, her “records of fact” that became her art. Rhys’ fiction was a direct, artfully condensed account of her life.

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And what a life. Rhys was born in 1889 on the Caribbean island of Dominica, descended from white plantation owners. She was sent to boarding school in England in her late teens. Later, she abandoned any attempt to lead a respectable life and became a touring actress with a music-hall troupe.

When she took to the stage she also took to a love of older, wealthy English men. The men invariably disappointed her, dropping her at their convenience, and she found herself fallen from music-hall artiste to “masseuse,” from kept woman to paid woman.

She would write about the demimonde more powerfully than anyone of her generation, revealing a harsher reality of drink and dissipation, adultery and violence, than either Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

Novel after novel, the critics and public found her books far too grim. Most of her characters were unspeakably alienated and empty, alone in a dog-eat-dog world, engaged in an endless and merciless battle for survival. For Rhys, a man’s power was money, a woman’s, beauty, and there was no question which was the greater.

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Her literary life began in 1924 when Ford Madox Ford published one of her stories in the English Review. They became lovers, though both were married at the time. The affair would end badly. Later, both Ford and Rhys wrote novels about it, and each drew a bitter portrait of the other.

After World War II, her work fell into obscurity, and she herself disappeared from the literary world. For years, no one heard from her, not even old friends.

In 1956, Francis Wyndham, who had discovered “Good Morning, Midnight,” one of Rhys’ most beautiful and bleakest prewar novels, announced on the BBC that he would be reading from a work by the “late” Jean Rhys. “It seems they thought I was dead,” she said later of the broadcast. “Which of course would make a great difference. . . . I feel rather tactless at being alive!”

When rediscovered she was in her mid-60s, living in the English countryside among completely unliterary people and no longer writing. Life had become hell for Rhys and her third husband, Max, largely because Rhys’ alcoholism and latent rage had led her into a series of confrontations with neighbors.

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In a dark repetition of earlier troubles, Max--like her first husband, John--was sent to prison for embezzlement. Rhys, quite destitute, was incarcerated for a short time in a prison mental ward.

And yet a whole new generation of readers and critics had discovered her work, and their attention helped give her the courage to begin writing again. While living in dismal rooms and visiting Max in prison, she began work on her final novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” set in her childhood home of Dominica and considered by many to be her finest, most mature work. In it, for the first time, Rhys created a sympathetic male character, and faced her self-destructive nature.

If you read nothing else of hers, read that novel. Her life must finally be viewed as a triumph. She wasn’t just a writer who was rediscovered in old age; she was a writer who, although old, ill, and never free of the bottle, could come back and produce her best work. In the end, her imagination returned to Dominica, the island where it all began. Jean Rhys died in 1979 in England. She was almost 90.

Next: Carolyn See reviews “The Way We Live Now” by Marian Thurm (Bantam).

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