Books

Robin Ince: The forgotten story about how forgotten author Jean Rhys was rediscovered

Robin Ince visits Liznojan Books, to deliver a talk, when he finds himself engrossed in the story of his host's grandmother, Selma Vaz Dias

Liznojan Books

"This is a place where the owlish and curious feel happy and safe," says Robin Ince. Image supplied

Did you have a favourite Little Chef? I don’t know if there are any left now. I think they have become coffee outlets or adult superstores for the covert admirer of hardcore pornography and vibrating eggs. When my friend Lyndsey and I used to travel to Latitude festival, we were great admirers of the Little Chef in Essex that had a Happy Eater weathervane – a sign of hostile takeover with a lollipop for finishing the deal?  

My mum’s favourite Little Chef was on the Tiverton bypass. I’m not sure why she appreciated the omelettes so much or whether it was the joy of knowing we were nearly on our summer holiday. We never got closer to Tiverton than the bypass, but today I cross the boundary to visit Liznojan Books. The shop is a delight; plenty of books, plenty of space for tea and cake. 

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This is a place where the owlish and curious feel happy and safe. It is a bit too small for an event, so we travel to a house a few miles away. It is the size of an extravagant vicarage. I can imagine a Victorian lepidopterist scrutinising a Red Admiral’s wing in the front room. The owners, Tara and Nigel, have restored the house while maintaining the shadows and footprints of those who have been before. 

In the room I will be talking in, the sharp lines of faded paint show where paintings once hung, leaving an enigmatic space. I admire some paintings that have been brought in. Tara tells me they are works by her grandmother. As with most of my talks, the structure comes from what I find nearby. I have rooted through the shelves which the last owner left behind, the ferryman to the afterlife not having room enough in their boat for an Encyclopaedia of the Occult or Oscar Wilde’s Salome.  

Towards the end of the talk, I mention Jean Rhys, the now acclaimed author who spent much of her life forgotten, believed dead. During the questions, Tara tells me more of her grandmother Selma Vaz Dias. It was she who rediscovered Jean Rhys. Vaz Dias was, among other things, an actor in one of my favourite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, as well as being instrumental to bringing Lorca and Jean Genet to a wider audience. Having read Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, a novel of such startling honesty and sadness that the critics appreciated its style but detested its contents, Vaz Dias wanted to adapt it for the radio.  

Contacting her publishers, she was told that they had presumed Jean Rhys was dead. Due to her own diligence, Vaz Dias found out that, rather than being in the ground, Rhys was in Bude. A working relationship was forged, including on what would become Jean Rhys’s most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Sadly, the relationship ended in enmity and Vaz Dias was written out of the story, with publishers and editors taking the praise for unearthing Rhys.  

I had my old Penguin copy of Good Morning, Midnight in my rucksack as it was the next subject of my online book club. What synchronicity or coincidence that I found myself talking in the house of Selma Vaz Dias’s granddaughter. Opening the book again, I found an acknowledgement, a publisher’s note placing Selma back in the story. 

“…having pursued the matter with great determination and devotion because of her admiration for the art of Jean Rhys, she had achieved what we had failed to achieve and could give us Miss Rhys’s address. She also told us Miss Rhys was beginning work on a new novel, Wide Sargasso Sea…” 

Tara told me she had wanted to write a biography of her grandmother, but publishers had told her no one would be interested. I know I would, and I know many of that audience would be too. While there has been much griping at minor changes to Roald Dahl’s stories (a move I believe may be more to capitalism than sensitivity), I worry less for Augustus Gloop changing from “fat” to “enormous” and more for all those stories that are lost long before the printer’s ink is poured, stories of tenacious and inspirational woman like Selma Vaz Dias.  

Robin Ince’s book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.


This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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