Tag Archives: Stet

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

My choice for the 1930s club is After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys. Published in 1930, it was her second novel, and is set in sad rooms in Paris and Bloomsbury in London. Julia is a young woman who has no independent means of support. 

The 1930s Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. You read a book from the year and post your thoughts on it, linking to their blogs. Simples, and a great way to pick a book that you might not otherwise read. It suits me perfectly, because I don’t want to chase new books all the time, but reread books and read published books, especially from the 20th century. 

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

Janet finds herself in a sad room in a down at heel hotel in Paris after she has split up from Mr Mackenzie. It is clear that she has been financially dependent upon the men she slept with, but Mr Mackenzie’s solicitor has cut off her weekly allowance.

What is she to do? Increasingly desperate she finds Mr Mackenzie in a restaurant and challenges him. Later she is pursued by Mr Horsfield who takes pity on her but cannot manage her. She returns to London, where her sister Norah is behaving properly but is no more successful than her. Their mother dies and Janet gets nothing. She returns to Paris and continues to sink. In the last scene she once again receives money from Mr Mackenzie.

It’s a novel about managing life, or rather about the mistaken idea that life can be controlled. Propped up by convention the men believe they do control it, but it is clear that Julia challenges this notion.

Is this autobiography?

The young Jean Rhys

‘How this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery,’ said her editor, Diana Athill.

And indeed it might appear that this novel is autobiographical. Other sources suggest that while Jean Rhys drew from her experiences, there is a crucial difference: 

‘A novel has to have a shape, and life doesn’t have any.’ 

This quotation from the author can be found in Diana Athill’s introduction to Smile Please: an unfinished autobiography by Jean Rhys (1979).

Much of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie concerns people trying to control their lives. Janet is poor at it, and moves from one gentleman to another, borrowing money and asking favours. She appears to be managing very badly. The men in her life, and her sister, are not doing much better. The men draw on conventions to try to appear in control. But Mr Mackenzie is at a loss when Julia appears in the restaurant in which he is dining. She complains that his lawyer has said there will be no more cheques. 

Mr Mackenzie thought, ‘Never again – never, never again – will I get mixed up with this sort of woman.’

His collar felt too tight for him. He thrust his chin out in an instinctive effort to relieve the constriction. The movement was exactly like that of a horse shying. (25) 

Mr Mackenzie vacillates between horror of what she might do and attempts to humiliate her. After a moment, this happens.

A cunning expression came into Julia’s face. She picked up her glove and hit his cheek with it, but so lightly that he did not even blink.

‘I despise you,’ she said.

‘Quite,’ said Mr Mackenzie. He sat very straight, staring at her.

Her eyes did not drop, but a mournful and beaten expression came into them.

‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘all right. Have it your own way.’

Then, to Mr Mackenzie’s unutterable relief, she gathered up her gloves and walked out of the restaurant. (26)

Jean Rhys, while she suffered from men’s behaviour towards her, did not resent them. Indeed she claimed in a radio interview that writing about such incidents, while autobiographical, was also therapeutic. It purged her unhappiness. Once something had been written out, she said, it was done with. (Quoted by Diana Athill in Smile Please).

Jean Rhys was innovative in this novel, for example she uses multiple points of view to show her protagonist’s situation. We are taken into the heads of the people she meets, or reports on, and by this means we are shown how Janet is a challenge to people. She has not left Mr Mackenzie at the start of the novel, although she does leave him at the end. He is still as self-satisfied as at the start, and while he may not want to be ensnared by another woman like Julia, we know that he will go on exploiting women.

Julia, in short, is like that person on the street whose eye you do not want to catch. She makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet you pity her for not managing her life. But in truth all lives are, to some degree, unmanageable. We are all just a small step away from chaos or disaster or poverty. 

No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was her second] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was. [Diana Athill in Stet.] 

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys, was first published in 1930. I used the  Penguin Modern Classic edition (2000) with an introduction by Lorna Sage. 138pp

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys was reviewed on Bookword in July 2013.

The Romantic Life of the writer Jean Rhys was published in September 2016, in which I suggested that it is amazing that Jean Rhys wrote so well in the light of her considerable difficulties.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The Romantic life of the writer Jean Rhys?

It’s such a romantic story. A novelist forgotten, rediscovered and a career reanimated and crowned with the publication of a masterpiece. Jean Rhys’s story is one of suffering, depression and penury. Proof perhaps that creativity arises from suffering.

Except, Jean Rhys’s story teaches us quite the opposite. Her suffering inhibited her creativity. This is my contribution to #ReadingRhys week from 12th-18th September.

282 #RRhys

Seeking information on ‘the late Jean Rhys’

Born in 1890 on the island of Dominica, Jean Rhys came to Europe at the age of 16, spending time in Paris and London. She led the life of a demi-mondaine, as a rich man’s mistress, a model and volunteering in a soldiers’ canteen during the First World War. After the war Ford Maddox Ford encouraged her writing and even established a temporary maison a trois to supervise.

The young Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

She wrote many short stories and three successful novels before the Second World War.

  • 1927 Left Bank and other stories
  • 1928 Postures/Quartet
  • 1930 After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
  • 1934 Voyage in the Dark
  • 1939 Good Morning, Midnight [the link is to my review]

And then, as far as readers were concerned, she disappeared. I expect most people, if they thought about her at all, assumed she was dead.

What kept her from writing?

Several factors combined to work against her.

War: in England during the war she worried about the lack of news of her former husband and their daughter Maryvonne. They were both safe, but she was not able to receive news of them from Holland. The stories she did write were unsuccessful and not published. She and her second husband could not settle and moved out of London.

282 Rhys at window

Poverty: Jean Rhys seems to have had no money at any time in her life. And when her husband, Leslie, died in the late ‘40s and she married Max Hamar nothing improved. And then it got worse because Max was imprisoned for fraud. Don’t imagine romantic attics, rather see her living on the edge in almost uninhabitable bungalows in Devon.

Ineptness: ‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. Jean was quite unable to deal with the practicalities of life. When she arrived from Domenica she had no experience of trains or hot water. Later, in a drunken state she agreed to a contract that gave away far too many rights to any adaptations of her work.

Drink and depression: her inability to cope with practical matters was compounded by her paranoia, depression and tendency to drink. She ate too little and drank too much.

Bad luck seems to follow hopeless people, perhaps explaining the idea that people creating their own luck.

Rediscovery

Jean Rhys was finally rediscovered in the ‘50s through an advertisement from the BBC asking for information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. They planned to broadcast an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight.

Francis Wyndham was an admirer and an editor with Andre Deutsch and heard about her rediscovery. He helped her get some stories published, and sent her some money. Diana Athill, also an editor for Andre Deutsch, learned that she had nearly completed a new book. That was in 1957.

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Wide Sargasso Sea was not completed for another seven years, until 1964. Her editors provided all kinds of help, but this was difficult to do when she always put a brave face on her difficulties. And at the moment when the manuscript was to be handed over to the publisher, with a few lines left to dictate to the typist, Jean Rhys had a heart attack. She had made Diana Athill promise not to publish without this final amendment. For a while her survival was in doubt, and there was a real risk that we might never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea. She did not complete the novel for another two years.

The struggles were not over even when she recovered, although alleviated. But she did complete a memoir called Smile Please.

What we learn

This is not a story of a troubled romantic artist, her troubles somehow enriching the creativity. Jean Rhys’s story reveals that talent is easily negated by poverty, drink and depression. There were times when she felt her brain was empty, like an automatic dispenser she had see on a tube station: This machine is EMPTY till further notice.

Creativity requires encouragement, money, good health, freedom from anxiety and time to write a novel.

Acknowledgements

Two sources were essential for this post:

Jean Rhys (Lives of Modern Women) by Carole Angier, Penguin Books 1985

282 Stet cover
Stet: an editor’s life
by Diana Athill, Granta Books 2000

This post is part of the blog reading week called #ReadingRhys co-hosted on the blogs of Jacquiwine and Solitary Reader

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Writing

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [Good Morning, Midnight was her fourth] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. The story of Jean Rhys’s life is remarkable. And her writing is also remarkable and ahead of its time, but, observes Diana Athill, ‘how this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery.’ While Jean Rhys mined her own life for the material for her novels, we should not make too much of this she warned us:

All of a writer that matters is in the book. It is idiotic to be curious about the person. (tweet from @Standoutbooks)

We can agree with the first half of that quotation without feeling idiotic about our curiosity.

The first four novels were published between the wars, Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. After the war it was thought that Jean Rhys was dead, until in 1957 she answered an advertisement seeking information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. A BBC radio play of Good Morning, Midnight performed by Selma vaz Dias was being prepared.  Jean Rhys was living in penury in Cornwall, and lived on until 1979, publishing her most celebrated book Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966.

Good M Mid

Good Morning, Midnight is set in Paris in October 1937. The Englishwoman Sophia (aka Sasha) Jansen is staying in a hotel, thanks to a friend. The novel is told by Sasha, as thoughts are going through her head, so that she shifts place and time frequently, but never looses the reader. As well as the present time, we see earlier times in Paris, and in Brussels. Her voice is unrelenting, bleak, sometimes telling herself to stop speaking, sometimes saying what she would like to be saying out loud, or ventriloquising a room as in the opening paragraph.

 ‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basin is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

In these first 100 words she establishes her relationship with the reader, who sees at once an odd, idiosyncratic figure, alone, impoverished, revisiting her past life. The hotel is shabby, bleak – no colour is mentioned. Her stay in Paris will be like the view out of her window, uphill, an impasse. Very quickly she persuades us that Sasha is ‘an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray’.

41 young j Rhys

Sasha is not an easy person: she does not find life easy and nor do other people find her easy to deal with. There is a line that we have all noticed, as we hover near in alcohol, depression, penury, sickness or hopelessness. We struggle to keep this side of the line at all costs. Sasha has crossed the line for good. She is unable to follow her own arrangements for her ‘little life’. She constantly tells herself not to go in that bar, not to have another drink, but immediately enters the bar, orders drink after drink, meets people and suffers from their looks or comments. She knows that she is one of those people whose eye you try not to catch, who you try to ignore on the street. She does not belong, not in her cheap room off Gray’s Inn Road nor in Paris. Her solution is ‘the bright idea of drinking myself to death.’

I have no pride – no pride, no name, no face, no country. I don’t belong anywhere. Too sad, too sad. … It doesn’t matter, there I am, like one of those straws which floats round the edge of a whirlpool and is gradually sucked into the centre, the dead centre, where everything is stagnant, everything is calm. Two-pound-ten a week and a room just off the Gray’s Inn Road. …

She attracts the people who prey off other people; other hotel guests, two Russians, a painter and a gigolo. He does not believe that she has no money. But she feels safe in her poverty. There is nothing further for him to take from her, she believes. It is in the sexual transactions of this world that destitution is clearest. But the final pages of the novel are chilling, shocking. It is always possible, it seems, to slip further away on the wrong side of that line.

Jean Rhys makes a powerful impression on the reader. Who can forget the image of Mr Rochester from the attic in The Wide Sargasso Sea? And who can escape the discomfort of this earlier novel, largely because of what Emma Darwin refers to (in a short blog review) as ‘admitting the reader so absolutely to a consciousness at once so helpless and sharp-eyed’. Linda Grant, writing about Rhys in the My Hero column in the Guardian in February this year describes the effect of her style.

When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?

Some of the writing is even surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful and funny. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is what AL Kennedy, in her introduction, calls ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. It is her attitude to sexual transactions, that shocks, even while she craves closeness and will invent it with strangers to stave off bleakness, when alcohol doesn’t do it.

Her achievement, according to Emma Darwin, ‘is in her pitch-perfect depiction – and thereby her validation – of female consciousness and experiences when the lives of women (and the novels written about them) were thought duller, smaller and less interesting than those of (and written by) men. …there’s no self pity there, only a painfully acute self-knowledge.’

I can see her book would be shocking to the inter-war readers: it’s still shocking today. But although disturbing to read, it is also very powerful and affecting. And we should not make too much of her chaotic life as we now can treasure her amazing prose.

41 jean-rhys

Further Reading:

Biography by Carol Angier new edition (2011, fp 1990)

Stet: an editor’s life by Diana Athill (2000)

 

REMINDER: if you have a recommendation for the September Readalong, please mention it in the comments box, on this page or on the ‘about the book group’ page. Thanks Marianne for the recommendation for this book.

If you have enjoyed reading this and want to be notified of further posts please subscribe to my blog. Just enter your email address in the box on the top of the column on the right.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews