“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” (Jean Rhys)

This is my contribution to Jean Rhys Reading Week, hosted by Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal and Eric at Lonesome Reader. Do check out their blogs and join in!

Jean Rhys

Firstly, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930).

My edition is this 1970s Penguin - the subtitle manages to be both cheesy and misleading - bad Penguin!

My edition is this 1970s Penguin – the subtitle manages to be both cheesy and misleading – bad Penguin!

I feel I should have found this novel much more depressing I did. Julia is a woman whose looks are fading, an impending disaster for her, as she has no money and lives off the handouts of lovers who will find her easier to discard the older she gets. At the moment she has an ambiguous quality:

“Her career of ups and downs had rubbed most of the hallmarks off her, so that it was not easy to guess at her age, her nationality, or the social background to which she properly belonged.”

People tend to judge her harshly rather than kindly, particularly because she is a woman and at a time of more rigid social rules, they can read her lifestyle in her clothes, hair and makeup.  The men who use her escape more lightly, such as the titular lover with whom her relationship is breaking down:

“He was of the type which proprietors of restaurants and waiters respect. He had enough nose to look important, enough stomach to look benevolent. His tips were not always in proportion with the benevolence of his stomach, but this mattered less than one might think.”

After her cheques from Mr Mackenzie stop, Julia returns to England from France. Not quite estranged from her family but not on fond terms with them either, she lives in seedy Bloomsbury boarding houses:

“But really she hated the picture. It shared, with the colour of the plush sofa, a certain depressing quality. The picture and the sofa were linked in her mind. The picture was the more alarming in its perversion and the sofa the more dismal. The picture stood for the idea, the spirit, and the sofa stood for the act.”

I find that an astonishing piece of writing. To take a description of a dilapidated room and show how that reflects the mood of the person in it is one thing, but to extend it in such a way, so original and startling, really demonstrates why Rhys deserves to be lauded.

Julia ricochets around London, trying to find a man to take care of her. Rhys does not judge her protagonist which must have been quite shocking for 1930. Julia is sexually active, unmarried, childless, and is not punished by Rhys for such deviation from the feminine ideal. While she is a sad figure, even tragic, Rhys shows how we share a commonality with Julia rather than marking her out as Other.

 “She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts. Everybody’s life was like that. At the same time, in a miraculous manner, some essence of her was shooting upwards like a flame. She was great. She was a defiant flame shooting upwards not to plead but to threaten. Then the flame sank down again, useless, having reached nothing.”

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is a sad novel, but what keeps it from being depressing, for me, are the gentle touches of Rhys’ humour, such as in the description of Mr Mackenzie, and the fact that Julia holds on to her resilience. She is not a victim, despite being treated appallingly, but rather a realist, who knows that her options as a woman in her circumstances are limited. Rhys has a great deal to say but does so in a non-didactic way, leaving the reader to reach their own conclusions.

Secondly, Good Morning Midnight (1939). Superficially, this sounds very similar to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie: Sasha Jansen returns to Paris alone and broke. She is losing her looks and feels lonely and desperate… but it is quite different.

A more recent Penguin edition - blessedly free of a cheesy subtitle

A more recent Penguin edition – blessedly free of a cheesy subtitle

Sasha does not flail around trying to extract money from everyone.  Rather, Rhys writes this novel in the first person, using a degree of stream of consciousness to explore how a single woman at this point in history comes to terms with her life and the future that awaits her. Sasha is fragile:

“On the contrary, it’s when I am quite sane like this, when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realise how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something…”

She is self-destructive and lonely:

“I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled ‘Dum vivimus, vimamus….’ Drink, drink drink…As soon as I sober up I start again. I have to force it down sometimes…Nothing. I must be solid as an oak.”

And yet, amidst the sadness, there is resilience. We learn of Sasha’s past in Paris as she walks the streets, meets new people and is drawn back into her memories. The stream of consciousness and flitting between past and present is a highly effective. Rather than feeling like a contrived literary style, Rhys is able to create a real sense of being inside Sasha’s head and how someone would think: not in straight lines but (to steal an analogy from Jeanette Winterson) in spirals, back and forth.

1930s Paris map

1930s Paris map

Based on these two novels, I would say Rhys is brilliant at creating flawed, vulnerable women who are somehow survivors – they have a strength which is not immediately obvious, that perhaps they don’t even recognise themselves.

“I am trying so hard to be like you. I know I don’t succeed, but look how hard I try. Three hours to choose a hat; every morning an hour and a half trying to make myself look like everybody else. Every word I say has chains around its ankles”

A single woman with a sexual history who is no longer young does not have the most rosy prospects in interwar society and Rhys does not shy away from this. However, there is a sense that Sasha (and Julia) is not alone in her struggles. The search for meaning in a society that can degrade through disregard affects many and there is fellowship and sympathy to be found.

“I look thin – too thin – and dirty and haggard, with that expression that you get in your eyes when you are very tired and everything is like a dream and you are starting to know what things are like underneath what people say they are.”

Wiki tells me that when first published, (male?) critics found this novel well written but too depressing. I thought it was beautifully written and sad, but not depressing. I think for me depressing comes with a certain bleakness, and I didn’t find either novel bleak: neither Julia or Sasha ever quite lose hope.

To end, if anyone can capture the vicissitudes of a life well-lived in Paris:

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18 thoughts on ““Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” (Jean Rhys)

  1. A great post, Madame bibi. I like the way you’ve compared and contrasted the two novels, highlighting their unique qualities in the process. Good Morning, Midnight is on my list for the future – it sounds wonderful, possibly the high point in the sequence of her early novels.

    I love that quote about the sofa and picture – it’s so striking, isn’t it? That’s a great point about the way in which people form a certain impression of Julia based on her clothes, hair and makeup, like a disapproving judgement is being passed on her way of life. A running theme in Rhys’ work, I think…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jacqui! I think you’d really like Good Morning, Midnight, I found it really impressive.

      Yes, there are definitely themes Rhys returns to. Reading more of her work for this week has shown me what a rich portrait builds up when a writer chooses explore in this way.

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    • You make some excellent points about the high quality of Rhys’s writing. The room, of all the rooms her characters encounter, defines them all succinctly and brilliantly. I’ll be writing a piece on GMM on my blog for Jean Rhys Reading Week (Sat., Sept 17) and will later summarise all the comments on GMM.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read any Rhys but every single one of the quotes you’ve selected is magnificent (particularly the one about ‘three hours to choose a hat’).
    I have a particular fondness for Piaf, mainly because I went to see a stage play about her life and it was when I was pregnant with my first baby – half way through the play, I felt the baby move for the first time. Every so often, I play a little Piaf but unfortunately that same child doesn’t seem to register any womb-recognition.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was planning on reading some Jean Rhys for this week, but the chaos of the summer holidays has thwarted me. I’ve only previously read the ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ but your reviews have convinced me to find and read more. Those quotes are truly magnificent, aren’t they?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a great post (as ever) Madame Bibi. And the link between Piaf and Rhys is a marvellously apposite one. Piaf, Rhys herself, and some of her ‘heroines’ all have slightly racketty lives, and a combination of vulnerability and feist, not to mention an authenticity, and a grasping of the messiness of life, rather than its superficial lacquer and deception, that reaches out to the heart. And is why Piaf WAS so loved – she sears into the heart of all our authentic vulnerability, I feel

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  5. All her books sound good to me, but Good Morning, Midnight especially appeals. The only one I own, though, is Wide Sargasso Sea, so that’s the one I read for the event. I really enjoyed it, and hope to read more.
    Your title quote is one of the best quotes I’ve seen in a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I picked out exactly the same description of the room from After Leaving Mr Mackenzie as evidence of what a wonderful writer she was!
    You are right, I think, that it’s not as depressing as it should be. The humour is almost a fighting back against life.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: “She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.” (Jean Rhys, Quartet) | madame bibi lophile recommends

  8. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

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