#100WomenNovelists: Jean Rhys

Blog Post 37: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930)

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After she had parted from Mr Mackenzie, Julia Martin went to live in a cheap hotel on the Quai des Grands Augustins. It looked a lowdown sort of place and the staircase smelt of the landlady’s cats, but the rooms were cleaner than you would have expected.

For six months Julia has been living in a shabby Parisian hotel on an allowance from her ex-lover, Mr Mackenzie. But now his cheques have stopped and she returns to London to try again. But on this ten day visit, Julia struggles to eke out even a basic living. She can’t rely on either her embittered sister or her terminally-ill mother. She can’t rely on her ex-lovers who are hypocritical feeble men. She can’t rely on her looks or her waning energy to find a new ‘protector’ as they have been ruined by her hard life and booze. Just how is she supposed to survive?

It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls around you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out.

Julia is displaced, ghost-like, wandering through the labyrinth of Bloomsbury foggy streets, lost, alone, alienated. Something that resonated deeply with the author herself.

Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, to a white Creole mother and a Welsh father. She is most famous for writing ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, a retelling of Jane Eyre which was published when she was 76. Her earlier novels were largely forgotten and she was presumed dead – but was in fact living as a recluse in the West Country. ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’, her second novel, is short and sparse with pared-down prose, crammed full with poignancy and an uncomfortable truth. Published in 1930, it was far ahead of its time and still has relevance for today’s reader. Unsettling. Harrowing. With moments of short-lived hope.

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.

These moments where Julia is most self-aware – such as when she ignores a proposition on the tube, head held high – are the points of hope, where that defiant flame shoots upwards. And we are left wondering what kind of life she could have led had she been educated or employed, instead of reliant on men.

Of all the idiotic things I ever did, the most idiotic was selling my fur coat…the sort that lasts for ever…people thought twice before they were rude to anybody wearing a good fur coat.

Julia has no protection in a harsh, unforgiving world. A haunting, touching, atmospheric read.

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