Welcome to Jean Rhys Reading Week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie revisited

Welcome to #ReadingRhys, a week centred on reading and discussing the work of Jean Rhys, now considered one the greatest writers of the 20th century. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

JeanRhysReadingWeek banner

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this week Eric (of the Lonesome Reader blog) and I have teamed up to coordinate discussions about Jean Rhys’ writing and life. As a latecomer to Rhys’ work, I’m still working my way through her books which are distinct for their unique style and brutal honesty. Eric, Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens), Margaret Reardon (a long-standing Rhys fan) and I will be posting about all of Jean Rhys’ major books over the course of the week. During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been issued and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There’s a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.


How to join in

Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:

  • If you have a blog, you could write your own review or article about the book
  • Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a Jean Rhys Reading Week Group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book and her life
  • Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys
  • Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week (see the below schedule)

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you. Plus, we’ll be happy to continue to discuss all things Rhys in the weeks that follow the event, particularly if you run short of time over the next few days.


What we’ll post about this week

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week. These are the books we’ll be taking a lead on.

I’ll be focusing on After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (coming up later in this post) and Rhys’ stories, plus I have a very exciting interview lined up for later in the week – all will be revealed in due course!

Monday 12th September

  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Tuesday 13th

  • Voyage in the Dark – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Wednesday 14th

  • Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Thursday 15th

  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
  • Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)

Friday 16th

  • An interview with a special guest – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Saturday 17th

  • Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
  • Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Sunday 18th

  • Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
  • The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add the banner (near the top of this piece) to your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week. Please feel free to add a link to your post(s) in the comments below. In the meantime, if you have any particular thoughts or plans for the week, just let us know. You can also get in touch with us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.


Win a special Jean Rhys Prize Bundle!

As luck would have it, Penguin have recently reissued Rhys’ novel Good Morning, Midnight as part of their brightly-coloured Pocket Penguins series. You can read the first chapter of this brilliant novel here. As a special incentive to join in #ReadingRhys week, Eric and I will select one lucky person who makes a significant contribution to our discussions over the week to win a special Jean Rhys Package (courtesy of Penguin)!


Revisiting ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’

In preparation for the event, I went back to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, a novella I reviewed last year – you can read my initial post here.


Revisiting this book again, I was struck by a few additional things – firstly the author’s use of imagery to convey the harshness of the environment in which Julia, the central character, finds herself. Here’s a short quote from the Paris section of the story.

The lights of the cafés were hard and cold, like ice. (p. 16)

Similarly, London is portrayed as a cold and terrifying place offering little comfort to Julia, in her hours of greatest need.

It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round 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. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere. (p. 62)

There are lots of references to animals too. One gets the sense that the Rhys protagonist considers animals to be rather more dignified than many of the people she is forced to deal with. What you see is what you get, so to speak – with these creatures there is no pretence.

Julia said: ‘Animals are better than we are, aren’t they? They’re not all the time pretending and lying and sneering, like loathsome human beings.’ (p. 97)

Once again, the cruelty of society at the time comes through loud and clear. In effect, Julia is considered an outsider. Marginalised by her former lovers and family members alike, she is virtually forced into begging for assistance, an experience she knows will almost certainly end in utter humiliation.

Her face was red. She went on talking in an angry voice: ‘They force you to ask – and then they refuse you. And then they tell you all about why they refuse you. I suppose they get a subtle pleasure out of it, or something.’

Mr Horsfield said: ‘Subtle pleasure? Not at all. A very simple and primitive pleasure.’

‘It’s so easy to make a person who hasn’t got anything seem wrong.’ (pp. 64-65)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what really struck me was the precision of Rhys’ prose style. There are no superfluous words or descriptions here; everything is pared back to the bone to focus on the characters’ emotions. The use of descriptive passages is limited to those instances where the provision of some element of context is deemed vital to the story. As a consequence, the full effect is incredibly striking.

The members of my book group read this novel with me. As I had expected, opinions were fairly mixed with around half of the group feeling very little empathy or sympathy for Julia while others felt more understanding of the vulnerability of her position. This post is already on the long side, so I can say a little more about the various responses in the comments if people are interested. Everyone found something different in the book, especially in relation to Julia, which is an interesting finding in itself. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this novel if you’ve read it.

I hope to see you here again on Wednesday when I’ll be covering an excellent collection of Rhys’ stories, Tigers are Better-Looking. In the meantime, enjoy the week!

48 thoughts on “Welcome to Jean Rhys Reading Week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie revisited

  1. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful Jacqui! I’m really looking forward to this week and reading all the posts. I’ll be putting up my post – also on After Leaving Mr MacKenzie, and Good Morning Midnight – in a few moments. I was definitely on the sympathy side for Julia, I thought she was in an awful position & you’ve really captured how Rhys’ imagery drives that home.

    Thanks again to you & Eric for organising :-)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Madame bibi. Thanks for writing about After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and GMM, another great post (I do enjoy your two-for-one pieces).

      Yes, it was interesting to hear a range of different views about Julia in the discussion with my book group. While some people saw her as a faded beauty with her best years behind her, others pictured her as a very attractive woman (hence her appeal to men). Those who felt little sympathy for her predicament thought she came across as someone with a strong (and somewhat misplaced) sense of entitlement to support from her family (and possibly from her former lovers too). Everyone had something slightly different to say about her. Fascinating stuff!

  2. MarinaSofia

    I’ll probably make a comparison between Good Morning, Midnight and Smile, Please some time this week (no promises as to when exactly), but I’m really looking forward to reading what everyone else is reviewing and thinking. Thank you and Eric for organising this for one of my favourite writers.

  3. Sarah

    I was hoping to join in, but alas, didn’t get organised in time. However, I’m really looking forward to reading all the reviews this week, and have already had to add a few Jean Rhys titles (‘After Leaving Mr Mackensie’ being one of them) to my wish list!

  4. Brian Joseph

    Rereading a book a fairly short time after the first read can bring to light so many new things. Time permitting, what you did with After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is a really good thing to do.

    Rhy’s sounds like a great writer, I look forward to upcoming posts.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. It’s a rewarding thing to do, revisiting a favourite novel. I noticed so many ‘new’ aspects of the book this time around. The fact that I’ve been reading her short stories helped too, I think. Several themes recur throughout her work. She is an amazing writer – I hope you get a chance to read her one day.

  5. Max Cairnduff

    How does the banner thing work?

    It turns out I’ve already reviewed Good Morning, Midnight; Quartet; After Leaving Mr Mackenzie; and a short story collection. I’ll tweet links to them over the week. I’m also posting my review this week of her Voyage in the Dark (though I do need to write it first).

    Looking forward to your short story collection review.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If you click on the picture, you should be able to save a copy. Or I can email it to you if that’s easier?

      Yes, I know! I shall have to point people in your direction. I’m looking forward to your review of Voyage. It’s the one that really blew me away, although I’ve yet to read GMM which I suspect may well turn out to be even better. I’ll be posting two pieces about her short stories, both connected to the stories published in Tigers (although the second post will focus on the early pieces first published in The Left Bank).

  6. Lady Fancifull

    Wow, Jacqui! This is beautifully set up for a most interesting and celebratory Rhys week. I shall probably only manage one re-read-and-review but I absolutely know that the week itself will create a shuffling of the remaining Rhys titles onto the TBre-R pile, as I shall want further re-immersion. Like Ali’s Woolfalong, books which have stayed, for decades, in ‘real’ on my shelves because I always knew that at some point they would have to be re-read, are being brought into timely prominence by you lit ficcy bloggers. Big hurrah and congratulations

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Well, we’re hoping the event will encourage more people to read or revisit Jean Rhys, not just this week but during the weeks and months ahead too. I’m looking forward to hearing all about your return to her work as and when your post goes live – you’re reading Wide Sargasso Sea if I remember rightly?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane, I quite understand, There’s a time an place for Rhys that’s for sure. It’s been lovely to see all the tweets and reviews flying around the web today – I’m just hoping it will continue throughout the week! :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s good to hear – I hope you enjoy! It’s been fab seeing all the tweets flying about today, just shows how much interest there is in her work. I’m looking forward to your review of Mr Mackenzie later this week. :)

  7. Naomi

    You guys have really done a fantastic job organizing this event! I’m surprised and delighted to be able to tell you that I read Wide Sargasso Sea last week in preparation (it’s a miracle that I remembered in time!). That is the one and only book of hers that I own, and I’m happy that your event came along to spur me on. I really enjoyed it! Whether or not I get a review of it up is another question, but at least I’ll feel as though I can participate in some way, and have a sense of her writing. :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! We’ve put quite a lot of work into arranging things so I’m hoping the week will be a success. That’s great news about Wide Sargasso Sea – and I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed it. Phew! Even if you don’t get a chance to write about it this week, you can always post a piece at any time – I will always be interested to hear more about your response to Rhys’ work. Many thanks for joining in, Naomi!

  8. Claire @ bletheringbylinley

    I’m a bit embarrassed to admit Rhys is a new name to me, but I’m looking forward to rectifying that with this week’s posts! I don’t have the right sort of blog to join in, but will definitely be reading with interest!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s no embarrassment in that. I’m sure we all have gaps in our knowledge when it comes to certain genres of literature or groups of writers – I know I do! I’m glad to hear that you’re keen to discover more about her work, and I hope you find something of interest during the week. Thanks for commenting. :)

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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great, Cathy. I hope you enjoy reading some of the posts going up throughout the week. It’s been lovely to see so much activity and interest in her work! I’m hoping you’ll get a chance to write something about Wide Sargasso Sea. I know you’re pretty busy with the new job and everything else at home, but it would be good to see your take on it. :)

  10. BookerTalk

    Sorry not to be able to join you for this but I have a backlog of review copies to attend to …..Pity become it would have prodded me to fill so,e gaps in my knowledge of Rhys work. I shall rely on everyone else to help me see what I’ve been missing

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries. I know you’re in the midst of reading quite a few of the titles on the Booker list. She was a truly great writer, so I hope you find something that catches your interest during the week – some ideas for the future, perhaps.

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  12. ms. arachne

    Thank you so much for organizing this event. I enjoyed reading both of your reviews of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. I’ll add it to my “must read” list. I look forward to binge-reading everyone’s reviews after I get my own written up.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. We’re just so thrilled with the response we’ve had to date. It’s been terrific to see all the reviews and tweets flying about the web! Thank you for participating and for taking the time to read and comment on my reviews – I really do appreciate it. Looking forward to reading your post as and when it goes up. (Mr Mackenzie is wonderful – you have a treat in store for the future.)

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  19. Lynn Gerrard

    I did read both Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea. I cannot say Rhys is one of my favorite authors. In face, I really did not enjoy GMM. Fortunately I found Wide Sargasso Sea much more to my liking. I will post reviews, just not sure when! :) Thank you for motivating me to read and learn about an author new to me!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, and thank you for joining in. Sorry to hear that you didn’t take to Good Morning, Midnight, but then again Rhys’ early novels are not for everyone. Glad you enjoyed Wide Sargasso Sea, though – it’s quite different to hear other work. Do let me know once your reviews are available and I’ll include them in the round-up. :)

  20. Caroline

    I wanted to particptae but I managed to get the flu in spite of the heat wave here.
    I loved the quotes. She’s such a great writer. And a wonderful stlye.
    It looks like you had a great programme.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh no, how rotten for you. I really hope you’re feeling better now?

      So glad you enjoyed the quotes. She is such an eminently quotable writer, sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop!

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