Category Archives: Jean Rhys Reading Week

Announcing Jean Rhys Reading Week: 12th-18th September 2016

Well, this is happening! Firstly, thank you to everyone who responded and shared my post on canvassing interest in a Jean Rhys Reading Week. The response has been amazing – it seems as though several of you are keen to read and discuss Rhys’ work, which is great to hear. Early September has emerged as the most convenient or preferred option for the majority of you, so we’ve decided on w/c 12th September – please save the date in your diaries.

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Also, I’m delighted to announce that Eric Karl Anderson, who writes so eloquently about books at the brilliant Lonesome Reader website, will be joining me in hosting the event. Eric is a long-standing fan of Jean Rhys, so it’ll be great to have him on board as a co-host. We’re both very excited by the prospect and we’ll be planning the event over the summer months – please do get in touch with either of us if you have any thoughts or suggestions. You can contact us via our blogs or via Twitter where we tweet @JacquiWine and @lonesomereader.

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In the meantime, maybe you could think about a Rhys you might like to read for the event? Ideally, we’d like as many people as possible reading and talking about Rhys during September’s event, sharing reviews, thoughts and experiences as we go through the week. Once again, thanks so much to everyone who has expressed an interest so far. It’s been wonderful to see so much love for this writer’s work over the past week!

All the best,

Jacqui and Eric

PS Eric is on holiday right now, so please don’t worry if he doesn’t respond to any messages immediately – he’ll be back shortly.

Canvassing interest in a Jean Rhys Reading Week

Back in March when I wrote about Jean Rhys’ third novel, Voyage in the Dark, Grant (of 1streading’s blog) commented that he had a stack of Rhys books just waiting to be read. If only someone would hold a Rhys reading week (hint, hint), then it might encourage him to get started. So with this in mind, along with my own interest in tackling another of her books in the not too distant future, I’d like to canvass interest in the possibility of a Jean Rhys reading week later this year. You know the type of thing: a week-long event where readers would read a book (or even a short story or two) by Rhys and share their thoughts by posting a review on their blog, by talking about it on Twitter/other social media channels or by commenting on the reviews/chatter posted during the week. (Even if you’ve already read everything by Rhys, maybe you could revisit a favourite?)

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(Image from theguardian.com)

If you’re wondering who Jean Rhys is or was, she is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father, Rhys grew up on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, moving to England at the age of sixteen to live with an aunt. After the death of her father, she drifted into a series of jobs spending time as a chorus girl, a mannequin, and an artist’s model. Rhys led a tough and tortured life, but in many ways those harsh experiences made her the writer she was. (Her work is now considered to have been way ahead of its time.) She started writing when the first of her three marriages broke up. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

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During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); 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 published and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There is a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Please let me know in the comments if you would be interested in participating in a Rhys reading week. If so, it would be useful to hear if you have any preferences on timings. If there’s sufficient interest in an event, then I’m thinking either early-mid July or the beginning of September. That way, we could avoid the school holidays and any clashes with Women in Translation Month which runs during August. Also, if you would be interested in co-hosting the event with me, please let me know – I’m still fairly new to Rhys, so it would be useful to have someone with a bit more experience under their belt to act as a co-host. You can contact me here or via Twitter (@JacquiWine). Finally, any shares of this post would be much appreciated, just to spread the word and to enable me to gauge the level of interest. Cheers.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

When I put together my reading list for the Classics Club back in December, one of the first books I selected was Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark (first published in 1934). I absolutely loved Rhys’ second novel After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), which I reviewed last year, so it seemed only right to choose her next novel, Voyage, as a follow-on read. My only concern was would it be as good as Mr Mackenzie? Would it stand up to the comparison? Well, I need not have worried; if anything, Voyage is even better than its predecessor. I think it’s a small masterpiece – a brilliant, painful, devastating book.

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Set largely in London in 1913/14, Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, Hester, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of her father.

When we first meet Anna, she is working as a chorus girl in a show, sharing a room with fellow showgirl, Maudie, as their tour moves from one seaside town to another. One afternoon when Anna and Maudie are out for a walk they meet two men, one of whom is Walter Jeffries, a relatively wealthy man who lives and works in London. Walter is quite taken with Anna, and when the girls’ tour winds up in the capital, he invites Anna to dinner at a hotel in Hanover Square.

Anna is young, vulnerable and inexperienced in love. At first she rejects Walter’ advances, pushing him away as forcefully as possible. In a very subtle scene, Rhys explores the rush of thoughts running through Anna’s mind as Walter tries to kiss her. It’s as if she is looking down on herself, her mind disconnected from her body in some way. She longs to start all over again with Walter and for everything to be better next time.

I sat down on the bed and listened, then I lay down. The bed was soft; the pillow was as cold as ice. I felt as if I had gone out of myself, as if I were in a dream.

Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’ (pg. 21)

It’s not long before Anna falls for Walter, becoming largely dependent on him for both financial and emotional support. But Walter is a weak and spineless man; at nearly twenty years her senior, he is only interested in Anna as a plaything, a young girl ripe for the taking. When it comes to breaking off relations with Anna, Walter gets his friend, Vincent, to write to her on his behalf, explaining that he doesn’t love her any more, in fact he almost certainly never did.

What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around London in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, trying to make ends meet as best she can. I could say a little more about the plot, how Anna ends up slipping somewhat unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth; but there are other, potentially more interesting aspects of the book that warrant discussion here.

What is so impressive about Voyage is the way Rhys immerses the reader in Anna’s thoughts and emotions; we are completely inside this young girl’s mind, sensing everything with her, feeling her pain and desperation, her hopes and expectations as she is exploited by those around her. The book is written in a modernist style which moves seamlessly from Anna’s thoughts to her memories of life in the West Indies to events happening around her at the present time. The following quote gives a feel for Rhys’ approach. In this scene, Anna has arranged to meet Walter in the hope of persuading him to continue with their relationship. Her thoughts about Walter are intercut with memories of a funeral she attended as a child (presumably either her mother’s or her father’s as both her parents are dead).

I imagined myself saying, very calmly. ‘The thing is that you don’t understand. You think I want more than I do. I only want to see you sometimes, but if I never see you again I’ll die. I’m dying now really, and I’m too young to die.’

…The candles crying wax tears and the smell of stephanotis and I had to go to the funeral in a white dress and white gloves and a wreath round my head and the wreath in my hands made my gloves wet – they said so young to die…

The people there were like upholstered ghosts. (pg. 83)

England is portrayed as a cruel and harsh country, a dark, unwelcoming place that offers very little in the way of support. Rhys makes excellent use of recurring imagery to augment this feeling of exclusion: ‘dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together.’  At times, Anna feels trapped in a room where the walls appear to be closing in on her, an image which adds to the sense of claustrophobia in the novel. All this provides a stark contrast to the West Indies of Anna’s childhood, vividly portrayed as a lush land brimming with colour, a location full of the sights, smells and sounds of life.

Those around Anna are often quick to pass judgement on her actions. Her closest friends criticise her for not making an effort to go out and talk to people. There is an assumption that because she is young and has her whole life ahead of her, she ought to be happy and optimistic. But in reality, Anna is struggling to cope with life; she is cold and tired and homesick. All she craves is a little warmth and affection; either that or the safety of sleep – at least it’s a respite from having to live.

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really all you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night – that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, ‘He got sick of me,’ and ‘Never, not ever, never.’ And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead. (pgs. 120-121)

Anna’s landladies also waste little time in moralising about her position, labelling her a common little tart because she comes home in the middle of the night and then goes out a day or so later dressed up to the nines (the assumption being that Anna has purchased some new clothes with the money received for services rendered). This sense of moral judgement extends to the broader society too. In this scene, Anna and her friend Laurie have been taken out to a restaurant by two men. By the end of the dinner, a woman at the next table is getting annoyed with Anna’s party (Laurie, in particular, is a little drunk). Here are Anna’s thoughts on this woman and others of a similar ilk.

But I was thinking that it was terrifying—the way they look at you. So that you know that they would see you burnt alive without even turning their heads away; so that you know in yourself that they would watch you burning without blinking once. Their glassy eyes that don’t admit anything so definite as hate. Only just that underground hope that you’ll be burnt alive, tortured, where they can have a peep. And slowly, slowly, you feel the hate back starting… (pg. 103)

And then there is Hester, Anna’s stepmother, a sanctimonious, self-righteous creature who cares little for her stepdaughter’s welfare. Here’s how Anna describes her – I thought this description was simply brilliant:

She had clear brown eyes which stuck out of her head if you looked at her sideways, and an English lady’s voice with a sharp cutting edge to it. Now that I’ve spoken you can hear I’m a lady. I have spoken and I suppose you now realize that I’m an English gentlewoman. I have my doubts about you. Speak up and I will place you at once. Speak up, for I fear the worst. That sort of voice. (pg, 50)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I really loved this book. It’s a certainty for my end-of-year highlights; in fact I think it might be one of the best things I’ve ever read. Anna’s story is all the more tragic given its connection to Rhys’ own life experience – the novel feels semi-autobiographical in nature. By the time I’d finished reading it, my notebook was full of scribbles and quotes, many of which I’m struggling to find room for here.

I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage which, along with the earlier one on Anna not wanting to go out, seems to capture something of the essence of this book. There is an overwhelming sense of bleakness, fear and disillusionment running through this story, and I think you can see it here. (As a slight aside, clothes appear to play an important role in the lives of the women in Rhys’ novels. If a woman is to attract a new man she must look presentable, so clothes are often seen as offering a form of hope, a possible opportunity for the future.)

The clothes of most of the women who passed were like caricatures of the clothes in the shop-windows, but when they stopped to look you saw that their eyes were fixed on the future. ‘If I could buy this, then of course I’d be quite different.’ Keep hope alive and you can do anything, and that’s the way the world goes round, that’s the way they keep the world rolling. So much hope for each person. And damned cleverly done too. But what happens if you don’t hope any more, if your back’s broken? What happens then? (pgs. 111-112)

Voyage in the Dark is published by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

First published in 1930, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was Jean Rhys’ second novel. Set in Paris in the late 1920s, it features a woman in her thirties, Julia Martin. For the past six months, Julia has been surviving on an allowance of 300 francs per week which she receives from her ex-lover, Mr Mackenzie.

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When we first meet Julia, she is living in a room in a tawdry hotel in Paris – the sort of place where the staircase smells of the landlady’s cats. She is down on her luck, tired of life, and her looks have started to fade. Here’s a brief but telling description of Julia:

Her eyes gave her away. By her eyes and the deep circles under them you saw that she was a dreamer, that she was vulnerable – too vulnerable ever to make a success of a career of chance.

She made herself up elaborately and carefully; yet it was clear that what she was doing had long ceased to be a labour of love and had become partly a mechanical process, partly a substitute for the mask she would have liked to wear. (pg 11)

As the story unfolds, we gather that Julia’s affair with Mr Mackenzie ended rather unpleasantly. He has distanced himself from Julia, and all transactions take place by way of his solicitor, Henri Legros. One Tuesday, Julia receives a letter from Legros informing her that the weekly allowance will be discontinued – enclosed is a final payment of 1,500 francs. Even though she had always expected this would happen one day, Julia feels bruised and discarded. There is no place for her in their world:

When she thought of the combination of Mr Mackenzie and Maître Legros, all sense of reality deserted her and it seemed to her that there were no limits at all to their joint powers of defeating and hurting her. Together the two perfectly represented organized society, in which she had no place and against which she had not a dog’s chance. (pg. 17)

Consequently, Julia decides to confront Mr Mackenzie, and she follows him to a restaurant with the aim of having it out. At this point in the novel, Rhys does something very interesting – the point of view switches from Julia to Mr Mackenzie, and we get a sense of his perspective. Mackenzie is in his late forties, comfortably off, and rather lacking in compassion or honourable moral values:

He had more than once allowed himself to be drawn into affairs which he had regretted bitterly afterwards, though when it came to getting out of these affairs his business instinct came to his help, and he got out undamaged. (pg. 19)

As Mackenzie waits for his order at the restaurant, a place he had visited with Julia when they were together, his thoughts turn to their affair:

He had lied; he had made her promises which he never intended to keep; and so on, and so on. All part of the insanity, for which he was not responsible.

Not that many lies had been necessary. After seeing him two or three times she had spent the night with him at a tawdry hotel. Perhaps that was the reason why, when he came to think of it, he had never really liked her. (pg. 19)

Julia’s arrival at the restaurant heralds one of the pivotal scenes in the novel. It’s too intricate, too subtle to describe here, but it’s a great piece of writing. Julia refuses her ex-lover’s payoff and leaves with her dignity reasonably intact; Mackenzie hopes that no one has witnessed their exchange. Luckily for Julia, the encounter is noted by an Englishman named George Horsfield, who is sitting at the next table. When Julia leaves the restaurant, Horsfield follows. Julia has had a difficult life, and it shows – she appears tired and depressed. Horsfield befriends Julia, gives her 1,500 francs and advises her to return to London for a while.

On her arrival in London, Julia takes a room at a shabby hotel in Bloomsbury. What follows is a series of bruising encounters as Julia re-establishes contact with her family, most notably her sister, Norah and her Uncle Griffiths. In direct contrast to Julia, Norah has done the ‘right thing’ by staying at home to care for their invalid mother. Norah and Uncle Griffiths clearly disapprove of Julia’s decision to go her own way in Paris. (Julia had been married but subsequently left her husband. Uncle Griffiths is of the opinion that she ought to have extracted some kind of financial settlement from this man). Griffiths dismisses Julia with a one-pound note – he simply doesn’t care and wants little more to do with her.

Julia’s attempts to gain support from an ex-lover, Neil James, prove equally disheartening. James promises that he will send Julia some money so that she can have a little rest. In the end, he sends £20 and makes it clear that there will be no more handouts. Even Horsfield, now back in London, seems to be withdrawing his support. He seems to find her attractive one minute, unappealing the next. (Rhys also gives us access to Horsfield’s viewpoint from time to time.)

This is my second reading of Mr Mackenzie. It’s quite a difficult novel to describe, but I wanted to try to write about it before going on to read more of Rhys’ work. The writing is superb, the characters are complex and nuanced. Rhys appears to have mined her own past, her own experiences of the harsh reality of life as a lone woman in the city. Julia seems trapped; she is weary of life and drinks as a means of blunting the pain of her situation. Her life reads like a series of fragmented episodes, and there is little hope of a bright outlook. Rhys exposes the hypocrisy and cruelty of society at the time: no one seems to care about Julia; she is shunned by her family and acquaintances. Her predicament reminded me a little of the final stages of Lily Bart’s situation in The House of Mirth, another bruising and unforgettable story.

I have another couple of novels by Rhys: Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. I’d also like to read her first novel, Quartet.

I’m finding it difficult to describe the impact of reading After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – it’s a brilliant piece of work. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to capture something of Julia’s life, the constant swings from depression to glimmers of hope and back to despair once more:

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. (pg. 94-95)

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 18/20 in my #TBR20.