Tag Archives: Penguin Modern Classics

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Oh my goodness, what an enchanting novel this turned out to be! I read it over that beautifully sunny weekend just before Easter, and I couldn’t have chosen a better time – it matched the glorious weather to perfection.

First published in 1922, The Enchanted April, tells the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. The rather shy and mousey Mrs Wilkins proves to be a somewhat unlikely catalyst for the trip when she sees an advertisement in The Times appealing to those who appreciate ‘wisteria and sunshine’ to take a small castle on the shores of the Mediterranean, furnishings and servants provided – a prospect that captures her imagination on a dark and dreary afternoon in February. Before long Mrs Wilkins is joined in her quest by Mrs Arbuthnot – a woman previously known to her only by sight – who also appears to be transfixed by the very same ad and the idea of a break from her dismal routine.

As it turns out, both of these women are unhappy with their current lives, albeit in rather different ways. Lotty Wilkins feels trapped and belittled in a stifling marriage; her husband, Mellersh-Wilkins, is a stuffed shirt and a bully, someone who demands prudence and thrift in every department of their home life except the one that relates to his food. In this respect he is highly critical, dismissing any shortfalls in standards as poor housekeeping on Lotty’s part. Rose Arbuthnot, on the other hand, has all but abandoned any chance of ever being noticed by her husband, Frederick, a highly successful writer of rather salacious memoirs of the mistresses of kings. In the early days of their marriage, the Arbuthnots were very much in love; but all too soon the situation changed as Frederick began to throw himself into his work. As a consequence, Rose has filled her life with other things to occupy her time, mostly self-sacrificing charitable work in support of the poor and needy, primarily as a means of easing her conscience about the somewhat grubby nature of the source of Frederick’s income. In short, Lotty and Rose feel constrained by their respective circumstances, worn down over the years by a lack of love and affection – even though they are only in their early thirties, both of these women seem old before their time.

Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. Was she, too, picturing what it would be like – the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping of the sea among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Schoolbred’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, and tomorrow the same and the day after the same and always the same… (p. 7)

Having overcome their initial reluctance to do something so daring, these two ladies from Hampstead decide they will reply to the ad and take the castle in Italy. The only real obstacle that remains is finding a means of funding the cost of the trip from their respective nest eggs, a task that would prove particularly challenging for Lotty given her personal circumstances. So, as a solution to their dilemma, Lotty and Rose decide to place their own advertisement in the paper in the hope of finding two suitable companions for the trip. Thus they are joined by Lady Caroline Dester, a glamorous young socialite who is seeking refuge from all the charming men who want a piece of her back in London, and Mrs Fisher, a rather crabby old lady who seems determined to live in the past, forever lamenting the loss of old friends and acquaintances from her beloved literary world.

On their arrival at the San Salvatore castle, these four very different ladies begin to connect and interact with one another, often with the most amusing consequences. There are some priceless scenes, especially at mealtimes, as the different personalities start to emerge, frequently clashing over the smallest and most telling of details. In this early scene, the elderly Mrs Fisher has adopted the role of grande dame at the breakfast table, almost as if she were the hostess or chief facilitator of the trip. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Rose Arbuthnot is more than a little put out by this development, and so she tries to establish her own standing as joint hostess with Lotty Wilkins, a move which doesn’t quite go according to plan! The indomitable Mrs Fisher is the first to speak here.

She turned more markedly than ever to Mrs Arbuthnot. ‘Do let me give you a little more coffee,’ she said.

‘No, thank you. But won’t you have some more?’

‘No indeed. I never have more than two cups at breakfast. Would you like an orange? ‘

‘No, thank you. Would you?’

‘No, I don’t eat fruit at breakfast. It is an American fashion which I am too old now to adopt. Have you had all you want?’

‘Quite. Have you?’

Mrs Fisher paused before replying. Was this a habit, this trick of answering a simple question with the same question? If so it must be curbed, for no one could live four weeks in any real comfort with somebody who had a habit. (pp. 66-67)

Gradually over time, the castle begins to work its magic on the occupants, often in profound and surprising ways. Lotty Wilkins is the first to experience its bewitching effects, transformed as she is by the abundance of beauty and resplendent atmosphere at San Salvatore (the descriptions of the gardens are magnificently lush). And how could she fail to be when she opens her curtains for the first time in the morning, only to be greeted by the following sight?

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. (p. 50)

Almost immediately upon her arrival at the retreat, Lotty Wilkins comes right out of her shell, becoming bolder, more impetuous, more enthusiastic about life and all the possibilities it has to offer. As a consequence, she makes an audacious decision, one that she hopes will lead to the promise of greater happiness in the future. To reveal any more might spoil things for the reader. Suffice it to say that Lotty’s enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that it catches the attention of the previously reclusive Lady Caroline. As a consequence, these two women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that looks all set to last beyond the duration of the trip. Lady Caroline, for her part, also begins to question the value of her life to date and what may lie ahead for her in the months and years to come. Even the disagreeable Mrs Fisher starts to soften as she realises that the members of the younger generation are not all as shallow and as frivolous as she had previously assumed.  

Nevertheless, perhaps the one person who is most affected by Lotty’s optimism and enthusiasm is Rose Arbuthnot. As she reflects on the transformation in her new friend, the rather lonely and sensitive Rose longs to experience something similar. If only her life with Frederick were different, if only they could recapture the early days of their marriage, the first flushes of love and affection for one another, the feeling of being cared for and valued by an attentive partner.

[…] and once again Rose wondered at Lotty, at her balance, her sweet and equable temper – she who in England had been such a thing of gusts. From the moment they got into Italy it was Lotty who seemed the elder. She certainly was very happy; blissful, in fact. Did happiness so completely protect one? Did it make one so untouchable, so wise? Rose was happy herself, but not anything like so happy. Evidently not, for not only did she want to fight Mrs Fisher but she wanted something else, something more than this lovely place, something to complete it; she wanted Frederick. For the first time in her life she was surrounded by perfect beauty, and her one thought was to show it to him, to share it with him. She wanted Frederick. She yearned for Frederick, Ah, if only, only Frederick… (p.103)

Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming novel has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. At times, I was reminded of Winifred Watson’s equally adorable book, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a story that also captures a sense of joie de vivre and escapism from the constraints of an unfulfilled life.

Von Armin takes great care in portraying each of her central characters with enough subtlety and depth, thereby encouraging the reader to invest in these women from an early stage in the story. Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot are particularly well developed, especially in the fleshing out of their marriages and the different challenges they face with their respective husbands. Lady Caroline is also painted in a nuanced fashion. At first, it would be tempting to assume that she is simply selfish, spoilt and rather ungrateful for the attention others lavish upon her; but as the novel progresses, a different side to her personality starts to emerge, one that is more thoughtful and vulnerable. Even the fusty Mrs Fisher is portrayed in a manner which ultimately encourages the reader’s sympathies as it becomes clear that she too is rather lonely and isolated in her restricted life.

All in all, this is a most delightful novel with much to commend it – another strong contender for my end-of-year list.

The Enchanted April is published by Penguin Classics and Vintage Books.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires.

Somehow or other, Bone – a large, heavyset man, a little slow on the uptake but fundamentally a decent person at heart – has got himself mixed up with a thoroughly rotten crowd. More specifically, he has fallen under the spell of the magnetic Netta, a half-hearted wannabe actress whose only redeeming quality appears to be her striking beauty.

He dropped his voice as he greeted Netta, and caught her eye shyly, and looked away again. When meeting her after a parting of any length he never dared to look at her fully, to take her in, all at once. He was too afraid of her loveliness – of being made to feel miserable by some new weapon from the arsenal of her beauty – something she wore, some fresh look, or attitude, or way of doing her hair, some tone in her voice or light in her eye – some fresh ‘horror’ in fact. (p. 36)

Bone idolises Netta, creating an illusion in his mind of the type of relationship he wishes to have with her – a quiet, idyllic life in the countryside, complete with a little farm or cottage to match. In reality, Bone knows this is unattainable; nevertheless, he longs to spend time alone with Netta, hoping to prise her away from her vile friends, the fascist bully, Peter, and other associated hangers-on. Netta, for her part, largely rejects Bone’s advances, treating him with scorn and contempt; but she is also sharp enough to draw on his resources whenever it suits her. At heart, Netta is a cruel, manipulative woman, a schemer who knows exactly how to play Bone to perfection, taking advantage of his unbridled generosity and intense feelings towards her without a second thought for his well-being. In the following scene, Netta has agreed that Bone can take her out for the evening as long as their destination is Perrier’s, a well-to-do restaurant in the heart of the West End. At first, Bone is delighted at the prospect of a quiet, intimate dinner with Netta, if only for a few hours; but then it dawns on him that she may well have an ulterior motive for wanting to go there and that he is simply being used as a convenient vehicle to facilitate this trip.

But he was not happy because she was not paying the slightest attention to him; and he was not even now participating in her life. He noticed how every now and again she glanced at herself surreptitiously in the glass. She did not often look into the glass at herself like that, and it told him everything. It told him that this evening she had given him was for a definite purpose, and that purpose was, for some extraordinary reason, Perrier’s. He was of no more importance, had no more significance, than the taxi which would take them there. (p. 69)

By the end of the dinner, Bone’s fears are confirmed, a realisation that leaves him feeling more lonely and miserable than ever.

There was a pause in which he looked at her. He had a sudden feeling of tiredness – a feeling that the evening was at an end. Her loveliness and inaccessibility came over him in a fresh wave of misery. He had been a fool to take her out. He had had too much to drink: he would feel awful in the morning: he had again beaten his head against the brick wall of her imperturbability. He had exhausted his nervous system, and it would take him days to get over it. (p. 78)

Running through the novel are Bone’s ‘dead moods’, periodic episodes when something goes ‘click’ inside his head and he slips into a different mode, one where another, more sinister side to his personality comes to the fore. It is as if the familiar ‘regular’ world has suddenly fallen away, only to be replaced by a muffled and mysterious one.

It was as though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap. […] It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world. Life, in fact, which had been for him a moment ago a ‘talkie’, had all at once become a silent film. And there was no music. (p. 15)

Quite soon after falling into one of his dead moods, Bone remembers that he has a job to do: he must kill Netta Longdon and go to Maidenhead where he will be happy, and everything will be all right. This business with Netta has been going on long enough, so he must put a stop to it once and for all – and he must plan everything carefully to avoid getting caught. (This isn’t a spoiler, by the way, as the novel opens with one of these episodes during which Bone’s homicidal tendencies are made abundantly clear right from the start. Moreover, Bone associates Maidenhead with a brighter, more peaceful time in his life – a splendid fortnight he spent there with his sister, Ellen, some years earlier when she was still alive – hence his fixation with returning to the town to recapture these elusive feelings.) Fuelled by his heavy drinking and the emotional strain of dealing with Netta, Bone begins to experience these dead periods on a more frequent, more intense basis. In spite of this, Bone has absolutely no recollection of what he has been doing or thinking during these episodes – they can last from a few hours to a day or more – once he returns to ‘normal’ mode.  This makes the storyline all the more gripping as we follow Bone and his shifting mindset from one day to the next.

Hamilton uses repetition to great effect in this novel, both in the depiction of Bone’s dead periods and in the portrayal of his feelings towards Netta. For the most part, Bone is besotted with Netta, even though he knows she remains largely out of his reach. Nevertheless, there are times when he comes close to waking up to the fact that she is simply playing him for a fool. In this scene, Netta has agreed to come away with Bone to Brighton for the night, if he will pay her way and give her fifteen pounds to clear her outstanding rent and other bills.

What in God’s name did it all mean? Was this a change? Had her feelings somehow changed, had his persistence somehow prevailed, so that in future she was going to be kinder to him, so that in future he might, even, have a chance with her?

And if there was a change – why? Had she just changed because she had changed, or had she some motive? Was she just getting something out of him? Yes, fifteen pounds. But Netta, the shrewd, cruel Netta who scorned him, could never resort to so vulgar and obvious a ruse as that – she would be too proud. Or would she not be too proud? Was she, perhaps, just a common little schemer playing him up just to get some money out of him? (p. 139)

Hangover Square is an utterly compelling character study of a lonely, desolate man driven to distraction by a terrible femme fatale. Hamilton perfectly captures the inner solitude and isolation of Bone’s existence as he slopes from one bar to the next, waiting for an opportunity to call or visit Netta for a few moments each day. There is great attention to detail here, particularly in the depiction of the pubs in Earl’s Court: the thick smoke; the infernal noise; the damp, claustrophobic atmosphere inside, especially during winter. In other words, the book excels in its depiction of the nightmarish world of the habitual drinker and the hopelessness of his solitary existence.

The time period in which the story is set feels very significant too. The year is 1939, with Britain poised on the cusp of WWII. Fascism is on the rise, a development which is echoed through Hamilton’s portrayal of Netta’s friend, Peter, and his equally nasty acquaintances. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, there is a growing sense unease in more ways than one as the story moves towards its somewhat inevitable conclusion.

All in all, this is a really tremendous book, one that is sure to make my reading highlights at the end of the year. In many ways, it feels like the ideal companion piece to Hamilton’s later novel, The Slaves of Solitude, which I also adored – you can read my review of it here.

Hangover Square is published by Penguin Modern Classics; personal copy.

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

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, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

#ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts

Well, what a busy week it’s been for #ReadingRhys! When I canvassed interest in the concept of a Jean Rhys Reading Week earlier this year, I had no idea that it would gather quite so much momentum in such a short space of time. It’s been truly wonderful to see the level of interest in reading Rhys’ work both amongst new readers and those already familiar with her unique style.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Eric at Lonesome Reader for being such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable co-host for the week – his insights into Jean Rhys and her work have been truly enlightening. Thanks also to Poppy at poppy peacock pens and Margaret at New Edition for taking a lead in reviewing and contributing to the discussions on a few of Rhys’ books as part of the week. Do visit their blogs if you haven’t done so already as they’re definitely worth a look. Thanks to Andy Miller (author of The Year of Reading Dangerously and co-host of the Backlisted podcast) for kindly speaking to me about Rhys – I couldn’t have wished for a more enthusiastic advocate of her work. Finally, and most importantly, a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has participated in the Reading Week, either by posting a review, sharing thoughts via Twitter, contributing to the discussions on blogs, GoodReads or social media, or simply by reading one of her books – the level of engagement has been terrific. Just for a bit of fun, I’ve collated together a selection of tweets from the week, mainly pictures, quotes and responses from various readers – you can view them here via Storify.

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By way of a wrap-up, here’s a list of all the new reviews/articles posted as part of the JR Reading Week – if I’ve missed any posts, do let me know in the comments and I’ll add a link. Plenty to explore here, so do take a look if you’re interested. (I haven’t collated links to the various archive reviews as I fear this would take me until Christmas!)

The Left Bank and Other Stories – 1927

Quartet (originally published as Postures) – 1928

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie 1930

Voyage in the Dark – 1934

Good Morning, Midnight – 1939

Wide Sargasso Sea – 1966

Tigers Are Better-Looking – 1968 

Sleep It Off, Lady – 1976

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography – 1979

Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-66 – 1984

Other posts

A number of things struck me during the week, especially in relation to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and the short stories, my main areas of focus for the event. Firstly, Rhys’ wonderful use of imagery as a way of creating mood and emotion. Several people commented on this during the week, and it was interesting to see the following passage cropping up more than once in reviews of Mr Mackenzie:

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.

Secondly, there is Rhys’ ability to create and convey character. Much has been said about Julia Martin, a figure who elicited mixed opinions among the various readers of this book. While some people saw her as vulnerable women with limited options in life, others viewed her as rather feckless and self-centred – a woman with a strong sense of entitlement for want of a better phrase. To me she seems like a woman deserving of our understanding and compassion, another of Rhys’ women trapped by circumstances and the cruelty of life. I particularly liked Grant’s comments on Julia. Here’s a brief passage from his review.

Julia leads a precarious existence from man to man. Rhys brilliantly exposes her inner anxieties via outer discomforts – tiredness, cold. More than once she is described as a ghost. (Grant on After Leaving Mr Mackenzie)

While it is natural to view Rhys’ fiction as bleak and melancholy, a number of people picked up on the undercurrent of wry humour in her work, not just in the novels, but in the stories too. Staying with Rhys’ short fiction, other readers highlighted some of the parallels between these pieces and certain elements of the writer’s own life. In some ways, her stories read like little vignettes, dealing as they do with the marginalisation of women and the perpetual fragility of lives lived on the edge. As Marina put it, where Rhys succeeds so brilliantly is in her ability to take a certain experience from her own world and heighten it, “polishing it until it catches the light of universality.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons why her work remains so relevant today; the emotions are timeless. All the elements of Rhys’ fiction are here in miniature: the feeling of being the perpetual outsider; the fear of poverty and the constant scrabble for money; the importance of clothes in these women’s lives; the near constant dependence on men. There are many more.

Finally, I couldn’t finish without mentioning a few of the descriptions of Rhys’ work which stayed with me throughout the week. A couple of people quite rightly described Rhys as a poet, someone who gave a voice to the sole woman, the lonely outsider whose very existence hangs by a thread. All three succeeded in capturing something of the essence of this unique writer.

Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. (Marina on Smile Please & Sleep It Off, Lady)

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. (Max on Voyage in the Dark)

Here is the world of the dispossessed, the powerless, the damaged and those who damage. (Ali on Good Morning Midnight)

Eric, Poppy and Margaret have also posted few closing thoughts on Rhys’ other works as part of their wrap-ups for the week, so please do take a look at their blogs. (Note: Poppy’s summary to follow.)

All that remains is for us to reveal the winner of our prize for making a significant contribution to the week. We’re delighted to announce that the winner is Dorian of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog for his brilliant post on Teaching Rhys. Congratulations Dorian – a special bundle of Rhys’ books will be on its way to you shortly. Many thanks to Penguin for their generosity and support of the reading week – it is very much appreciated.

For #ReadingRhys, author Andy Miller discusses his passion for the work of Jean Rhys – part 2

I’m delighted to welcome back Andy Miller (AM) for the second part of our discussion on the work of Jean Rhys. If you missed the first part, please do take a look as it contains some fascinating insights into Rhys’s appeal, in particular the settings for her books, her unique voice and some of the central themes in her work. You’ll also find a brief account of how Andy came to Rhys’s work in the first place.

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Just to give you some background on Andy, he describes himself as a reader, author and editor of books – his most recent book, The Year of Reading Dangerously, is an account of a year-long expedition through literature: classic, cult and everything in between. Alongside his role as co-host of Backlisted, a series of podcasts designed to give new life to old books, Andy is also the reader in residence at this year’s Durham Literary Festival.

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JW: How do you feel about the characters in Rhys’s work and their relationship with men, this sense of reliance on men – often ex-lovers – for money, dinners and other sustenance too? In many ways, these men are cast as providers of things in these women’s lives.

AM: Let me ask you a question first. What do you think Jean Rhys’s characters want from men?

JW: I have asked myself this a number of times; I wonder if deep down they are searching for some warmth and affection…

AM: Yes, they want to be loved. They don’t want to be outsiders. She articulates the voice of the outsider brilliantly, whilst simultaneously none of those women really want to be that person. I think in their relationships with men, that’s frequently what they want. We know they are scared of men, but they are aware that they need the patronage of men in a way they would prefer not to. There’s that brilliant line from Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS): “I had two longings and one was fighting the other. I wanted to be loved and I wanted to be always alone.”  That for me is one of the emblematic quotes both of the Rhys heroine and of Rhys’s writing. And the same dichotomy applies in her approach to the reader: the desire to pull the reader in and push them away at the same time. She reels you in; she wants you to understand her, but not too much, and on her terms not your terms. And in a sense that’s also true of her female characters’ relationships with the male characters. What do you think? Do you find the male characters two-dimensional?

JW: I wouldn’t necessarily say they are two-dimensional, but I would describe them as flaky. So they want things from these women, but they don’t really want the responsibility that goes with it. I get the impression that all of these men are momentarily fascinated by the Jean Rhys heroine; but then they tire of these women quite quickly and want to distance themselves as soon as possible.

 AM: Yes, that’s also very true of Voyage in the Dark (VITD), that awful seemingly endless dance between the main character, Anna, and a series of men. Anna is basically seduced and rebuffed by 3 or 4 male characters in the course of that book with increasingly disastrous results, each encounter building on the previous one. VITD is such a fantastic book.

JW: Yes, that novel really blew me away. I loved After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (ALMM) when I read it, but I wasn’t prepared for how powerful VITD would be – it just knocked me sideways.

 AM: For me it’s Good Morning, Midnight (GMM), that’s my favourite of Jean Rhys’s books. Actually it’s become one of my favourite novels by anyone. It seems to me like the culmination of the sequence, of the character’s unhappy destiny. And you can open it at almost any page and find something astonishing and beautiful.  There’s a famous phrase at the beginning of GMM: “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 after dinner. I have arranged my little life.” The weariness of it. “A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside and that’s all any room is.” 

JW: Yes, this overwhelming tiredness with life is very striking. It’s in much of her work from the short stories to the early novels. 

AM: Yes, and one of the other things I like about Rhys, as a writer, there’s an insolence to her work, which I find very appealing. That kind of insolent, almost provocative sense of ‘Reader, I care very deeply but at the same time I don’t give a damn; because to give a damn would be to let you in. Keep your distance.’ Wonderful!

JW: You mentioned earlier that Tigers Are Better-Looking (Tigers) was the one that really made you sit up and take notice of her work. What was it about those stories that made you feel that way? Can you remember what in particular struck you about them? 

AM: Partly it’s like when you listen to a record 3 or 4 times and it takes a while for it to grow on you. By the time I got to Tigers, as I said, I had some experience of Rhys’s writing. I remember specifically reading the third story in Tigers, Let Them Call It Jazz (LTCIJ), and having one of those once-in-a-decade moments of thinking ‘I’ve never read anything as good as this.’ LTCIJ is a story she didn’t like very much, incidentally. And then the story Tigers itself is very good as well – sorry Jean! And that’s followed by Outside the Machine, which is set inside a psychiatric clinic, I think I’m right in saying. And that’s shockingly bleak and brave, that story, it’s extraordinary.

Also, as a writer, you can see when someone has worked and reworked and reworked, which Jean Rhys certainly did. She would write draft after draft, because what she’s aiming for is almost a kind of musical cadence, I think, in the prose. An economy of style that is almost epigrammatic.

JW: There isn’t a word out of place, is there? Nothing superfluous in her writing.

AM: Yes, there’s something about the musical and lyrical nature of the phrasemaking which means you can pick almost any sentence and it will have some internal rhythm that allows it to work out of context too. But we haven’t really talked about how experimental these books are, have we? They are genuinely pioneering in their use of inner voice and fragmented narrative. They’re quite challenging to read now in some ways, so the mind boggles at what it was like picking one of these up in the 1930s.

JW: Yes, at the time they must have been hugely groundbreaking.

AM: Well, they’re groundbreaking, but not noisily so, in the way that we might think of other modernist work from this era, e.g. Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Rhys’s books are quieter, but they are deliberately quieter; and yet as they go on, there’s an experimentalism with chronology and narrative voice, which must have been really challenging, I think, to a reader in the 1930s.

I’ve got a real soft spot for the humorous grump, from Eeyore to Philip Larkin to Morrissey, and I think Jean Rhys is one of those. If someone were to say about her writing: ‘Oh, it’s so miserable,’ with the best will in the world they don’t get it – because it can be miserable, but it’s all these other things as well; not just funny and brave but also formally ambitious and experimental.

JW: We’ve talked about the past, and how the books were received at the time. How relevant do you consider these novels to be in today’s day and age? In other words, what do they have to say to the modern reader? 

AM: There’s that famous definition of a classic by Italo Calvino: ‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. So on one level, I think Rhys is a ‘great writer’ in the classic sense, and therefore everything she wrote is art and art that has something to say to us now, as I would say about any literary artist, Thackeray or Jane Austen or William Burroughs. In Rhys’s case, there is also something about the solitary urban existence that she paints in those ‘30s novels that probably does have something specific to say to people right now. This is something Lauren Elkin talks about in her new book, Flâneuse, about Rhys, and likewise Olivia Laing in her most recent book The Lonely City. So I think Rhys has quite a lot to tell people about that existence, which we perhaps think of as being a uniquely 21st century state of affairs; but I think you can see in that sort of aimless wandering from bar to rented room to never being sure of your position with either men or other women, a kind of loneliness. As Olivia Laing says, loneliness and solitude not being the same thing! But I think Rhys probably has something to say about both.

The fact that she is finding new, enthusiastic readers all the time and you and Eric are running #ReadingRhys is testament to her popularity with modern readers. I wonder what she would make of it all. You know what she said when she won the WH Smith Award for Wide Sargasso Sea, don’t you? “It has come too late.” [LAUGHS]  Very Jean Rhys.

JW: Andy, thank you so much for such an fascinating insight into Rhys’s enduring appeal. It’s been a real pleasure to have your involvement in the Jean Rhys Reading Week.

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We hope you found our discussion of interest – do let us know in the comments below.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my final post for the week, a review of The Left Bank stories.

For #ReadingRhys, author Andy Miller discusses his passion for the work of Jean Rhys – part 1

Today I’m delighted to welcome Andy Miller to discuss his passion for the work of Jean Rhys. Andy describes himself as a reader, author and editor of books – his most recent book, The Year of Reading Dangerously, is an account of a year-long expedition through literature: classic, cult and everything in between. Alongside his role as co-host of Backlisted, a series of podcasts designed to give new life to old books, Andy is also the reader in residence at this year’s Durham Literary Festival.

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Andy is a huge fan of Jean Rhys’s work. In fact, the Backlisted team – ably assisted by the author Linda Grant – covered Rhys’s 1939 novel ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ at the end of last year. There’s a link here — do listen as it’s an excellent discussion of the book. So I was thrilled when Andy kindly agreed to speak to me for #ReadingRhysThis is the first of two posts running over consecutive days, so I’ll hand you over to Andy (AM) for part one of our discussion.

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AM: Jean Rhys is probably my greatest literary enthusiasm of the last 10 years, or since I finished working on The Year of Reading Dangerously, or both. She is unique. It’s an article of faith for me that when you’re in your late forties you can still find books which make you feel the way you did when you were a teenager, which excite you and make you view the world differently. It’s harder to do as you get older – you have to look under more rocks [LAUGHS]. But not only am I a huge admirer of Rhys’s work, and her 1930s novels in particular, I also feel as though Jean Rhys has opened the door for me to other women writers such as Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor or Sylvia Townsend Warner, all of whom I love and all of whom, to some extent, share a similar sensibility. So, very significant.

JW: How did you come to Jean Rhys in the first place? What in particular prompted your interest in reading her? 

AM: Having never read anything by her, I tried Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS) during The Year of Reading Dangerously, as a good partner for Jane Eyre as much as anything. I thought WSS was a very good book and that it was accomplished and multi-layered – it’s not just about the characters’ relationships, it’s also about colonialism and the subjugation of women and how ‘classic’ literature had tended to represent those subjects, and so on. It was self-evidently ‘a classic’ itself but if I’m being honest it didn’t really grab me at that time – I mean, I thought it was really good but I wasn’t passionate about it. And then about five years later, I was talking to somebody about WSS, and they asked if I had ever read any of Jean Rhys’s 1930s novels, which I hadn’t at the time. They recommended After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (ALMM) as something I might enjoy. I read ALMM, and thought Oh I really like this. This is the sort of shabby, 1930s London scenery of Graham Greene or George Orwell or Patrick Hamilton. But the prose is more experimental than any of those writers’ prose – and, hmm, the author is a woman.’ That seemed really unusual for that era. Then I read her short-story collection, Tigers are Better-Looking (Tigers) – and that was the moment, the one where I thought ‘Oh wow, this is my new favourite author!’ It knocked my socks off. And I think it’s true of some writers; if they have a particularly distinctive voice, it can take the reader a little while to tune into it. WSS is not perhaps the best introduction to her voice; it’s a brilliant novel in its own right, but the things I like about her writing, and which I think are unique and remarkable about it, are perhaps found elsewhere.

JW: Let’s develop that theme a little further. What in particular struck you about the voice in those early novels and stories? In other words, what are the things that speak to you? 

AM: At first, as I said, it wasn’t  the voice but the setting of these books, that kind of demi-monde London or Paris, the very seedy (for want of a better word) world of lodgings and bars and never being warm enough, that appealed. That’s the landscape of the early Graham Greenes like England Made Me or The Ministry of Fear. Or it’s Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square or Twenty-Thousand Streets Under the Sky, or George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying or Coming Up for Air. I love that setting. But then Rhys does something very different with it.

Anyway, the voice. First of all, she writes with an incredible precision, the sense that sentences follow on from one another – she is not a very descriptive or flowery writer – they seem to have been composed primarily around that sense of rhythm. I really like that. Secondly I like the fact that she is recklessly unafraid to present, as Carol Angier says in her biography of Rhys, ‘the voice inside her head’. She is recklessly unafraid to present that voice to the reader, constantly challenging the reader by saying ‘you pass judgement on me if you want. I don’t care – my job is to tell the truth.’ I find that very attractive, actually. I mean, these are fictional heroines but I think most of us would agree, certainly in those early 1930s novels, they’re all a version of Rhys herself. Certainly the plots of those books are closely related to events in her life. So she is expressing herself through those characters. She’s very good at creating character, but the Jean Rhys character is, as I say, someone who has devoted herself to strip-mining and then setting forth every inner torment to an almost foolhardy extent. And the third thing I like about her is that I find her very funny, which is never commented on very much. There’s a combination of the willingness to be honest, and the rhythm – because comic writing is all about the rhythm, always, regardless of who the writer is – which produces this unique voice, self-pitying yet self-aware, and, as a result, a sometimes comical way of presenting things that are often not funny at all. Clearly things happen in those novels which are tragic in the true sense. And yet at the same time, the self-knowledge and poise in the transition from the event to the page is enough to inject a kind of gallows humour into her work. There’s a little bit here from GMM, quite near the beginning, in terms of what I was just talking about, that weird mixture of self-persecuting self-awareness:

“I tell him I will let him have the passport in the afternoon, and he gives my hat a gloomy disapproving look. I don’t blame him. It shouts Anglais, my hat, and my dress extinguishes me. And then this damned old fur coat slung on top of everything else. The last idiocy, the last incongruence.” 

I’m not saying that’s laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s a kind of brutal, brittle wit being directed at herself. It’s defiant isn’t it? And I think you see that a lot in her early books; you don’t see it so much in WSS, fascinatingly. I think maybe that voice had outlived its purpose by that time, and perhaps one of the problems that she had in writing WSS, which took twenty years or something, was feeling her way towards a new and more solemn way of expressing what she wanted to express. 

JW: A number of things strike me about Rhys’s early novels, running themes if you like. These include the sense of being the outsider, someone who is not accepted by society, the feeling of being marginalised, particularly by other women. I was wondering if you’ve noticed these things as well, and if so, perhaps you could say a little about these aspects of her work.

AM: I absolutely agree with that. In fact, I think that is the central theme of her work. To me, hers is the voice of the true outsider. There are several reasons for that, but I think one of them is that she is female. If you look at the existential writers of the 20th century, the majority of the celebrated ones are men. I’ve just been reading Journey to the End of the Night by Céline, and he’s terribly pleased with himself and his iconoclasm and the fact that nobody quite sees the world as he does, and I think that’s a very male trait in that era, a kind of forceful imposition of a particular worldview on the reader. Angry, didactic, expressionist – well, that’s not Jean Rhys. Instead there’s a sort of weary resignation. Her characters’ relationship with men in those books is never happy as far as I can see. And she’s not a sister, as Linda Grant says on the GMM podcast. Linda said, going back to reading her now, you want to give her a shake and say ‘I love you but stop whinging, get a job.’ And yet, as she also says, if you take that away, you don’t have Jean Rhys. So it’s that mixture of resignation and defiance, the bravery of it and that sense of always being the outsider, those are the things I find incredibly seductive (and that is the word.)

JW: Even so, I feel a huge amount of sympathy for the woman in these books who are, as we have said, the various versions of Jean Rhys herself. But there is this sense of the women in her books feeling very suspicious of other woman, that there is this marginalisation by other women and a sense that ‘respectable society’ is frowning on them and judging them on a constant basis. 

AM: She has no home, the Jean Rhys character, that’s a literal truth for her. She is an outsider; she is an exile. She’s in exile from the place of her birth, we know that, but she’s also in exile from society in all sorts of ways: the single woman growing older who has been forced at times to turn to prostitution; the alcoholic, which we know she was. And she’s always dispossessed and has little or no money. So she has this incredible empathy for people who don’t fit, and in a sense that’s why I think she would recoil from the idea of herself as a spokesperson for women. I don’t think that’s where she’s coming from; as Linda says, she’s not a sister! And yet at the same time I can see why one could read her books and find them profoundly feminist because they articulate a female experience in an era when few other writers were articulating that experience.

JW: I think you’ve nailed it when you express it in those terms. It’s not a traditional feminist mantra… 

AM: No. I’ve been reading quite a lot of Anita Brookner recently. I had read a few over the years, but I read Latecomers after she died – an extraordinary book. That sent me back to the beginning, and I just read her third novel, Look at Me, about a month ago, and it is also the most incredible book. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Jean Rhys in certain respects, that book, the mixture of humour and gentility and self-loathing, all those things mingled together, and exquisitely well written word for word. In her Paris Review interview Brookner says this marvellous thing about Rhys. She admires her work but also says, ‘she [Rhys] is too limited by her pathology’ – which is a valid criticism but of course is also just the sort of thing certain critics used to say about Anita Brookner [LAUGHS].

JW: Fascinating comparison with Brookner, Andy. Funnily enough, I’m just in the process of reading one of her early novels, Providence. Let’s leave it there for the moment and return to Rhys tomorrow.

We hope to see you again tomorrow when we’ll be discussing other elements of Rhys’s work including her prose style and the relevance of these books in today’s world.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)!

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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.

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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!