Looking into the gutter: Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

rhys-1I read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for #ReadingRhys, but, to be truthful, I really don’t think I would have bothered had it not been for that impetus. I tried Wide Sargasso Sea many years ago and didn’t get on with it at all. I don’t even think I finished it. Jacqui suggested this novel as a re-entry to Jean Rhys’ fiction.

It’s a brutal novel, reminding me powerfully of Colette’s writing in its depiction of Julia Martin, but without the gaiety or the affection. Julia is an Englishwoman in 1930s Paris, slipping so far down the social scale that she is staring into the gutter. She is weak, fatalistic, capable of bravery and quixotic moments of self-assertion, but lazily dependent on the man of the moment. Rhys does not flinch at describing Julia’s hopelessness, and she refuses to give her a shining white knight or a crock of gold. Here she is, roosting drearily in shabby hotels, and if she stays at that level, it’ll be a miracle. Prostitution is her life, at present just as a mistress for hire, but the reader is given no hope that Julia won’t soon be on the streets. She’s run out of men to live off, and picks up a stranger without much caring. But he gives her money to go back to England, and she decides to see her sister Norah, who has been looking after their invalid mother for years. Norah is, understandably, unimpressed at the reappearance of her elder sister, and there is a vast amount of ill feeling between them, fuelled by Norah’s quite understandable fear that after all her sacrifices to stay with their mother and be a nurse, Julia will waltz in and take what little money there is.

rhys-3I found this novel grim and riveting, describing an unhappy life and a brave attempt to try to change it. There is so much to take apart and study in its structure and narration, and it makes a bracing comparison with light and fluffy comedies of the same period. It’s most interesting, I think, for presenting the hideous and long-established English social code that a lady may not take a job, and must live off men or marry. Jane Austen pointed out this universal truth centuries ago, and Rhys’ novel (one of hundreds from this period saying the same thing) points out that this terrible necessity is driven by snobbery and deprivation of education or training. Julia has a mind and presence, and could have made something successful of herself, but is instead given no option other than prostitution, in or out of marriage.

rhys-4The very few bright specks of hope in this unrelenting series of miserable vignettes show Julia recovering her pride, and her awareness that she has value and charm, if she could use them for the right reasons. A stranger tries to pick her up on the Tube by giving her his business card and asking her out for dinner, but she lets the card fall into her lap, and when she rises to leave the carriage, the card falls onto the ground unnoticed: a fine example of the rebuff direct in the grandest manner. A lady will not deign to notice that she has been publicly propositioned. Poor Julia. I don’t like her, but I feel for her.

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