After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys
Choosing a book for Jean Rhys Reading Week has been really, really hard. Although I own a large pile of her works, the only one I can be sure I’ve read is “Wide Sargasso Sea”. In the end, I chose “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie”, her second novel which was published in 1931.
“ALMM” tells the story of Julia Martin, living in Paris between two World Wars, and drifting. Since being abandoned by her lover, Mr. Mackenzie, she’s been eking out a living on an allowance he sends her. So she drinks and floats around in a kind of daze, without direction. Julia is beginning to age; her looks are going and her ability to attract another lover seem limited. And when Mr. Mackenzie’s allowance stops, Julia has no place left to turn and is unable to find a way of obtaining enough money to survive.
A chance encounter with an Englishman sends Julia back to London, where she has sporadic contact with the man in question, Mr. Horsfield, as well as trying to contact another former lover for some help. Complicating things are Julia’s family: her sister Norah is caring for their dying mother, and there is also an unhelpful uncle. Julia’s back story is gradually revealed, and as things implode around her it seems that a return to Paris is the only option for a woman like her – though whether she’ll be able to find someone else to support her remains to be seen.
“ALMM” is a gritty, sad tale which brilliantly captures the life of an outsider, someone on the edges of society – and that’s particularly interesting here, because that kind of character in fiction is so often male. Julia isn’t a particularly appealing person; selfish, self-centred and troubled, she seems detached from life, dissocated from what’s going on around her, and it’s only as her story gradually unfolds that we find out what caused this. The loss of her child and the failure of marriage sent her off into the kind of lifestyle which estranged her from her family, and Julia is a person with no other resources upon which to fall back.
When you are a child you are yourself and you know and see everything prophetically. And then suddenly something happens and you stop being yourself; you become what others force you to be. You lose your wisdom and your soul.
It was this element that really hit me whilst reading the book; how women of that era were in such a difficult position. The effects of WW1 are often discussed with regard to men, but women had also been hit by a number of changes. With the success of the suffragette movement and the expansion of women’s presence in the workplace, there was no longer the expectation that they would be supported by men. Previously, you would find a husband or a lover or a family member to support you; now you could no longer expect that, and Julia is in a difficult place at a difficult time. Women were still expected to behave in a certain way and Julia’s life is not one her family can approve of. The fracturing of structures after the war is reflected in her fractured life, moving rather directionlessly on with no real plan. It’s obviously that she’s never been trained to earn her living and so she drifts without a function, relying on her looks and a series of lovers. How she’ll cope when the looks have finally gone is anyone’s guess – you can rather sadly imagine her as being found at the bottom of the Seine one day…
She said: ‘D’you know what I think? I think people do what they have to do, and then the time comes when they can’t any more, and they crack up. And that’s that.’
Rhys apparently based the book on her own experience and certainly has a cold hard feel of realism about it. If Julia is at times a difficult character to sympathise with, the men are even worse. Horsfield in particular is the typical buttoned-up Englishman, set in his ways and nervous of stepping out of the narrow bounds of his life. After a couple of attempts to see Julia which degenerate into farce, he retreats into his little world having had enough adventure for one existence.
He shut the door and sighed. It was if he had altogether shut out the thought of Julia. The atmosphere of his house enveloped him – quiet and not without dignity, part of a world of lowered voices, and of passions, like Japanese dwarf trees, supressed for many generations. A familiar world.
“After Leaving Mr Mackenzie” is not a happy read; the characters are mainly leading empty and unfulfilled lives, there’s a sense of ennui hanging over the whole story and a feeling that life may not be that worth living. But despite this Julia finds the energy to battle through and keep going, ever hopeful that something will turn up and maybe the human spirit will always fight on, no matter what. Hers is a haunting story; she probably represents the lot of many women at the time, and Rhys brilliantly captures her voice and her world in compelling prose. Even if I don’t manage to read another book for Jean Rhys Reading Week I’m very glad that I picked this one up, and I intend to return to her books sooner rather than later.
(As a little piece of trivia, did you know that the Scottish indie band “Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie were named after the book?)