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A woman adrift between the wars

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After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

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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.

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“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.’

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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?)

Jean Rhys Reading Week begins!

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Just a quick heads up that the Jean Rhys Reading Week, hosted by Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal and Eric at Lonesome Reader begins today!

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There will be lots of wonderful posts, tweets and the like to draw attention to this excellent and underrated writer so do join in if you can! There are plenty of books to choose from, including any of the ones in my picture below, which shows a mixture of fiction and (auto)biography.

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There’s also what’s probably her most famous work, “Wide Sargasso Sea”, a prequel to “Jane Eyre”. It’s the book that pretty much made her name and the one people still think of when they mention Jean Rhys. My copy had gone walkabout after being loaned to Middle Child, but Caroline at book word very kindly offered me a spare she had – isn’t it pretty? Thank you, Caroline!

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However, I shall be choosing to indulge in “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie”, which I’ve owned for decades and I couldn’t tell you if I’ve read. I’m looking forward to it, and also to hearing everyone else’s thoughts on Jean Rhys – happy reading!

Exploring my Library: Jean Rhys

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Whenever I’m getting reading for a reading event, I always like to gather the relevant books so I have them on hand for when the mood takes me or when the event arrives. And I know we’re a little bit away from the Jean Rhys Reading Week, which is co-hosted by JacquiWine’s Journal and Lonesome Reader and due on September 12th; but I’m trying to resist the temptation to buy more of her books, and so I’ve dug out my collection to share here!

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It’s a modest collection (and please excuse the fact that Dostoevsky is staring at them – I have a little Russian display on the hall table…) Several of the books are battered old Penguin copies that I picked up for ridiculous prices (25p one of them!) in 1980s, possibly at jumble sales!

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Looking at the Penguins more closely, despite their battered state I do rather like the three on the left which obviously come from the same series – I *don’t* like the film tie in cover, but when buying second-hand books you can’t always be choosy. However, if I see a copy that fits in with the first three I shall certainly snap it up!

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These are the rest of the books – an autobiography, a study of Rhys and a collection of short pieces (which contains selections from her first book, “The Left Bank”). So which have I read? Well, I couldn’t actually tell you – possibly none of the books shown here, and therein lies a mystery…

The astute amongst you will have noticed that there is a book missing, in the form of her best-known work “Wide Sargasso Sea”. That book I can say with certainty I’ve read; it was my first Rhys and I loved it and I have a copy. Well, I should have – but where it happens to be is another matter. I have my suspicions that I may have once loaned it to Middle Child and where it went after that remains to be seen. I feel a bit of family friction coming on…

Meantime, I shall have to decide which book to read – decisions, decisions. What are you reading for Jean Rhys Reading Week?

Exploring my Library: George Eliot

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Perhaps it’s a little arrogant of me to regard my collection of books as a library; nevertheless, I do have quite a lot and I don’t spend enough time with those I already own, instead getting distracted by shiny new tomes that appear. However, there was some talk of George Eliot on the LibraryThing Virago group recently, and she’s also turned up on some blogs I follow. This set me thinking about the Eliot books I own, which I’ve mainly had for decades, and I was inspired to dig them out.

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As you can see, I do own quite a few by this classic British author, but as I browsed I found myself wondering how many I’d actually read…

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Perhaps the oddest looking one is this rather strange American edition of “Silas Marner”. I had a few of these cheap classics which I picked up in the early 1980s, but I’ve replaced most of them over the years because they’re not particularly easy to read and they don’t look that nice. Obviously this one slipped through the net…

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Penguins, however, are usually much nicer! These three are part of the Penguin English Library and date from around the same time. A bit bedraggled but more easily read than the American one.

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I also have a number of Pan classics from the time (definitely some Brontes) – they’re quite attractive, although the paper (like the Penguins) doesn’t age particularly well.

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This is a more recent acquisition – a slim Hesperus Press volume I obviously picked up at some point and then just slipped onto the shelves with the rest of the Eliots without reading…

eliot viragos

And finally, two slim Viragos. “The Lifted Veil” gets some real stick on the LibraryThing group – not a popular title!

So – which of these *have* I read? The answer is that I’m not really sure. I think I might have read “Adam Bede”, “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner” – but this would have been back in the early 1980s and I kept no kind of record of what I was reading at the time. I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never read “Middlemarch” which is a failing on my part, as it’s so highly recommended by so many people (including Virginia Woolf).

Digging about on the shelves to find these was fun – I reconnected with books I tend to take for granted as they’ve been around for so long. I’m trying to read from the stacks more (and I think all of the books I’ll be tackling for The 1947 Club and the Jean Rhys Reading Week are ones I already own) – so it’s a useful exercise to go back to shelves and go through what you actually own. I may well share more of the collections in my library here soon  (if you’d care to see pictures of my books…) – and I really should read more George Eliot!

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