After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie / Jean Rhys
New York: Penguin, 1977, c1930.
Unlike many other readers, I was not a huge fan of Jean Rhys' most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea. So I thought I'd give her another try with this novel.
I found it much more satisfactory, even while it's a very sad and hopeless story. As Rebecca West said of it when it was new:
"It is a terrible book about the final floundering to destruction of a friendless and worthless but pitiful woman. It is terrible, but it is superb."
I can recognize the superb structure and writing, and the strong characterization, but it really is a terrible premise. Misery abounds, as our main character Julia sinks lower and lower, after leaving her last lover. Because she is aging (she is now, gasp, over 30), because she is tired and needy, she no longer has the support of her various lovers. Poverty and loneliness is getting her down. She intends to have it out with Mr. Mackenzie, but all that accomplishes is her remaining allowance from him cut off in one last large payment.
She heads to England, to see her mother and disapproving sister; that simply highlights how tawdry and tired her life has become. She hits up a few of her previous lovers from before Mr. Mackenzie, and gets a few pounds, and the brush-off. And a bit of sanctimonious sermonizing - as Julia sighs after one encounter:
It's so easy to make a person who hasn't got anything seem wrong.
This novel is full of despair, angst, uncertainty, and no redeeming or uplifting light at the end. In fact, Julia just keeps on drinking to blunt the pain of being alone and unwanted. Rhys paints a pitiless picture of a woman left to her own devices, cast aside once she's no longer considered desirable or useful. And Julia herself has no personal resources, it seems, neither emotional nor financial.
It's a story of pathos and the plight of this specific woman in her insalubrious era. While I don't think Jean Rhys will ever be a writer I turn to again and again, I did admire what she was able to do with this character.She was able to evoke compassion for what many might consider an unlikeable character, and lay bare the society that allowed her to suffer.
Krane's Cafe by Cora Sandel (trans. Elizabeth Rokkan) also shows the inner turmoil of a woman ground down by societal expectations and poverty (this time in Norway) who is finally saying what she has been bottling up, thanks to some strong drink.
The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig tells a visceral story of the agony of poverty and limited options, through a young woman who is thwarted at every turn, and finds her own way out of those societal norms.