After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

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Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie opens with a description of one of the many “cheap hotel” rooms that her down-at-heel heroines inhabit. It is here, in Paris, Julia has retreated “after she had parted from Mr Mackenzie” six months before to live (according to her landlady) “the life of a dog”. Later, in London, her sister Norah will cast her eyes around her accommodation there and say, “This really is an awful place. Why on earth do you come to a place like this?” The city may have changed, but circumstances remain the same. “You ought to get away for a change,” she is advised, but by that point we realise that change is no longer possible.

Julia leaves Paris when the money Mr Mackenzie has been sending her dries up. A final cheque moves her to confront him, her rejection of the money and the blow she lands (“She picked up her glove and hit his cheek with it, but so lightly that he did not even blink”) suggest his first impression of her is correct:

“…she wasn’t the hard-bitten sort…Afraid of life. Had to screw herself up to all the time.”

An observer of this scene, George Horsfield, takes pity on her:

“Hang it all, one can’t leave this unfortunate creature alone to go and drink herself dotty”

Horsfield convinces her to return to London, where she tours her nearest relatives hoping they might offer her some help. They disapprove of Julia’s life however – she is, for example, married but has lost track of her husband in Europe. Norah can only offer her a place by her dying mother’s bedside; her Uncle Griffiths a pound towards her return fair to France. The problem, as always, is money, as Horsfield had swiftly realised:

“He felt that he could imagine what her mother and her sister were like. No money. No bloody money…They would be members of the vast crowd which bears on its back the label ‘No money’ from the cradle to the grave…”

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Refused by her family, Julia writes to her first lover who agrees to meet her and later sends her money. Horsfield also helps out. If there are strings attached, Julia is also culpable of attaching them, begging Horsfield not to leave her alone one night:

“He thought: ‘I knew she’d do this.’”

Julia’s life is one of seedy rooms and temporary men. Whereas when her first affair ended she remembers, “You felt as if your back was broken, as if you’d never move again,” she now boasts to Horsfield:

“I can always get somebody, you see. I’ve known that ever since I’ve known anything.”

If Julia is bitter it is not at her choices but at her lack of luck:

“I had a shot at the life I wanted. And I failed… All right! I might have succeeded, and if I had people would have licked my boots for me.”

Later she says to her sister, “All you people who’ve knuckled under – you’re jealous.” Rhys exposes the lottery of life; Julia at least has rolled the dice. Even her wealthy first lover, Mr James, admits:

“I despised a man who didn’t get on. I didn’t believe much in bad luck. But after the war I felt differently.”

There are no happy woman in this novel. Norah, who “knuckled under”, has spent years caring for her sick mother, “brought up to certain tastes, then left without the money to gratify them”, her mother bedridden and dying, with her “bloodshot, animal eyes” suggests what lies ahead. 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.

The only joy comes for Rhys’ masterful prose. When Horsfield first watches Julia, feeling “detached and ironical,” Rhys is both mocking him while at the same time underlining the novel’s’ tone. Even her still lifes, the rooms Julia flits through, are imbued with a bitter wit, from Uncle Griffiths’ parlour, “a large, lofty room, crowded with fat, chintz-covered arm-chairs” to that first room:

“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 for the act.”

In scenes like these Julia plays her part, the idea and the act, each “disconnected episode to be placed with all the other disconnected episodes which made up her life.”

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10 Responses to “After Leaving Mr Mackenzie”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great review Grant. This is the one I’ve read and it’s powerful stuff.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Fab review, Grant. I love your last quote. Even though there isn’t a huge amount of descriptive writing in these novels, Rhys uses certain imagery carefully and effectively. I like what you say about the way she exposes the lottery of life too – that’s very true.

    Mr Mackenzie was my first Rhys, the one that sparked my interest in her work. Looking forward to seeing which one you’ll read next!

    • 1streading Says:

      I can see why. There’s a particular tone to her work which is irresistible, and she creates the atmosphere of pre-war London so well you feel you’re breathing it in.

  3. madamebibilophile Says:

    I think you’re right about Rhys exposing the lottery of life. I didn’t judge Julia harshly precisely because I felt Rhys was showing how she was doing her best with the very limited options available to her.

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree – both her limited options in a literal sense but also the options she feels she has. In one sense the novel is her desperate, and futile, attempt to control her own life.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    “The city may have changed, but circumstances remain the same.” Quite. Rhys is in some ways the novelist of wherever you go, there you are. I like your “seedy rooms and temporary men” line too.

    I agree very much on the lottery of life bit too. Those who are successful tend to attribute that success to their own efforts, not noticing what they inherited in terms of traits or money, the lucky breaks, the chances taken that paid off.

    What of those though who take those chances and find they don’t pay off? Some will try again and succeed, but not all. We look back and create a narrative of our lives, but Julia’s in a place where the narrative no longer fits, and her existence is a kind of rebuke to Norah’s narrative.

    Anyway, great review. I’m glad I came back to read it.

  5. #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] Grant – 1streading’s blog […]

  6. La Grosse Fifi | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] encountered Jean Rhys for the first time in October, reading Voyage in the Dark and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for Jean Rhys Week, I was very much looking forward to La Grosse Fifi (which features four stories […]

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