Header overlay

Not-so-gay Paree

Share this

I first read Jean Rhys in my mid-teens; a copy of Quartet from my parents’ bookshelf, which drew me with its undemanding slimness and its cover featuring the beautiful face of Isabelle Adjani in soft focus above a chessboard with the heads of Maggie Smith and Alan Bates floating around her. (The three starred in the Merchant Ivory film of the book, which I have never seen.) From the back cover I learned it was set amid ‘the winter-wet streets of Montparnasse, Pernods in smoke-filled cafés [and] . . . cheap hotel rooms with mauve-flowered wallpaper’. Chic Parisian misery: just what teenage girls love.

The contents did not disappoint. The first lines read:

It was about half-past five on an October afternoon when Marya Zelli came out of the Café Lavenue . . . She had been sitting there for nearly an hour and a half, and during that time she had drunk two glasses of black coffee, smoked six caporal cigarettes and read the week’s Candide.

So glamorous. I was immediately plunged into pre-war Left Bank bohemia; a world of painters, writers and artist’s models, ‘gaily dressed little prostitutes’ and beautiful young men with powdered faces. The mood, rather than the plot or characters, stayed with me. Rhys is brilliant at conveying melancholy in an aesthetic way, so that even though Quartet is a sad tale, Marya’s suffering is leavened by the romance of her surroundings: ‘the pavements were slippery and glistening, with pools of water here and there, sad little mirrors which the reflections of the lights tinted with a dull point of red. The trees along the Boulevard Clichy stretched ridiculously frail and naked arms to a sky without stars.’

Jean Rhys’s first four novels, published between 1928 and 1939, were all heavily autobiographical. Quartet (first published under the title Postures) is based on the love triangle between Rhys, Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen, an Australian artist. Ford and Bowen looked after Rhys while her second husband was in prison for entering France without valid papers. Rhys was frail, poverty-stricken and ineffectual. Throughout her life she lived, like Blanche DuBois, on ‘the kindness of strangers’. The Fords bailed her out financially and invited her to stay with them. Bowen painted her, and Ford encouraged her to write.

Unsurprisingly, Ford

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

I first read Jean Rhys in my mid-teens; a copy of Quartet from my parents’ bookshelf, which drew me with its undemanding slimness and its cover featuring the beautiful face of Isabelle Adjani in soft focus above a chessboard with the heads of Maggie Smith and Alan Bates floating around her. (The three starred in the Merchant Ivory film of the book, which I have never seen.) From the back cover I learned it was set amid ‘the winter-wet streets of Montparnasse, Pernods in smoke-filled cafés [and] . . . cheap hotel rooms with mauve-flowered wallpaper’. Chic Parisian misery: just what teenage girls love.

The contents did not disappoint. The first lines read:

It was about half-past five on an October afternoon when Marya Zelli came out of the Café Lavenue . . . She had been sitting there for nearly an hour and a half, and during that time she had drunk two glasses of black coffee, smoked six caporal cigarettes and read the week’s Candide.

So glamorous. I was immediately plunged into pre-war Left Bank bohemia; a world of painters, writers and artist’s models, ‘gaily dressed little prostitutes’ and beautiful young men with powdered faces. The mood, rather than the plot or characters, stayed with me. Rhys is brilliant at conveying melancholy in an aesthetic way, so that even though Quartet is a sad tale, Marya’s suffering is leavened by the romance of her surroundings: ‘the pavements were slippery and glistening, with pools of water here and there, sad little mirrors which the reflections of the lights tinted with a dull point of red. The trees along the Boulevard Clichy stretched ridiculously frail and naked arms to a sky without stars.’ Jean Rhys’s first four novels, published between 1928 and 1939, were all heavily autobiographical. Quartet (first published under the title Postures) is based on the love triangle between Rhys, Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen, an Australian artist. Ford and Bowen looked after Rhys while her second husband was in prison for entering France without valid papers. Rhys was frail, poverty-stricken and ineffectual. Throughout her life she lived, like Blanche DuBois, on ‘the kindness of strangers’. The Fords bailed her out financially and invited her to stay with them. Bowen painted her, and Ford encouraged her to write. Unsurprisingly, Ford’s interest was not entirely altruistic and they had an affair. Bowen was aware of it and tacitly accepting; it seems she hoped it would, like Ford’s previous affairs, run its course. An objective observer might consider Bowen the wronged party but Rhys, who was unfailingly self-pitying, depicts herself as the victim in Quartet. Marya is a fragile, highly strung, child-like figure, at the mercy of the controlling Heidler and his wife Lois. They take her over, try to stop her visiting her husband in prison and insist she doesn’t make an embarrassing fuss when Heidler ends the affair. Their wealth gives them power, and Marya feels she is treated as a quasi-prostitute who must service Heidler’s sexual needs in return for bed and board, and not expect him to leave his wife. Lois is, in Marya’s eyes, ‘formidable’ and ‘insensitive to the point of stupidity’: the kind of person who likes to keep her enemies close.

She didn’t analyse; she didn’t react violently; she didn’t go in for absurd generosities or pities. Her motto was: ‘I don’t think women ought to make nuisances of themselves. I don’t make a nuisance of myself; I grin and bear it, and I think that other women ought to grin and bear it too.’

She is, as Marya mockingly notes, ‘obviously of the species wife’. The Heidlers think of themselves as ‘excessively modern’ but to Marya they are laughably bourgeois, precursors of the chattering classes, temporarily slumming it in Montparnasse:

You talk and you talk and you don’t understand . . . It’s all false, all second-hand. You say what you’ve read and what other people tell you. You think you’re very brave and sensible, but one flick of pain to yourself and you’d crumple up.

On rereading Quartet twenty-five years later I am struck by how annoyingly passive Marya is, and how much sympathy I feel for Lois, neither of which I remember feeling on first reading; but perhaps as a teenager I was more kindly disposed towards suffering heroines, especially if they suffered so stylishly. At university, where I studied English, Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’s last novel, published in 1966, was on the curriculum. Everyone loved it. The orthodoxy is that this is her masterpiece. It is undeniably beautiful and more ambitious than her slim volumes set in Paris and London but it never touched me as much it seems less personal to Rhys and doesn’t have quite the same coolly economical prose. A couple of years after graduating I went to Montreal with a friend, who knew someone there who would put us up. For a year I lived there illegally, working ‘under the table’ as a waitress, bar tender and life model. To begin with, everything was exciting and vivid and I felt creatively inspired. I was living on the Plateau, just off St Laurent Boulevard, which back then was cheap, scruffy and alive with artistic activity. When I wasn’t working I was trying to write and getting involved with unsuitable men. The adventure began to pall after about nine months and it’s at this point, judging from the date written inside the front cover, that I read Voyage in the Dark (1934), Rhys’s third novel, about her time as a chorus girl in London in her late teens. Rhys was new to England. To someone who had spent the first sixteen years of her life on the Caribbean island of Dominica, the cold, grey weather and, as she saw them, cold, grey people came as a shock. Voyage in the Dark describes the journey from innocence to experience of Rhys’s alter-ego, Anna Morgan, who joins a theatre company that travels the provinces: ‘I got used to everything except the cold and that the towns we went to always looked so exactly alike . . . rows of little houses with chimneys like the funnels of dummy steamers and smoke the same colour as the sky’. Like Marya in Quartet ‒ like all Rhys’ protagonists, in fact ‒ Anna is ultra-feminine, passive and desperate for a man to look after her. She’s infuriatingly unfeminist but obviously of her time, and Rhys captures atmospherically the precarious, often vertiginously fearful existence of a lone woman cut off from her family and the safety net of conventional life. While I would never have admitted to wanting a man to protect me in Montreal, I certainly identified with Anna’s loneliness and homesickness. I also recognized the freedom Anna feels in a new country where no one knows her. Voyage in the Dark is not unrelenting in its gloom, at least not at the start: Anna enjoys the camaraderie of the other chorus girls, and the nights out when she’s wined and dined by louche men in ‘swanky clubs’, although, as she says, ‘in my heart I was always sad, with the same sort of hurt that the cold gave me in my chest’. She meets a kindly man, whom she hopes will be her rescuer, but he breaks off their relationship at the encouragement of his cousin, who feels she is not respectable enough. Her finances become more desperate and she drifts into working as a prostitute ‒ as Jean Rhys did briefly ‒ in a brothel masquerading as a manicurist’s in Camden Town. She gets pregnant and the novel concludes with her floating in and out of consciousness as she undergoes a backstreet abortion. I returned to England shortly after reading Voyage in the Dark and had a miserable few months back at my parents, trying to restart my life. Unable to get a job, I moved to London, slept on a friend’s floor and started temping. I began to write stories about Montreal, about the characters I’d met while waitressing and life modelling. I wanted to capture the feeling of being young and adrift in a foreign city and, as Jean Rhys did with Paris, the intoxicating demi-mondaine atmosphere of Montreal. Only unscrupulous places would employ staff cash-in-hand so I worked in some real dives for terrible bosses. The people I worked with were often economic migrants from Haiti or Turkey or refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East. An overarching theme began to emerge in my stories, of the way a city can force people, like Anna in Voyage in the Dark, from innocence into experience, from ‘green’ to ‘smoked meat’ ‒ the title of my first collection of short stories, which also refers to Montreal’s signature dish. My characters never plumb such depths as Anna did but I hope I’ve captured that sense of possibility that Anna occasionally feels: the times, as she says, ‘when a fine day, or music, or looking in the glass and thinking I was pretty, made me start again imagining that there was nothing I couldn’t do, nothing I couldn’t become’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 51 © Rowena Macdonald 2016


About the contributor

Rowena Macdonald’s Smoked Meat was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. She has won a number of prizes, and was runner-up in the Royal Society of Literature’s V. S. Pritchett Prize, 2013. She is currently finishing a novel.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.