Pulling back the curtain - Jean Rhys

When I first read Jean Rhys's short novel After Leaving Mr Mackenzie in my early 20s, I felt a strong sense of empathy. It was the attraction of identification. I identified with the main character, Julia Martin. She was a tragic figure. She stayed in disreputable hotels and drank alone. "The landlady ... disapproved of Julia's habit of coming home at night accompanied by a bottle. A man, yes: a bottle no. That was the landlady's point of view."

Julia liked to go for long walks. She was a seeker of adventure at a time when women were expected to be demure. "[She] wanted to go away with just the same feeling a boy has when he wants to run away to sea ... Do you understand that a girl might have that feeling?"

She had known the heady pleasure of being desired, but her beauty was fading and so too was her power. "She had grown fatter in the last few months and [her coat] was now too tight and too short for her. She imagined that it gave her a ridiculous appearance, especially behind."

She loved beautiful clothes, but she was poor. She knew that "if you have money, you can go one way. But if you have nothing at all — absolutely nothing at all — and nowhere to get anything, then you go another."

I felt as if I understood Julia Martin's plight. Of course, I was younger then, and nursing my own broken heart, and prone to a certain melodramatic narcissism, and didn't fully appreciate the feat of having written such a book in the late 1920s. (It was published in 1930.)

The story is fairly simple. Julia Martin is dumped by her former lover Mr Mackenzie and offered, under humiliating if not threatening circumstances, a measly allowance to stay away from him.

Julia has no family connections, or anyone to whom she can appeal for help who hasn't already begrudgingly offered her a handout. She is forced to rely on her ability to attract men, exhilarated and compromised though this makes her feel, and with decreasing success as her looks become haggard. (She is in her mid-30s.) Julia returns to London at the suggestion of a new, but less than dedicated, suitor. She visits her sister, Norah. Her mother dies and Julia returns to Paris where, once again, she bumps into Mr Mackenzie. Very little has changed. She still asks him for money.

When I read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for the second time, 10 years later, I was more frustrated than comforted by Julia's existence. I no longer felt as nerve-wracked as Julia, nor as helpless. It was the writing that astounded me and my admiration shifted from Julia Martin to Jean Rhys herself.

I now stand in awe of Rhys's fierce talent. She had an ability to see what others could not, or refused to see, and the guts to write about it. And her writing still reads, 75 years later, as entirely fresh and modern. Her use of short chapters and short paragraphs, jump cuts and modern idioms, feels almost experimental.

Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, to a white Creole mother and a Welsh father. She is mostly known for Wide Sargasso Sea (a retelling of the story of the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre), but Rhys didn't publish that book until 1966 when she was 76. It had been nearly 40 years since Rhys's first book came out, with an introduction by Ford Madox Ford, who discovered her and with whom she was romantically involved. In the decade between 1927 and 1939, Rhys published one collection of short stories and four novels, of which After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was the second. None of these books did terribly well. During the second world war, they went out of print and Rhys all but disappeared. People assumed she was dead, but she was living as a recluse in Cornwall. Wide Sargasso Sea is an important book, but it doesn't have the emotional gall and urgency of Rhys's early novels. In After Leaving Mr Mackenzie you feel as if you are in the presence of a writer who is trying to tell it as it really was, to pull back the curtain of social decorum and say, "Look! This is what we're really like to one another!"

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