I totally loved Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1890 to 1979, Dominica). Last week I read The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini. I knew before I read this that Rhys had a troubled life but I admit I was shocked and saddened by how deeply unhappy her life was. It made me sad to think that the author of a book that has given so much pleasure to millions of people, The Wide Sargasso Sea, walked the streets of Paris and London in order to secure food and lodging. Rhys did not have to do this. She was married to a decent well off man who would have been happy to support her. When that did not work out because of the mental problems of Rhys, there were several other men who would have supported the beautiful brilliant Rhys. She also had several jobs none of which she kept very long. Rhys had a talent for ruining things for herself (and she was very hard to get along with long term) and as I see it she craved the excitement of the streets and the rough bars of London and Paris. She was a life time alcoholic and she was nasty and sometimes violent when intoxicated (which was when ever she could be!)
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is a very honest bold for its times autobiographical novel. Mr. Mackenzie is considered by everyone to be Ford Madox Ford, her one time mentor and lover. As the novel opens the central character, Julia, is checking into a cheap hotel in Paris. Her relationship with Mr. Mackenzie (who helped her financially) had just ended. The characterization of Mr. Mackenzie (as by reference Ford) is more or less as an energy vampire who drained those around him to fuel his own drives. Julie (and I expect Jean) also was very confused in her relationships with men. Julie takes a relationship of any length of time beyond an hour or so as putting the man under permanent obligation to help her. Not to be too blunt here but Julia (and I think Rhys) confused renting with buying but was skillful enough at emotional manipulation (and attractive enough) to extract funds from men after the relationship ended. When the men stop giving her money when the relationship ends, she sees that as proof of the evil nature of people taken in general.
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie starts out in Paris but then Julia decides to go to London to visit her sister and mother (just like in Rhys own life). She contacts some old acquaintances (she seems to have no friends), she finds a cheap hotel to stay in and she finds some men. She drinks too much. She wants to see her mother but she knows that her family, especially her sister, look down on the way she lives. The meeting of Julia and her family is so well done it is almost painful to read.
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie has a lot of beautiful prose. When it depicted Julia's encounters with her customers from the streets it was chilling in its perception of the self deception of both parties to the transactions involved. In one brilliantly done chapter, you can feel the fear one of her customers has in going back to the shabby hotel where she lives. His carnal drives over come his fear. He is so relieved to get away from Julia when he sees how crazy she can be. Neither Julia nor the men in her life quite want to admit to themselves that it is just a business transaction, over when it is over. Julia is marvelous at seeing through those she encounters but cannot or will not apply this same scrutiny to herself.
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie should be read after Wide Sargasso Sea. It is an excellent very well written novel. It is not the equal in any way of WSS but then not much else is either. I think most people read this book because WSS leaves them wanting more Rhys. That is the main reason I read it.
I am very glad I read this book. I recommend it to those who love WSS. It gives you a good feel for what life was like for a single women on the rough side of Paris and London in the 1920s. People interested in Ford Madox Ford, I am for sure, will be intrigued by the portrait of him painted in the novel. I will, I hope, in time read her other three novels (none are very long) and her 500 page collection of short stories. I might read WSS a second time before I do that.
Please let me know what your experience with Jean Rhys was like?