Alan Cumming mentioned After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie in a NYT piece on his ten favorite books. Having read and reviewed (and loved) Rhys’ well known classic Wide Sargasso Sea for CBR6, and being impressed with Mr. Cumming’s literary choices (seriously, check out that list; it’s gold), I decided to give After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie a go. While it isn’t a masterpiece like Wide Sargasso Sea, it is nonetheless a brilliant and bold novel. This is one of Rhys’ early novels, published in 1930 (Wide Sargasso Sea came out in the 1960s), and it is an unflinching look at the fate of one particular woman, Julia Martin, after her lover tosses her aside. Yet it is not just about this one woman; it is about the fates of women in general if they have neither a man to keep them nor money of their own.
When the novel opens, Julia has received her last payment from Mr. Mackenzie through his lawyers and has been informed that no more money will be forthcoming. Julia is not overwrought by this; she has had lovers before, has been kicked to the curb, and picked herself up. We learn that she is a rather independent woman in spirit if not financially. Julia is living in Paris although she is from London. She married after WWI and she and her husband took off for the continent. She eventually left him and followed her own desires. The problem is that, as a woman, her options are limited, and in order to survive, she needs financial support from men. One gets the sense that Julia is less interested in passion and lasting relationships than her own happiness and independence. Yet Julia is growing older and less desirable, and she knows it. After Mr. Mackenzie leaves her, and following a brief encounter with a young Englishman named George Horsfield, Julia decides to return to London to see her sister and dying mother. Her sister Norah has devoted her adult years to caring for an infirm parent while Julia has been away. One can understand Norah’s resentment toward Julia and her own fears for the future. She, like so many others, is “middle class, no money.” Rhys provides a perfect description of Norah’s, and countless other women’s, situation:
Everything about her betrayed the woman who has been brought up to certain tastes, then left without the money to gratify them; trained to certain opinions which forbid her even the relief of rebellion against her lot; yet holding desperately to both her tastes and opinions.
Julia spends time visiting her mother and sister and trying to track down old lovers who might help her out. Julia can expect nothing from her family. They are all facing tough times, but they also make it clear that they wouldn’t help her even if they could. Julia’s reflections turn more and more toward the meanness and unfriendliness of people toward one another. After a particularly nasty brush off from her Uncle Griffiths, Julia says,
It’s childish to imagine that anybody cares what happens to anybody else.
Julia is a curious character. While it might be easy to dislike her, I found myself wishing her some sort of success. It’s true, she left her sister to deal with their mother, and her sister’s life is hard and unlikely to improve. And I generally don’t like a character who has to rely on men for support, but the thing about Julia is that she doesn’t really want to have to do this. She fantasizes about being able to take care of one of her former lovers and support him. Her options in life are rather limited and while taking on lovers might not be an admirable thing to do, it does provide Julia with some independence. She is, in a sense, a self-employed woman. She has resisted the tide and not become what others want her to be. But there is a cost to this, as Julia sees with her own eyes. Life has turned her into a harder and less sympathetic person. She notes more and more the number of older women around her, particularly when she returns to Paris. They stare from their windows and look like ghosts in the sunlight. She knows that it will be more difficult for her to find somebody to support her, but she pushes on anyway. Her final encounter with Mr. Mackenzie seems like a resolution to forge ahead, but ahead into what exactly? Like some of the male characters in the story, we admire Julia and yet fear for her, too.
I haven’t read any biographies of Jean Rhys, but from the little blurbs I’ve read online, she seems to have incorporated some of her own life experiences into her stories and characters. As a writer, she was esteemed by other writers, but she didn’t have great commercial success until much later in her life. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is a stark portrait of life for middle class women, and for one woman who chose to live outside society’s norms, in the interwar period. It’s beautifully written and would be an good choice for a book group.