We had good rooms. The landlady had said, ‘No, I don’t let to professionals.’ But she didn’t bang the door in our faces, and after Maudie had talked for a while, making her voice sound as ladylike as possible, she had said, ‘Well, I might make an exception for this time.’
Then the second day we were there she made a row because we both got up late and Maudie came downstairs in her nightgown and a torn kimono.
Showing yourself at my sitting room window ‘alf naked like that,’ the landlady said. ‘And at three o’clock in the afternoon too. Getting my house a bad name.’
‘It’s all right, ma,’ Maudie said. I’m going to get dressed in a minute. I had a shocking headache this morning.’
‘Well, I won’t ‘ave it,’ the landlady said. ‘When you come downstairs for your dinner you’ve got to be decent. Not in your nightclothes.’Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
She slammed the door.
In her autobiography, Smile Please, Jean Rhys writes about her time working in the chorus of music hall productions: “From this time dated my irrevocable hatred of landladies.” Rhys sets them in opposition to each other. Her chorus girls walk the lines set out for them, navigating between popular manifestations of them as sexually available and the narrow confines of respectability available for unmarried women. Landladies for Rhys are the guardians of this respectability who watch closely the behaviour of their seemingly disreputable lodgers. They often represent another level of surveillance and control, a greater sense of confinement. They are the natural enemies of the chorus girl, monitoring their use of water and electricity, surveillance of visitors, post and telephone calls; and any suspect movements that might compromise the reputation of the landladies’ house, such as staying out at night and sleeping late.
‘Here’s your tea, Miss Morgan,’ the landlady said. ‘And I must ask you to find another room on Saturday. This room is reserved after Saturday.’Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
‘Why didn’t you tell me that when you let it to me?’ I said.
She began to bawl. ‘I don’t hold with the way you go on, if you want to know, and my ‘usband don’t neither. Crawling up the stairs at three o’clock in the morning. And then today dressed up to the nines. I’ve got eyes in my head.’
I find Rhys’s descriptions of the chorus girls and landladies fascinating, partly because of the atmosphere they evoke of a certain time and place, and partly because they exist at the boundary between private and public spaces, like the boarding houses, theatres and dressing rooms they inhabit. Rhys’s writing, both fictional and autobiographical, is quite illuminating on what it would actually be like to work as a chorus girl in Edwardian England, and she adds detail to the prevailing narratives around these lifestyles. As well as writing about chorus girls, Rhys makes extensive use of popular and music hall songs (something I will return to later) and as Elaine Savory has described in her study of Rhys, there is something performative running through her work, in its preoccupation with the skills of the performer, with masks, make-up and clothes as costume, and with the sense of being out in public as performance.
Rhys sets Voyage around 1914, writing back to her first material – the black exercise books she wrote while living in London and then carried with her wherever she went. She returns to this material in some of her later writing – the short story ‘Till September Petronella’, and in some of her later short stories and autobiographical writing. The black exercise books are now in the Jean Rhys archives, part of the special collections at the University of Tulsa, and it is a dream of mine to visit these archives and to see this material for myself. What fascinates me about these portrayals, a series of rooms and a series of landladies, are the way they skim the surface of a vanished world, so that you can almost touch the precarity of this way of life.
I kept telling myself, ‘You’ve got to think of something. You can’t stay here. You’ve got to make a plan.’ But instead I started counting all the towns I had been to, the first winter I was on tour – Wigan, Blackburn, Bury, Oldham, Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield, Southport. … I counted up to fifteen and then I slid off into thinking of all the bedrooms I had slept in and how exactly alike they were, bedrooms on tour. Always a high, dark wardrobe and something dirty red in the room; and through the window the feeling of a small street would come in. And the breakfast-tray dumped down on the bed, two plates with a bit of curled-up bacon on each. And if the landlady smiled or said ‘Good morning’ Maudie would say, ‘She’s very smarmy. What’s the matter with her? I bet she puts that down on the bill. For saying Good Morning, half a crown.’Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
As part of my research on Voyage in the Dark, I have been mapping out the streets and territories of the book. When we meet the main character, Anna, she is on tour working as a chorus girl, and the book charts the ‘downward career’ of a girl (Jean Rhys, Letters). At the end of the tour, Anna decides that as she has saved a little money she will take a bed-sit room in London rather than staying at the chorus girls’ hostel in Maple Street. Instead she takes a room in Judd Street.
‘Do you always stay at those rooms in Judd Street?’
‘Room,’ I say, ‘room. There’s only one. No, I’ve never been there before and I don’t like it much. But it’s better than the Cats’ Home, anyway. That’s where I was last summer – the chorus-girls’ hostel in Maple Street. It got on my nerves because they make you come down to prayers every morning before breakfast.’Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
Walking through the London streets, Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury, I am thinking about the significance of the marginal figures Rhys writes about, her chorus girls and landladies. There is something radical going on in her portrayals of characters who wouldn’t usually form the focus of literary fiction. She re-writes the script through these marginal characters, and they make a trajectory through all her novels. By definition the role of the chorus is supportive, to form a backdrop to the main act, it is to be part of the spectacle; to be seen but not very often to speak. The anonymity of the chorus line helps to create the spectacle, the sense that they are uniform and interchangeable. Invisibility, the possibility of blending in, hiding away in rooms – these are not usually where the action of a novel might lie. What is radical in Rhys’s portrayals of figures who usually exist at the fringes of things, is the way Rhys places the minor character centre stage.
As I walk along Maple Street, I am thinking about the idea of putting the chorus girl centre stage, and of how this idea is threaded through the narrative. For a chorus girl to step into the spotlight and become the main act. ‘Don’t you want to get on?’ Anna is asked, and this idea runs through the book, the possibility of escape for a girl of her status. Although her resistance happens on the inside and is never spoken, Anna enacts a kind of refusal to live by the terms of the prevailing discourse within which she finds herself, wherever this manifests itself – in the people she encounters, in books, music, cinema and advertising – a discourse on purity, love and sexuality, money and clothes, gender and economic status.
Everybody says, ‘Get on.’ Of course, some people do get on. Yes, but how many? What about what’s-her-name? She got on, didn’t she? ‘Chorus-Girl Marries Peer’s Son.’ Well, what about her? Get on or get out.
Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
In her Letters Rhys writes: “I am always told that until my work ceases being ‘sordid and depressing’ I haven’t much chance of selling. I used to find this rather stupid but through much repetition I have come half to believe that it must be so.” She has come half to believe that it must be so, and yet contained within that statement is a resistance to this idea and a belief in the fundamental truth of what she was doing, which I think prevails in reading her work today.
The Rhys woman lives in a world where powerful and privileged people treat other people as if they were minor characters, born into and summed up by the supporting parts they play in the main drama. She is well aware that free will is an asset granted to those people who play leading roles, and aware in addition – the knowledge prompting responses ranging from irony to desperation – that the consciousness preventing her from somehow existing as a minor character in her own life places her outside the machine of both narrative and social conventions.
For one of Rhys’s most powerful insights is that categories of literary and social determination interpenetrate.Molly Hite, The Other Side of the Story