“When it comes to Bloomsbury bedsits, I know what I’m talking about”

A church clock chimed the hour. At once all feeling of strangeness left her. She felt that her life had moved in a circle. Predestined, she had returned to her starting-point, in this little Bloomsbury bedroom that was so exactly like the little Bloomsbury bedroom she had left nearly ten years before.

Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

In the striking of the hour, Julia experiences a sense of time as circular. A feeling of strangeness and familiarity. Predestined; like other Rhys heroines she questions the notion of free will. She has arrived back in London to a little Bloomsbury bedroom exactly like the room she left ten years before.

Jean Rhys’s work portrays a series of rooms, a life composed of rooms occupied; the movement from room to room. Often in her work there is a sense of the uncanny, the unhomely, where the unfamiliar masquerades as familiar and vice versa. When I lived in London, I used to fixate on a few cheap looking hotels near Finsbury Park. They represented a kind of disengagement for me, an escape from real life. Reading Rhys, I found myself wanting to put into words, that sense of departure and of estrangement.

In Voyage in the Dark, Anna lives in a series of different rooms, and Rhys describes her own early years in England in similar terms in her autobiography. Rhys draws on her early diaries, the exercise books, in writing the novel. I am reading Rhys’s published letters from around the time she was writing Voyage, and the frequent change of address reveal that this was also a time of instability for her. I add the addresses to my map and find correlations with the streets she mentions in Voyage.

‘You know, what’s the matter with you is you live in the most depressing part of London. I really hate Bloomsbury. I wouldn’t live here for anything. You ought to live in Chelsea, as I do, you’d soon cheer up.’ [… ]

After this I decided to return to Bloomsbury. I felt more at home there.

Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography

My destination then, is Bloomsbury, a particularly Rhysian quarter of the city. I like this part of London; it is a place that retains an atmosphere of the past. I am starting with Anna’s room in Judd Street, searching for likely locations from the description in the book. She describes it as a little room on the second floor, for which she pays ten-and-six a week. She also describes leaving the apartment and looking at the iron railings in Brunswick Square, the ubiquitous iron railings which are everywhere. I have become quite interested in iron railings – there is a large collection of them at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  

In their study of cultural representations of the bedsit and boarding house, Living with Strangers, Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei describe how whole areas of London became known as bed sitter land – areas such as Notting Hill, Islington, Pimlico, Bayswater and St Pancras. Lodging houses develop in this way as a consequence of the way London and other English cities expand horizontally, and through the dominant ideal of a single family home. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, socio-economic changes and increased movement into cities, result in a growing transient population in need of accommodation, and home-owners in need of extra income. Central London is transformed into ‘a neighbourhood of rented lodging houses masquerading as single-family homes’, the creation of these lodgings, ‘ironically vitiating the notion of privacy, memory, family and permanence embedded in the ideal of home’ (Briganti and Mezei, Living with Strangers).

I told myself that anyway a bed-sitting room would be warmer in the winter and I knew the bed-sitting room routine. Breakfast was always brought up in the morning, though the time it was brought up varied from about half-past eight to half-past ten or even eleven, it all depended. They would light a small fire in the room and I would huddle under the blankets and wait until it was warm before I poured out the tea, which was by that time stone cold. A scuttle of coal was left outside the door to keep the fire up, and a large tin jug of hot water. Baths could be arranged for, but took a lot of arranging.

Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobigoraphy

Briganti and Mezei explore the recurring cultural representations of lodging houses as liminal domestic spaces in the interwar period and beyond. They identify two types of dwelling – the boarding house, which offered a private room within a communal dwelling with shared living spaces and meals, and often seen as catering to a ‘better class’ of lodger than the bedsit, which allowed for more independence, offering a room in a house with its own, minimal cooking facilities and shared bathroom. In literature, these spaces were often used as a narrative device for exploring the inner consciousness of their subjects, and allowed writers to engage with social relations and the tensions between public and private, home and identity, displacement and discomfort, as well as interest in individuals form the margins of society – the notion of living with strangers.

These transient domestic spaces evoked the vulnerability of the individual in a specific historical time, the long parenthesis between the disaster/disillution of the First World War and the creation of the welfare state – that time of slippage and despair.

Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei (eds.), Living with Strangers: Bedsits and Boarding Houses in Modern English Life, Literature and Film

They identify how these two types of dwelling are often used in different ways: boarding house literature often explored social practices and spaces and the tensions between public and private through the literary tradition of realism; while, ‘bedsit living is associated with the loss of social status and a kind of ontological impermanence.’ This is epitomized by the Rhys heroine.

What’s going to become of you, Miss Petronella Gray, living in a bed-sitting room in Torrington Square, with no money, no background and no nous?

Jean Rhys, ‘Till September Petronella’

In Rhys’s work, rooms, objects and furniture play performative roles. Rooms are often enclosing, claustrophobic and imprisoning. In ‘Till September Petronella’ the key is described as formidable, ‘like the key of a prison’, and she can’t escape the image of the black, iron bars of the bedstead. Anna’s room in Judd Street is described as having ‘a cold, close smell. It was like being in a small, dark box.’ She imagines that the room is getting smaller, that the walls are closing in.

This is England, and I’m in a nice, clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed.

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Rhys’s rooms are in-between spaces, and the furniture and objects in the room often take on identities, becoming anthropomorphic. They reveal her protagonists’ lack of home, placing them as outsiders. Sometimes the objects have a greater sense of permanence and belonging; they disturb and displace and reveal what is happening beneath the surface. ‘I have always felt that things were more powerful than people,’ Rhys writes in her story ‘The Sound of the River’.

There was a black table with curly legs in the hall in that house, and on it a square-faced clock, stopped at five minutes past twelve, and a plant made of rubber with shiny, bright red leaves, five-pointed. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It looked proud of itself, as if it knew that it was going on for ever and ever, as if it knew that it fitted in with the house and the street and the spiked iron railings outside.

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Rhys’s rooms are ‘the indifferent repository of lives that leave behind few traces other than the marks on the walls’ (Chiara and Mezei, Living with Strangers). In Voyage, Anna finds in a drawer a poem, ‘Loathsome London’, left by a former tenant of her rooms in Adelaide Road, ‘The landlady told me about him. She had to chuck him out because he couldn’t pay his rent.’ There is a sense of affinity with the unknown tenant, the forgotten poem all that is left of his tenuous existence and disappearance back into the unreachable, the lost and anonymous souls of the city. For Rhys protagonists, rooms are often a retreat, an escape from the street which can be inhospitable and labyrinthine.

For Rhys heroines, inhabiting bedsit and hotel rooms, public and private space are very interwoven, and the space of the street often invades their interiors. A reminder perhaps that the street awaits them, that they occupy only the most precarious, provisional positions. Music, from buskers and street musicians, often floats in through the window … ‘I began to breathe in time to it’. It is a reminder of their tightrope existence, and the fine line they walk between the transient, homeless figures who appear everywhere; they are both a mirror and an echo.

There was a barrel organ playing at the corner of Torrington Square. It played Destiny and La Paloma and Le Reve Passe, all tunes I liked, and the wind was warm and kind not spiteful, which doesn’t happen often in London.

Jean Rhys, Till September Petronella
Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris

A beautiful room with bath? A room with bath? A nice room? a room? … But never tell the truth about this business with rooms, because it would bust the roof off everything and undermine the whole social system. All rooms are the same. All rooms have four walls, a door, a window or two, a bed, a chair and perhaps a bidet. A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside and that’s all any room is. Why should I worry about changing my room?

Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight

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