Prisons

The outside wall of the Sante frowns down on the Boulevard Arago. Three hundred blackened yards of it, sombre and hopeless. […] it seemed never-ending and there was no sign of an entrance.

In Quartet Stephan is arrested suddenly and imprisoned, which forms the dramatic incident of the novel, and leads Marya to turn to the Heidlers for support. Marya’s visits to her husband in prison are described in the novel and arise from direct experience as Jean Lenglet (the ‘real’ Stephan) spent time in prison in France and was subsequently deported. The space of the prison is important in Jean Rhys’s writing and she also writes her impressions of visiting prison in an early story in her collection The Left Bank.

The Santé prison is located on the Boulevard Arago in Montparnasse. Situated in the heart of the city streets, La Santé is a historical and cultural landmark of Paris – you can read more about its past and present here. Walking along the Boulevard Arago, and almost before I am aware the prison is there, it is possible to detect something of its presence; almost in the empty feel of the street around as I approach, as though there is a charge in the air, as though the streets themselves absorb something of what takes place, of events and their history.

For a time in London I lived very close to Pentonville prison, and my walks would often take me past the circumference of its walls, next to estates and housing, so that it was possible to see past the walls to the bars over the windows. As I reach the Rue de la Santé, I have the same impression Rhys writes of a seemingly endless wall stretching along the Boulevard Arago. For Marya, the prison becomes a real space, one that she visits each week, and at other times she can feel the pull of the prison, its closeness to the life of the city. Later Stephan is transferred to Fresnes prison, just to the south of Paris.

Fancy being shut up in a little dark dirty cell when the spring was coming. Perhaps one morning you’d smell it through the window and then surely your heart would nearly burst with the longing for liberty.

She went into the parloir, which was a huge room full of the buzz of voices. One of the warders opened the door of a small cubicle, and she sat down on a wooden bench and stared steadily through bars that were like bars of an animal’s cage. Her heart began to beat heavily. The buzzing noise deafened and benumbed her. She felt as though an iron band were encircling her head tightly, as though she were sinking slowly into deep water.

Rhys describes Marya’s experience of visiting the prison which can be overwhelming, as well as the effects of imprisonment on Stephan. She writes that the ‘loud conversations from the neighbouring cubicles were like the buzzing of gigantic insects. Inexorable, bewildering noise.’ Stephan seems distant, set apart from her; and during their visits Marya is aware of the barriers between them of his changed status, and under these conditions he seems fragile and dehumanised. Prison changes Stephan, it alters his identity, it tightens its grip on him, ‘she felt that he was withdrawn from her, enclosed in the circle of his own pain, unreachable.’ After prison he feels he has ‘lost his luck’ and can see no alternative but to leave.

She said suddenly, ‘If anybody tried to catch me and lock me up I’d fight like a wild animal; I’d fight till they let me out or till I died.’

Stephan laughed. ‘Oh no, you wouldn’t, not for long, believe me. You’d do as the others do – you’d wait and be a wild animal when you came out.’ He put his hand to his eyes and added: ‘When you come out – but you don’t come out. Nobody ever comes out.’

She stared at him, impressed by this phrase.

For Marya, the prison extends its influence across the city, she is aware of its terrible presence, so that she begins to feel a sense of being trapped and helpless: ‘Fright of a child shut up in a dark room. Fright of an animal caught in a trap.’ Marya’s own room, her studio at the Heidlers becomes a reflection of a prison cell: ‘Marya followed her up a narrow staircase to a little room which smelt clean and cold. Striped grey and green curtains hung straightly over the long windows.’

This also forms part of Rhys’s positioning, her critique of society, an attitude I began to explore in my earlier post on justice. In his introduction to her stories in The Left Bank, Ford Madox Ford wrote of her, ‘passion for stating the case of the underdog […] and of sympathy for its law-breakers.’ Marya begins to articulate some of this in her realization that ‘life is cruel and horrible to unprotected people.’ She begins to feel an affinity with the visitors and inmates of the prison. In her story, ‘In the Rue d’Arrivee’, Rhys articulates a similar point of view: ‘For the first time in her life she realized that only the hopeless are starkly sincere and that only the unhappy can either give or take sympathy.’

Then she crossed a cobblestoned courtyard and a dark, dank corridor like the open mouth of a monster swallowed her up. At the extreme end of this corridor a queue of people, mostly women, stood waiting, and as she took her place in the queue she felt a sudden devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.

As well as the literal prison Rhys writes about in Quartet, she frequently portrays metaphorical prisons and spaces in her work. Much of her fiction creates this sense of being trapped, a claustrophobic feeling that has much to do with the spaces she encloses her protagonists in, the rooms and streets, or their lives and circumstances. The city surrounds from all sides, walls close in, and sometimes spaces appear to be shrinking, pavements and passages are narrow and enclosing. Rhys chooses these spaces deliberately as she wants to reflect in them the state of mind of her characters, and more than once she takes the image of a band of iron growing tighter, encircling the heart like a tight grip of anxiety that refuses to let go. The grip of fear, that is there, that only occasionally releases its hold. Rhys surrounds her protagonists and gives them little opportunity for movement or self determination. The experience of reading her is one which can feel paralysing and restrictive and exploring this response was one of the first motivations of my project. The spaces of her writing reflect this sense of imprisonment, and being in prison comes from her view of the world, one in which there is little room for free will.

It’s a smoky kind of voice, and a bit rough sometimes, as if those old dark walls themselves are complaining, because they see too much misery – too much. But it don’t fall down and die in the courtyard; seems to me it could jump the gates of the jail easy and travel far, and nobody could stop it. […] I walk up and down and I think, ‘One day I hear that song on trumpets and these walls will fall and rest.’

Jean Rhys, ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’

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