Exemplary hotel woman

After she had parted from Mr Mackenzie, Julia Martin went to live in a cheap hotel on the Quai des Grands Augustine.

Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is such a great title for a book and I am a great admirer of its first line and the exactitude in which it is framed. The first location of this book is the Quai des Grands Augustine, and the hotel in which Julia goes to stay at the end of her relationship with Mr Mackenzie. There are no hotels existing now on this part of the quay, but in her biography of Jean Rhys, Carole Angier places her in the Hotel Henri IV during 1928 when she was writing Mackenzie, located on the Rue Saint Jacques in the streets behind the left bank of the Seine. It is likely that she chose the location of the Quai des Grands Augustine because she wanted Julia’s room to face the lights of the Palais de Justice across the river.

In the collection of Rhys’s personal papers at the archives is a list of Paris hotels, and it seems likely that she used this list in her fiction, or perhaps the list of hotels are sites that she stayed in on her writing trips back to Paris in the late 1920s and 1930s. Angier tells us that Rhys hated being back in London, and that she felt she needed to be in Paris to write, in one of its ‘little cheap hotels where, rent paid, one feels so safe and not noticed and nobody cares a hoot about anybody anyway.’

The hotel offers anonymity, and the landlady gives an impression of indifference to her guests, to those who come and go. ‘If you went in to inquire for a room,’ Rhys writes, ‘she was not loquacious. She would tell you the prices and hand you a card.’ The hotel is called the Hotel St Raphael, and there is the card reproduced on the first page of the book, with its name and address. Why the card, I wonder? The card intrigues me – what does it represent? The tangible evidence of a place, a material listing. The card a visitor might collect, going from hotel to hotel, in search of a room. The card tells us that the hotel has central heating and running water. The hotel offers rooms by the day or by the month. It is a cheap hotel which ‘looked a lowdown sort of place […] but the rooms were cleaner than you would have expected.’ Rhys tells us that Julia ‘paid sixteen francs a night’. She ‘told the landlady she would need the room for a week or perhaps a fortnight.’ By the time the book begins, she has been there for six months, and has begun to fade into the background; the landlady no longer pays any attention to her.

For Rhys’s heroine, hotel life ritualistically kills feeling, deflowers consciousness […] Rhys’s short controlled sentences, controlled […] perform rites, give body to effortful, stoic, amnesiac apportioning – the hotel woman’s poetic measurement of consciousness into tidy fragments […] Why do I recognize this scene, and why do I long for it, as if it corrected unhappiness?

Wayne Koestenbaum, Hotel Theory, Soft Skull Press

As I write this I am thinking how much Rhys is a lockdown writer. In these hotel rooms she writes of days of monotonous existence, a still life spent hiding away and avoiding other people. In his book, Hotel Theory – a meditation on the meaning of hotels – Wayne Koestenbaum writes this hotel consciousness into his prose, describing Rhys as ‘exemplary hotel woman’. It is a book I have enjoyed returning to and which also has a ‘lockdown vibe’. This thinking about hotels and their meaning recurs throughout my project, through Rhys’s rooms and hotels, the kind of thinking that makes me want to retreat to the anonymity of a hotel room and close the door until the book is finished. This sense of waiting is why I keep returning to Mackenzie; the book itself feels like a turning point in Rhys’s writing, and Carole Angier thinks of it as having a certain emptiness about it, as being ‘inbetween’.

I feel like I’m on a long train ride to an uncertain destination; I’m taking the trip merely for the pleasure of deadening my wishes, cutting off consolation, killing the delusion that succor exists. I check into that hotel room because I want nothing to happen, and because I want to experience the exaltation – no other word will do – that arrives dialectically when a life pretends to shut down.

Wayne Koestenbaum, Hotel Theory, Soft Skull Press

The room is described in some detail, for rooms have a character of their own. The room constitutes her surroundings, her main point of reference. The room provides a refuge and a place to reflect on her state of affairs. In this case, it is large with high ceilings and has ‘a somber and one-eyed aspect’. It has ‘individuality. Its gloom was touched with a fantasy accentuated by the pattern of the wallpaper.’ It is a place she spends a lot of time observing, so that it becomes familiar, but never too comfortable. A room is somewhere you stay, it is not somewhere you make your own. Julia ‘had told herself that it was a good sort of place to hide in. She had also told herself that she would stay there until the sore and cringing feeling, which was the legacy of Mackenzie, had departed.’

The monotony and regularity of her life forms a pattern of days and weeks. The arrival of the letter from Mackenzie’s solicitor, with her breakfast tray, each Tuesday morning. Always lunch in the same restaurant reading the newspaper. And after a meal, she goes for a walk: ‘She did this every day whatever the weather.’ The arrival of the cheque, the weekly allowance, the solicitor’s letter is a key moment for Rhys’s writing. In some ways, this is the letter that changes everything, a clue to all the other letters. The formality of it. The tidy way of dealing with matters of the heart. One day, the letter isn’t there as expected and something changes, and this is where we pick up Julia’s story.

It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or of trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen.

From the opening of the book, other things of significance I note are her mention of place which seems relevant to my project. Also, a recurring image in Rhys’s books is described in Julia’s pacing up and down the room which I have come to recognize as her implicit and indirect portrayal of the writing process – there are echoes of this image in Voyage in the Dark and in the description of writing in her autobiography – and so it is possible to imagine Rhys herself caught up in the writing of Mackenzie in her hotel room.

But on some days her monotonous life was made confused and frightening by her thoughts. Then she could not stay still. She was obliged to walk up and down the room consumed with hatred of the world and everybody in it – and especially of Mr Mackenzie. Often she would talk to herself as she walked up and down.

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