The Singing and the Gold

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

Jean Rhys, Till September Petronella

Petronella can be described as the archetypal Jean Rhys heroine. She navigates a position of uncertainty, living in a bedsit in Bloomsbury and working in shifting or temporary occupations, the artist’s model, the chorus girl. She spends her days in aimless wandering and her nights in after hours bars and nightclubs. She fluctuates between the highs and lows of this transient lifestyle, and the financial insecurity and the tenuous identity of her status as a solitary female in the city: ‘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?’

Between the lines of the story steal fragments of song; music is overheard or carried by the wind, music interjects and interrupts. Walking around London, music is present in the movement of the city, it drifts across in the air and through the windows of Petronella’s room in Torrington Square finding an affinity in the listener. Petronella lives an unpredictable life, a life of chance: ‘I struck a bad patch’, ‘that had not been one of my lucky summers’. It is this living by chance that opens things up, and there are moments when London has that sense that anything could happen: ‘”Anything’s round the corner” you think. But long before you get round the corner it lets you drop.’ In the story, music contrasts with the striking of the clock, a symbol of order and the enclosed space and sense of constraint and restricted subjectivity Petronella experiences.

The story is written later, looking back to a London of 1914. Rhys describes the story as ‘dated – but purposely so’. In her autobiography, she recalls this time: ‘It was a lovely summer, the summer of 1914’. Rhys was a frequent visitor to the Crab Tree nightclub located at 17 Greek Street in Soho. In her story, this club is called ‘The Apple Tree’ which Petronella describes as ‘the singing and the gold’.

I went to the Crabtree nearly every night and stayed till breakfast time. Then I went to sleep and woke just in time to get ready for the club again. There were nightclubs all over London, all sorts, all prices, and all full of a feeling of excitement that I had never known before and people dancing to the Destiny waltz.

Jean Rhys, Smile Please

There are echoes of the story in Rhys’s unpublished essay, ‘Songs My Mother Didn’t Teach Me’ (Jean Rhys archive, 1920-1991, The University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections & University Archives), in which she writes about the affects of music on her, and the different ways she has been ‘haunted’ throughout her life by popular songs. She writes that there is something about these songs that can perfectly evoke a sense of time and place, and memory. These are the kinds of songs that accompany her everywhere she goes, in the rhythm of walking, the ones that get stuck in a loop, that are played over again or can unsettle, interject, and disturb in some way. In the story ‘Petronella’, the whistling of part of the opera Tristan and Isolde interrupts her thoughts and becomes tormenting. This refrain is also mentioned in her essay as one of the pieces of music she has found haunting although mostly this is the kind of music that might be heard in music halls, in restaurants or nightclubs, whether played by an orchestra, whistled by a passerby, or the barrel organ playing on the street corner.

‘What was that music?’ I said, and Frankie answered in a patronizing voice, ‘Tristan, second act duet.’

‘I’ve never been to that opera,’

I had never been to any opera. All the same I could imagine it. I could imagine myself in a box, wearing a moonlight-blue dress and silver shoes, and when the lights went up everybody asking, ‘Who’s that lovely girl in that box?’ But it must happen quickly or it will be too late.

Till September Petronella

In her essay, Rhys also recalls listening to the Destiny waltz: ‘All London seemed to be waltzing to it, that lovely summer of 1914.’ Destiny was composed by Sydney Baynes in 1912, the most successful of a series of waltzes he wrote around this time. Listening now, the music sounds elegant and enchanting with a sense of yearning, so that I can imagine being swept along by it, and hearing it played everywhere.

La Paloma, meaning the dove, is a travelling song with a global history. It was written by Sebastian Iradier, a Spanish Basque composer, with its first recording in Havana, Cuba sometime between 1883-1890, making its way to Mexico and Hawaii, and then beyond. Its international reach resulted in it becoming one of the most recorded songs of all time performed by jazz artists, opera singers, pop stars, including a version of the song by Elvis Presley. Regarded as a symbol of longing and freedom worldwide, there is something uplifting, but at once carefree and infinitely sad about this music. The song has a complex history which it is hard to forget when listening. The 1938 recording by Rosita Serrano became immensely popular in Nazi Germany, and the Coco Schumann Quartet were forced to play the song in Auschwitz concentration camp.

Le Rêve Passe is a French marching song. In her essay Rhys writes: ‘I liked La Rêve Passe which always infuriated my conscientious objector friends…”That awful thing again” they’d say and walk out…’ Other songs that make an appearance in the story are ‘Night of love and night of stars’ and ‘The Ragtime Violin’: ‘To keep myself awake I began to sing ‘Mr Brown, Mr Brown, Had a violin…’

‘Well, tune up,’ he said, and I sang ‘Mr Brown, Mr Brown, Had a violin, Went around, went around, With his violin.’ I sang all the way to Cirencester.

Till September Petronella

At one point in the story, Petronella sees the date on a calendar – July 28th, 1914 – the date that marks the start of the First World War. While the war is never mentioned in the story, the date hangs there, like a black hole to fall into. There is something in the hope and longing of these songs, the light and the carefree, that contrasts with the desolate and blank space of the war, its paralysing effects and sense of collective trauma. In her essay Rhys writes: ‘War songs did not haunt me.’ The war takes with it the songs and their hauntings, leaving only a blank space in her memory.

‘Cheer up,’ he said. ‘The world is big. There’s hope.’

‘Of course.’ But suddenly I saw the women’s long scowling faces over the lupins and their poppies, and my room in Torrington Square and the iron bars of my bedstead, and I thought, ‘Not for me.’

Till September Petronella

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