‘Has anyone ever told you that you’re very much like Raquel Mellor?’ the old lady in the next bed said. […]
‘Am I? Oh, am I really?’
The tune of La Violetera, Raquel Mellor’s song, started up in her head. She felt happier – then quite happy and rather gay. ‘Why should I be so damned sad?’ she thought. ‘It’s ridiculous. The day after I come out of this place something lucky might happen.’Jean Rhys, ‘Outside the Machine’
In her fiction, Jean Rhys depicts street sellers along with buskers, organ grinders, and other itinerant figures who cross her cities. In the novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, on returning to London after an absence of ten years, Julia finds the same violet seller on the corner of Woburn Square. There are many historical photographs and images depicting the presence of violet and flower sellers of London and other cities. In his 1851 book, London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew transcribed interviews with street sellers in Victorian London, including children and flower sellers, providing astonishing details and an insight into lives that were rarely envisaged, allowing their voices to speak for themselves. In the preface to this book, he describes himself as a “traveller in the undiscovered country of the poor” bringing back stories about people “of whom the public has less knowledge than of the most distant tribes of the earth”.
Raquel Mellor was an internationally famous singer and silent film star in the early years of the twentieth century. She was a Spanish singer who made her first appearance on stage in 1908. The song ‘La Violetera’ was composed by Jose Padilla in 1914 and became an international hit. During the 1920s, Raquel Mellor starred in her most successful silent films, Violettes Imperiales and Carmen, directed by her second husband Henry Roussel. Although her fame has since been erased in the collective memory, she considered herself a truly international figure, touring extensively and lived a life without borders. La Violetera, the violet seller, feels like a transient figure. In her writing and letters, Jean Rhys wrote about the capacity of music to cross borders, and Raquel Mellor and the figure of the violet seller seem to symbolize an internationalism Rhys was interested in exploring in her work. The 1958 film La Violetera, about a street seller in Madrid and starring Sara Montiel, revived the fame of the song.
The figure of the flower seller, crossing international boundaries, finds echoes in Rhys’s story ‘Outside the Machine’ in which she writes about identity and inner division, and the sense of not belonging, with having no place. It is about a sense of precarity, and homelessness, of being outside. When asked why she is living in Paris, the character Inez says, ‘No, I don’t feel particularly at home. That’s not why I like it.’ And later in the story she thinks: ‘Why must you always take it for granted that everybody has somewhere to get back to?’ The image of machinery and control recur in Rhys’s fiction, and the story is about placing people into categories to identify and to place them. She is concerned with the outsider, with those who don’t fit or slot into the workings of the machine, and who are ditched because they have no use. Watching the cogs turning of ‘the great machine of law, order and respectability’ and knowing that you have no function.
The song also featured in Charlie Chaplin’s iconic City Lights film which portrays the tramp and the flower seller. Chaplin’s little tramp is another outsider who seems in danger of being swallowed by the forces of mechanization and authoritarianism, by the politics of the time and by fascism, fading into the darkening skies of the 1930s.