When I read Rhys, I find the ring of truth and something I recognise - about what real experience feels like and the difficulties of communicating, that not everyone has the capacity to change things or to shape the world around them; that not everyone has the voice or the words.
The canal was always there in my memory. Sometimes a lonely desolate place, sometimes the sunny light feeling of walking along by the water. You could walk for miles of changing landscape, along its edges and lost waterways, crossing countryside and the hidden parts of the town. From the windows of a train travelling across the valley to Manchester. From the window of my school bus, as it wound its way through the outskirts of the town. Where the chimneys remain, when the clouds hang across the Colne Valley, the canal looks back at me.
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?'
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?'
There is something powerful and haunting about listening to this song, and it has a dark and mournful melody, particularly in the earliest versions. Lyrically poetic, it also contains a sense of its time, of the dread and uncertainty that shadowed the 1930s. The legends that have attached to the song, may also be present in each listen, and it is interesting to think about how popular songs might travel and adapt over time. Even without its notoriety, there is an atmosphere of sadness evoked by the song, and something compelling, something that is hard to shake.
The landscape leaves its marks, draws its way through my veins, like the road running through tree-lined stretches, where trees tunnel over us. This is how I remember it, etched in, and layered with buildings. The dark river, which is high at this time of year, winds through Hebden Bridge. The town is lit by lights, winter blue. In my hand a shard of ice.
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.
Looking back through my points of surfacing in Quartet, a book filled with references to sites across Montmartre and Montparnasse, some of which I have visited and explored here - through streets, hotels, cafés - the different views of the city. Through these locations I have crossed into some of the imagery and ideas in the book: the bars and nightlife, the concealed and invisible populations of migrants and stateless people, the elegant façade of the grand buildings and sites of justice and respectability, the life of the back streets, their poverty and hidden places, the dark river flowing through, the city as labyrinth.
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.
Train stations have a peculiar kind of atmosphere which can be an irresistible draw. They are places of waiting, of limbo, witness to the coming and going of commuters and passers-through. I still think of farewells and departures, of chance encounters and missed opportunities; an intense emotion that prevails in the air itself, as if it were still shrouded in the smoke of steam trains, and in strangers hurrying by.