Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 6, 2016

Quartet (1928), by Jean Rhys


Quartet is the first novel of British author Jean Rhys (1890-1979), famous for her late career Wide Sargasso Sea, which was a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and a novel which I didn’t much like when I read it some years ago.  But it didn’t put me off reading Jean Rhys because I was more interested in her early work which features raffish British women living a sort of vagabond Anglo-Saxon Bohemian life in Paris between the wars.  Quartet is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die so it was a good choice for Jean Rhys Week being hosted at The Lonesome Reader and JacquiWine’s Journal.  But I got a bit overexcited when it arrived in the post and read it early – Jean Rhys Week doesn’t start till September 12th.  Oh well…

And then I got totally sidetracked! Bear with me, please…

Amongst other delights, Quartet introduced me to the pneumatique postal system, which operated in Paris for over a century before being abolished in 1984.  When I first encountered the word pneumatique I deduced that it was something like a telegram, but something in the text made me stop and look it up properly, and thus to Wikipedia

Pneumatic tubes (or capsule pipelines; also known as Pneumatic Tube Transport or PTT) are systems that propel cylindrical containers through networks of tubes by compressed air or by partial vacuum. They are used for transporting solid objects, as opposed to conventional pipelines, which transport fluids. Pneumatic tube networks gained acceptance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for offices that needed to transport small, urgent packages (such as mail, paperwork, or money) over relatively short distances (within a building, or, at most within a city).

Some of us will remember those old fashioned cash carriers that were still used in some Melbourne shops like Dimmeys in the 1970s.  Our money was whizzed around from the counter to the payment desk for a receipt and change which then came back to us at the counter.  They were still using this system in Jogyakarta in some shops when I was at university there in the 1990s.   Well, the Paris postal pneumatique worked in the same way but it was underground, and it meant delivery of an item in under two hours.

But from this fascinating piece in the NYT (31/3/1984) I learned more:

The system was good for dispatching a theater ticket or paying a bill, and better when a phone call was best avoided. Sending a pneu, a letter that was always a bit of an event, offered an exquisite means to mask on paper the eagerness or anxiousness that even a practiced tone of voice could betray. If telegrams here [i.e. America] are for announcing deaths and lottery winners, the pneu served more circumscribed but just as real emotions – and announced several generations of broken dates.

Every French politician’s memoirs contain at least half a dozen references to receiving a pneu from this ally or that enemy, warning of plotters or ministerial intrigue. A movie by Francois Truffaud turned on a lettre pneumatique. Novels tottered with vacuum-tube letters. In a French popular romance, the deus ex machina frequently popped out of a pneu envelope.

Rhys uses the pneumatique precisely for this masking effect in this delicious novel.  The story is about a young English woman called Marya who has come to Paris to live a reckless life that makes her happy.  Remember, this book was written in 1928 when postwar women in Britain were chafing under the bit because they were dumped from participating in the workforce as soon as the men came home from the war.  Women were meant to revert to docility and the domestic life.  But Marya doesn’t want all that, and Parisian life offers her the freedom to live differently.  Her problem is that she doesn’t have any money, and the only work she can get is of the underpaid chorus-girl variety, so she ends up being dependent on having a man to bring in the wherewithal for boozing in bars, cigarettes and clothes.  (Hats in particular).  And as you might expect, it turns out that the kind of man who wants to live that kind of raffish life is a bit disreputable, and eventually she needs to be rescued, and that leads to a different kind of dependence.

So, back to the pneu…

There are letters between Marya and an English aunt when Marya needs some money; Marya’s dubious husband Stephan sends a letter explaining that he has been arrested.  But Mrs Heidler uses a pneu to invite Marya to a party so as to affect indifference as to its acceptance.  (She cares a whole lot, because her husband fancies Marya, but it’s unsophisticated for Mrs H to mind about that.) Cairn, an imaginative and slightly sentimental young man sends a pneu inviting Marya to lunch, although he knows that Marya is captive to the attentions of Heidler, and that since he has no money, he is of no use to her.  The pneu enables him to mask his hopeless quest.

Marya is a complex character.  1001 Books tells us that the book is a thinly veiled roman à clef resulting from Jean Rhys’s lengthy and increasingly bitter affair with the novelist Ford Madox Ford.  It also ascribes its technical artistry to the lessons of his literary mentorship:

Marya Zelli is the first instance of a protagonist who is ‘reckless, lazy, a vagabond by nature,’ acquiescing in a cultural myth of vulnerable femininity with self-destructive passivity. (p.325)

But that’s only half the story, according the introduction by Katie Owen in my Penguin Classics edition.  Owen says that although Ford taught that the ‘shape’ and ‘form’ of a story was the important thing, Rhys knew this already, and indeed Ford acknowledged her singular instinct for form in his introduction to The Left Bank (her short story collection, published in 1927).  He encouraged her to read French Lit, but she was already widely read and indeed read most of the time – as do her heroines.  (Marya included).  Although it was Rhys herself who labelled her alter-ego Marya ‘lazy’ I think this is satiric. Was Rhys ‘lazy’ to spend all day reading, educating herself about the precursors of modernism: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Maupassant and Flaubert?  I think not!  And Owen also says that Rhys did a lot of rewriting : an arduous approach – she would always go through many drafts before she was satisfied. (p.x111)

The introduction goes some of the way to explaining Rhys’s quixotic personality, but while you can see the self-pity in the excerpt below, I think that Rhys explains it better herself…

In seeking to convey why she would rather try to maintain her raffish life even though she has no money, Marya tells Mrs Heidler

‘I’ve realised, you see, that life is cruel and horrible to unprotected people.  I think life is cruel. I think people are cruel.’ All the time she spoke she was thinking: ‘Why should I tell her all this?’ But she felt impelled to go on. ‘I may be completely wrong, of course, but that’s how I feel. Well, I’ve got used to the idea of facing cruelty.  One can, you know.  The moment comes when even the softest person doesn’t care a damn any more; and that’s a precious moment. One oughtn’t to waste it. You’re wonderfully kind, but if I come to stay with you it’ll only make me soft and timid and I’ll have to start getting hard all over again afterwards. I don’t suppose,’ she added hopelessly, ‘that you understand what I mean a bit.’ (p.42)

1001 Books also recommends Good Morning, Midnight (1939) (as well as Wide Sargasso Sea) but I’ll probably read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931) and Voyage in the Dark (1934) as well.

Update 18/9/16 For other reviews of Quartet, see Poppy Peacock Pens, Heaven Ali and Abby King.

Author: Jean Rhys
Title: Quartet
Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2000, first published 1928
ISBN: 9780141183923
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $18.96.

Available from Fishpond: Quartet (Penguin Modern Classics) and good bookshops everywhere.


  1. That does sound good and the covers of her books all look irresistible. I have Voyage in the Dark lined up. Quartet does not seem to be readily available here at this time (would have to order from the UK so I guess that’s why I didn’t see it).

    Liked by 1 person

    • It will be good to read your review. I really like Classic reissues with an introduction, so I’ll be interested to see which edition you have:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An excellent review, Lisa. I’ve yet to read Quartet, but it’s a novel I’m looking forward to immensely. The dependence on men is a running theme through much of Rhys’ early work, it’s there in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage and several of the short stories too. I love the quote on the cruelty of life (p. 42), that’s vintage Rhys. So glad you enjoyed this one!


    • Thanks, Jacqui, and thanks also for encouraging me to read more of Rhys… I’m looking forward to seeing reviews of her other titles:)


  3. Fascinating to read this, Lisa! That’s so interesting about the pneu and Rhys’ developing a structure for her writing alongside Ford Madox Ford’s (patronizing?) advice. Thanks so much for participating and I look forward to more of your thoughts on Mr Mackenzie and Voyage in the Dark (which I just reread recently). I think it’s interesting too that Wide Sargasso Sea didn’t appeal as much to you – what about it put you off?


    • Hello Eric, thanks for hosting the week.
      It’s interesting to see what 1001 Books has to say about Rhys and Ford: his version of the same events “present Rhys as delusional, pathologically dependent, and given to violent alcoholic rages, a reputation that has stuck despite the best efforts of her biographers”. Now, why, I ask myself, did they see fit to include this from Ford, if biographers have (presumably) discredited it? It seems to me that 1001 Books is doing a bit of trash-the-reputation themselves merely by repeating it.
      It’s been a long time since I read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I think what I minded most was the whole idea of writing a prequel to someone else’s novel in that way. I vaguely remember thinking, ‘write your own book, haven’t you got the imagination to do that?’ And now that I have read the Katie Owen’s intro, I think I have the answer to my question because all the early novels mine her own life because, she said herself, that she couldn’t write any other way.
      But as I said in the intro to my review, I didn’t let WSS put me off!


      • Yes, it seems ridiculous to perpetuate a discredited opinion. Of course, it’s natural to feel curious about authors’ lives but at the end of it I think it’s the writing that matters. It’s a shame some writers let spite and jealousy influence their opinion in trying to discredit other writers and their writing.

        I totally understand your feelings when you read WSS. I think taking another character (especially a character we find out so little about in the original text) is alright as long as the writer makes them their own which is what Rhys unquestionably does with Antoinette. Rereading her early novels has given me a new appreciation for Wide Sargasso Sea because you can see how much of herself she put into that character. Also, I don’t think books exist in isolation. They are a conversation and Rhys simply makes a more direct conversation with Jane Eyre than other books do. So I didn’t feel she was treading on Bronte’s coat tails but building a differently beautiful and powerful novel next to her’s. Anyway, I’m glad you weren’t put off! :)


        • Well, maybe if I re-read WSS now I might feel differently… I’ve moved on as a reader and am more tolerant of the things that authors do. But then again, there are so many other books to read, it’s always a dilemma. Should I re-read something I wasn’t keen on in case it has some merit I didn’t see at the time, or should I read something else calling for my attention? It’s a delicious problem to have!


  4. When I was teaching Jane Eyre many years ago, I started to read WSS but couldn’t get past the first few pages and haven’t picked it up since or any of her other novels. Your review, however, has piqued my interest and will add this one to my TBR.


    • That’s great, Glenda. (I loved Jane Eyre… I read it first as a teenager (no YA for me, it hadn’t been invented then!) and then I read it again when I was doing C19th Lit at university and was just mesmerised by how brilliant it was.


  5. I understand your desire to publish your review early. Having recently read Leaving Mr Mackenzie, I was eager to write about it. It seems that Rhys writes expertly about the struggle of women to survive on very little.
    I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s reviews.


    • Yes, I think it will be more interesting because there are not very many titles to explore, that means there will be multiple interpretations:)


  6. Great that you included those descriptions of pneumatic tubes. I remember them from department stores, but had no idea they had been used citywide. As for Rhys ‘needing’ to work as a chorus girl and be supported by men, other women, like Miles Franklin and her friends, made other choices and survived with their independence intact. I’ve got nothing against Rhys being a chorus girl (or kept) other than the claim that she was forced into it. For another example, from memory there were plenty of women picking hops with George Orwell.


    • Ah well, we’d have to read her bio to get a real understanding of it. But it probably wasn’t an unusual choice, alas, there are still girls around today who expect a Prince Charming to look after them…


  7. Jean Rhys is one of my favorites. I’ve read all her novels, and, unlike you, I have much liked all of them.


    • Well, I have some treats in store, it’s good to know that.


  8. I have only read Wide Sargasso Sea of all Rhys’s work, and it made a huge impression on me as an undergraduate – I really liked it. But yet I didn’t read any of her other work – my interest has now well and truly been piqued to return to it!


    • Hello, and thank you for taking the time to comment:)
      I wonder if I had read WSS at university, I might have liked it more because I would have studied it more closely. There are quite a few books which I never really appreciated properly until I did them at university, even books that I loved like Jane Austen’s.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m a long time Rhys fan (Voyage in the Dark is my favourite), so it’s wonderful to see one of her books reviewed here.


    • Thanks, Kim – are you reading one for Jean Rhys week?


      • My Jean Rhys collection is in storage, so probably not.


        • Oh yes, I’d forgotten that. Are you yearning for those books yet?


  10. My local Carrefour in France to this day uses a sort of pneu system for sending money from the cashiers to the central collection point once they’ve reached a certain sum. I was very intrigued when I saw them pop something into what looked like a drainpipe and then it whooshed up (the tubes were stuck to the ceiling rather than underground).
    I think this is the novel where Jean Rhys has still not quite digested her anger and transformed biographical detail into art (although I still like it).


    • Hello Marina, thank you for your comment:)
      That’s fascinating, that sounds like what we used to have in a shop called Dimmey’s here in Melbourne. It’s interesting that it’s still surviving despite the almost cashless economy…
      Yes, I think this is an angry book in places, and I can understand why when women were not educated to be able to support themselves independently, and then were judged harshly if they found ways to survive that didn’t meet with society’s approval. It’s a bit like the writing of Madeleine St John, writing in the 1990s about what it was like in the early sixties when life for women was still very circumscribed.


  11. […] other thoughts on Quartet read Ali’s review , Abby’s review and Lisa’s review and do join in the discussions on Rhys, her life and all her writing over […]


  12. […] Lisa – ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]


  13. […] and Julie, it was also her intention to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Rhys had written Quartet as a thinly disguised version of her affair with FMF, painting him — and Stella — in a […]


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