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.
Author: Jean Rhys
Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2000, first published 1928
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $18.96.
Available from Fishpond: Quartet (Penguin Modern Classics) and good bookshops everywhere.