Review: Quartet by Jean Rhys

Quartet: The Mad(o) other woman in the hotel room

Quartet (Penguin Classics, 2000) is the first novel by one of my favourite authors, Jean Rhys. Finally taking the time to read her first novel (in hindsight, I should have planned my Rhys reading in a chronological order!) has opened my eyes to understanding the roots of her writing style and tropes that she frequently included in subsequent novels, such as After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and Voyage In The Dark.

book-review-quartet-by-jean-rhys
Anyway, to the novel itself. Written in 1928, and loosely based on the illicit relationship between herself and novelist Ford Madox Ford, Quartet follows a year or so of the life of Marya Zelli, a Brit living in Paris with her Polish husband, Stephan. After he is imprisoned for a crime that even Marya isn’t fully sure of, she is somewhat taken under the wing of arty English couple, the Heidlers. Although they are outwardly chic and well-respected in the community, Marya begins to learn that the relationship between Hugh (known as H.J.) and Lois Heidler isn’t what it seems and she begins to lose control over her life…

Marya, you’ve gotta see her…

As we see in Rhys’s later novels, Marya’s initial appearance and surroundings are a big deal. We’re told pretty much immediately that she’s an attractive woman, and, more notably, that other people think so too. The first time we see Marya, she’s drinking coffee – nothing stronger – in a suitably “dignified and comparatively expensive establishment”.

However, as is quickly pointed out, the English “touch life with gloves on. They’re pretending all the time”. There. The time bomb has been planted. While Marya appears to be fortunate, it’s made clear that this is merely a facade. In fact, on the very next page, Rhys tells us that Marya’s life “lacked… solidarity; it lacked the necessary fixed background”.

What is the background?

Again, just like later novels, Marya’s backdrop is a seemingly endless succession of increasingly shabby hotel rooms that mirror her own descent. The first contains a “huge dark wardrobe” that “faced a huge dark bed. The rest of the furniture shrank away into the corners, battered and apologetic”. One of my favourite elements to Rhys’s writing is the way she constructs so much meaning from spaces and places. Rhys’s hotel room descriptions are a perfect case-in-point. Darkness, emptiness and vulnerability – the three key elements of this room – become three key ways of describing Marya herself as Quartet progresses.

One evening, Marya returns to this hotel to be told that her husband, Stephan, has been arrested. He is subsequently jailed for a year in Fresnes Prison. Just like that, Marya is alone. That’s until the “fresh, sturdy” Heidlers come to the rescue and offer her a room to stay. At this point, Marya had only met the couple once before; when Mr Heidler had seemed a bit of a “brute” to Marya, especially when he had placed his “huge hand… possessively” on her knee. Perhaps not the greatest of first impressions, but a significant impression nonetheless.

A growing dependency

In her vulnerable state as an effectively single woman in 1920s Paris, Marya is quickly overwhelmed by the devotion given to her by the Heidlers – and from H.J. in particular. Long gone are the coffees in expensive establishments. Instead, Heidler uses drink to establish Marya’s dependency on him. At their second meeting, he is continuously refilling her glass with wine until she begin to feel “miraculously reassured, happy and secure”. Gone too is the beautiful woman drinking that coffee as Marya grows increasingly “frail, childish and extraordinarily shabby”.

Her downfall is only emphasised by Lois’s contrasting plump, wealthy appearance. Inevitably, Marya and Heidler’s relationship develops into a physical relationship, with the two declaring their love for each other – although not at the same time. Heidler is able to use his influence as a “rock” to manipulate and get what he wants from Marya. He’s not even particularly interested in the sex itself, but the power that it gives him; the ability to pit two women against each other – Lois as the good woman and Marya as the live-in prostitute.

Drowning…

For me, however, the interesting aspect of the relationship is not the affair itself, but the imagery that Rhys uses to describe the impact and consequences of the affair on Marya’s mental well-being. As I’ve mentioned above, she becomes increasingly dependent on alcohol, a vice that Rhys comes to rely on herself later in life. Marya is effectively drowning in a combination of Pernod, madness and violence. Rather poignantly, for example, this drowning idea comes to the fore as she walks by the River Seine, a stranger shouts in broken English: “Is it tonight for the suicide?”

Although Heidler says he is tortured by the love he feels for Marya, it’s Marya who is most affected by their relationship. She is the one who needs protection, she is the one who needs shelter and she is the one who has to leave. As Marya says, “life is cruel and horrible to unprotected people”. Although there could be potential for things to go back to the way they were as Stephan’s released from prison, she is sent away, and has even less protection as she has no money and no man to look after her. While away, she visits a zoo (Rhys also uses this caged animal imagery in her second novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie), and there’s a great likeness between herself and a caged fox as she empathises with him and his oppressive hopeless surroundings:

There was a young fox in the cage at the end of the zoo – a cage perhaps three yards long. Up and down it ran, up and down, and Marya imagined that each time it turned it did so with a certain hopefulness, as if it thought that escape was possible. Then, of course, there were the bars. It would strike its nose, turn and run again. Up and down, up and down, ceaselessly.

The battleground

There are many allusions to madness in Quartet too. Even her nickname – Mado – is a play on madness. Just like the caged fox, she declares, “I am horribly unhappy. I’m simply going mad here. …I’m being tormented…” She craves attention, pleasure and security and neither men in her life, nor Pernod, are able to provide that for her. The recurring references to being tormented also provide a sense of violence that is increasingly evident throughout the novel. Marya suppresses her desires to hurt Lois more than once, while Lois wants to watch Mado being “banged about a bit” at a fairground.

Ultimately, though, it is Marya who is hurt – physically and mentally – by the manipulation and violence of the people around her.

My verdict

Quartet is the perfect introduction to Jean Rhys’s work. Having read her later novels first, it’s been fascinating to read the novel where she first began to incorporate her trademark stylistic approach. From the heavily semi-autobiographical plot, to the portrayal of an extremely vulnerable woman who’s restricted to the confines of the influences around her, Quartet is a rather harrowing debut offering. Perhaps not quite as refined as her later novels, where we get to see into the thoughts of other characters rather than just the protagonist, it’s still exceptionally powerful. The way Rhys conveys the most intimate of thoughts is just ahead of its time, which is why her novels are still create such an impression today, and are still well worth a read (or reread!)

★★★★

Quartet (Penguin Modern Classics)

Other Jean Rhys book reviews:

Bookmark and Share

3 Comment

  1. What a great review, Abby! It really whets the appetite for this novel which I’ve yet to read. It’s the one I’d like to get to next as I’m hoping to keep Good Morning, Midnight till the end of the sequence. I really like what you say about the way Rhys constructs so much meaning from spaces and places. Quite a few people have been commenting on her use of imagery, particularly her descriptions of rooms, furnishings and houses. It’s very striking how she uses these elements to represent a certain mood or feeling.

    Thanks so much for being such an active supporter of #ReadingRhys. I really appreciate it!

  2. Darkness, emptiness and vulnerability. Yes, those are the defining terms of Rhys’s protagonists. Quartet, although first published, is not her first novel. Voyage in the Dark was written first but was third to be published and starts the downward path to be followed by the aging women of subsequent novels. Some readers this week comment that these women are “resilient” but merely staying alive in hope of being taken advantage of again doesn’t strike me as resilience–only passivity. Still, Quartet does have the power of tragedy and makes us care about Marya, wanting her dreams of love and happiness to come true.

Leave a Reply