When Jean Rhys reading week was announced by joint hosts Jacqui and Eric, I suggested Quartet to my very small book group. We’re meeting on Wednesday evening to discuss it – smack bang in the middle of #ReadingRhys week – perfect timing.
Quartet was Jean Rhys’s first novel, coming a year after a collection of short stories she had produced with some help from writer Ford Maddox Ford. It is the first of four novels which are said to be highly autobiographical. Rhys’s unhappy love affairs and her time living in Paris seem to have influenced her writing. Around the time that Rhys was writing Quartet – she was living in Paris with Ford Maddox Ford and his common-law-wife (as it was then termed) Stella Bowen. The couple are fictionalised here in the characters of the Heidlers.
Marya Zelli is a young Englishwoman, married to Stephan, a Pole, the two are, superficially at least happy, Stephen ekes out a living for the two of them in Paris somehow. They live a disorganised kind of life, Marya never asking questions to which she may not want the answers, never questioning where their small amount of money comes from. Despite being twenty-eight – Marya frequently seems much younger.
“Stephan was secretive and a liar, but he was a very gentle and expert lover. She was the petted, cherished child, the desired mistress, the worshipped, perfumed goddess. She was all these things to Stephan – or so he made her believe.”
When Stephen is arrested, and then imprisoned for theft, Marya is left penniless, with no way of making a living, and it appears no one to help her. H J and Lois Heidler are a well to do couple, they are keen to take Marya under their wing, inviting her to move in with them. Marya is unsure, reluctant – she appeals to her husband on visiting day, he tells her to take them up on their offer. Marya is a woman who frequently seems unable to make decisions for herself, everything she does in this novel is directed by one of the other three people in the quartet of the title.
Soon after going to live with the Heidlers, Heidler makes advances to Marya, and she finds herself becoming more and more drawn to him, almost despite herself. Strangely, Lois Heidler is completely complicit in her husband’s pursuit of Marya. Marya is alone, penniless, with no resources she is torn between wanting to flee the peculiar and unsettling situation she finds herself in, and the knowledge that she has nothing else.
“ ‘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.”
Marya is trapped into this ménage à trois, a victim of the society in which she lived. A society where women with no money and no husband or family are prey to the wealthy and or disreputable, who may not have their best interests at heart. Marya considers her lot alongside that of the prostitutes, she appears accepting of the idea of her body, and sex as being her only asset, not once does she consider any other possible way of living.
Marya becomes Heidler’s mistress, he and Lois direct everything she does. They advise her to leave Stephen to not visit him in prison. Yet, Marya does visit her unreliable husband, every week but one, for the entire year he is locked up. Marya knows that when Stephan is released he will be expelled from Paris, and now she is becoming increasingly dependent upon Heidler – needing him, in a way that suits him perfectly. The Heidlers are manipulative and unpleasant, their motives difficult to understand – perhaps they’re not important. Marya is helpless, incapable of changing her course, listless and depressed, she is also hard to sympathise with.
“He was still looking steadily at her. His eyes were clear, cool and hard, but something in the depths of them flickered and shifted. She thought: ‘He’d take any advantage he could — fair or unfair. Caddish he is.’ Then as she stared back at him she felt a great longing to put her head on his knees and shut her eyes. To stop thinking. Stop the little wheels in her head that worked incessantly. To give in and have a little peace. The unutterably sweet peace of giving in.”
In this novel Jean Rhys shows herself a master of imagery and place, the world of 1920’s Paris is brilliantly recreated, a world of café bars, restaurants and Paris streets in winter. The whole novel is wonderfully cinematic. There’s a mood, matching the dark heart of this novel which is intimately poignant and quite disturbing. The ending shocked me, there’s a pessimistic realism to it that made absolute sense however – I’ll say no more than that.
Quartet is a wonderful first novel, beautifully written and atmospheric, I was forced to read it quite slowly for various reasons, I’m rather glad I did. I have read Wide Sargasso Sea two or three times, and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, but I am now looking forward to exploring more Jean Rhys novels, starting with Good Morning Midnight, which I hope to review at the end of the week.