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October 15, 2008

Forgotten Classics

GOOD ONES YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED

After Leaving
Mr. McKenzie

(By Jean Rhys. First published in 1931.)

Though Jean Rhys is best known for “The Wide Sargasso Sea” (her retelling of the “Jane Eyre” story from the point of view of the madwoman in the attic), this earlier novel is every bit as intense and perceptive. It’s the story of Julia Martin, who wants more out of life than the usual women’s lot, yet the only thing she’s ever learned to do is please men.

Julia has spent her youth having affairs with respectable married men, but now, in middle age, seeks a way out of her alienation from family, friends and her own past. The Mr. McKenzie of the title is the last man who provided the means for Julia to be a kept woman. She no longer wants to make the compromises required to keep these affairs going, nor do any new prospects appear to be in the offing. What is she to do? 

A brief passage from the novel has stayed with me so distinctly over the years that during the recent power outage, when it particularly resonated, I was able to locate it immediately: 

“Julia thought, ‘They might light the streets a bit better here.’ It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls around you and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere.”

The year it was published, Dame Rebecca West called “After Leaving Mr. McKenzie” both “terrible and superb.” The phrase might as well be applied to the author herself. —Mary Welp