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Jean Rhys: Postures (US: Quartet)

You can see this novel as a tale of Rhys’ affair with Ford Madox Ford or you can see it, as the opening quotation indicates, as a depressing tale with a warning not to trust Good Samaritans. You can also see it as a feminist tale about how women – at least in 1928 – were all too dependent on men for their economic survival or you can see it simply as a satire on expats in Paris, concerned mainly with drinking, sex, good eating and idle conversation. However you look at it, Rhys manages to tell an excellent tale in a relatively short book.

Marya Zelli, née Hughes, is an Englishwoman, a former actress, who met a Pole, Stephan Zelli, while touring, fell in love with him and married him. They are now living in Paris. Zelli has some dubious art business – Marya is not too sure about it – while she vaguely associates with the expat community. Suddenly, without warning, he is arrested for theft and sentenced to a year in prison. Marya is left without resources and has to struggle. She is taken in by the Heidlers, an English couple – H.J. and Lois – who seem to spend their time in drinking, sex, good eating and idle conversation. Gradually – and Rhys’ skill is showing how this does occur gradually – she is used by the couple. H.J. simply uses her for sex, with the full but tacit knowledge of Lois, claiming he loves her, while Lois, even after she is aware that her husband is enamoured of her, smothers and controls Marya. Marya has few options. She visits her husband every week in Fresnes prison. However, despite her contempt for H.J. she finds herself gradually falling in love with him.

During the year her husband is in prison, she tries, albeit feebly, to find a way out of her predicament but does not succeed. Once Stephan is released, he has to leave France and goes off to Amsterdam. Marya is in a quandary about whether to stick with him – H.J. and Lois advise against it. When H.J. – the thrill having gone – unceremoniously dumps her, she heads for Cannes but is no better off there and goes back to Paris, when Stephan illegally returns to France. It all ends badly for poor Marya, while the rest carry on with their murky lives.

Publishing history

First published in 1928 by Chatto & Windus