Sasha Jansen and Sally Jay Gorce are the quintessential flâneuse in the birth city of the flânerie, Paris. They represent two sides of the flâneuse’s emotional inner landscape; aimless, lonely, and morally suspect on the one hand, freewheeling and liberated on the other. As single women, they defy the expectations of women in the city of love. They are elusive to love; Sally Jay is a happy bed-hopper, Sasha walks listlessly into crummy hotel rooms with shady men who promise only temporary love. They are a few decades late after the first generation of flânerie but they cannot escape the mark of marginality that comes with walking in Paris free from matrimony or responsibility as Hannah Arendt describes succinctly:
What all other cities seem to permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society – strolling, idling, flânerie – Paris streets actually invite everyone to do. Thus, ever since the Second Empire the city has been the paradise of all those who need to chase after no livelihood, pursue no career, reach no goal – the paradise, then, of bohemians, and not only of artists and writers but of all those who have gather about them because they could not be integrated either politically – being homeless or stateless – or socially. Pg. 174, Men in Dark Times
The two women are the semi-autobiographical protagonists of two novels, Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys and Sally Jay Gorce in The Dud Avocado (1958) by Elaine Dundy, who undertake events drawn from the novelists’ lives, created from a place of ‘write what you know’. Both women are not natives to the city. Sasha is English but has become estranged from her origins in England by virtue of a divorce and death of her child. In Paris, she can reinvent herself, gaining employment as a sales assistant. Like Sasha, Sally Jay seeks fame and fortune in Paris through establishing a career in film and theatre. Paris is also an escape for Sally Jay from a protective family in provincial America.
Born Elaine Rita Brimberg in New York City in 1921, Elaine Dundy grew up under the thumb of her tyrannical father who forbade her to leave New York. Undeterred, she saved enough money for a trip to Paris where she hoped to start her acting career. When the career was not to be she moves to London where she watched others rise to great cultural heights and, for the men she knew, become the iconic Young Angry Men of the 1950s. After the birth of her daughter Tracy (who has recently published a book on her parents) Dundy’s ambitions in film and television were finished. Then a career in writing came a-calling.
Dundy and Rhys were born into affluence and whose creative lives were significantly shaped by highly influential male literary types; Dundy by her husband the leading theatre critic of the day Kenneth Tynan and Rhys by her erstwhile lover and benefactor Ford Madox Ford. In fact, their literary careers were said to be spurred by the men. The Dud Avocado, Dundy’s first novel, was written at the behest of her husband. Typical of sexist assumptions about women’s creative abilities, he didn’t think it would amount to much beyond being written. For Tynan would be deeply resentful of Dundy’s critical success following the publication of the novel. ‘You weren’t a writer when I married you, you were an actress’ he said to her angrily. Yet appraisals from other famous men flowed in, the great comic Groucho Marx said it made him ‘laugh, scream and guffaw’. Who said women couldn’t do comedy? Gore Vidal offered his word of encouragement, “You’ve got one thing a writer needs: You’ve got your own voice. Now go” while Ernest Hemingway praised her book for having characters who “all speak differently” unlike, self-deprecatingly, his own.
When we are introduced to Sally Jay Gorce, pink-haired and dressed in an evening dress in the morning because all of her day wear is in the laundry, it is too easy to think: quirky and adorkable. Easily compared to Holly Golightly, Sally Jay embarks on a metropolitan adventure to run away from a dull American life and a mission to be an actress. Her French is good enough and she gravitates towards other elite Americans in Paris. The meaning of ‘dud avocado’ only becomes apparent in the end of the novel when [spoiler alert!], our witty heroine corrects a would-be paramour on the nature of the ‘Typical American Woman’. Full of misfired charm, he creepily described the typical American woman as having ‘a hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing’ like an avocado and ‘so green – so eternally green’. Well, having a mind of her own she won’t meet his expectations then. She resigns to simply being a dud avocado as she sips her cocktail.
Good Morning, Midnight also makes a reference to the protagonist’s state of being although in Sasha’s case it is derived from a poem by fellow depressive Emily Dickinson:
Good morning, Midnight!
I’m coming home,
Day got tired of me –
How could I of him?
Sunshine was a sweet place,
I liked to stay –
But Morn didn’t want me – now –
So good night, Day!
We first meet Sasha in her crummy hotel room in Paris, a new base from which to rebuild her life. Curtains are always drawn and she needs sleeping tablets to sleep. The streets of Paris and her daily routine of regular places to eat for lunch, dine, and then have a drink provide a much needed respite. In Paris, she is ‘saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set…’ (pg. 4), an image of a woman who has pulled herself out of a wreckage of a failed marriage and death of a child and struggling with mental health.
Regarded as ‘too depressing’ when it was first published, Good Morning, Midnight had been her fifth novel and precedes Rhys’s best known work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), the radical prequel to Jane Eyre’s ‘mad woman in the attic’. Before the fame of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys lived in obscurity but with an ambition to belong to the upper echelons of literary society. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in Dominica, a tiny Caribbean island in what was then the British West Indies, Rhys is now known primarily as a ‘postcolonial’ writer before such a term was de rigueur, before notions of class, race, and gender became an inescapable framework from which to intellectually appreciate her output.
A white creole who schooled in Cambridge where she was an alleged victim of racism, Rhys lived a life troubled by alcohol abuse and financial difficulty. Biographers and critics have noted with surprise that Rhys was able to gather the discipline to write fine books despite her chaotic life without emphasising that many men in literature lived similarly precarious lives. That Rhys was a woman, somehow not white enough, a single mother, and that she clung to men for monetary support (a biographical detail that seems to suggest feminist failure) meant that her literary output seemed improbable and against the odds. Like many women after her up to this contemporary moment, her novels mirrored her life. As writers of semi-autobiographical fiction, they enjoy the privilege of (re)writing the self yet cursed by voyeuristic prurience of readers who seek out thinly-veiled self-confessionals of troubled women.
Paris eventually gets the better of Sally Jay who, by the end of the novel, grows to despise the city after she loses her passport and failing to make a breakthrough in film or stage; ‘God, how I hated Paris. Paris was one big flea bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough’ (pg. 234). She had indeed looked at it long enough and decides to pack up and return home where she becomes a librarian and meets her happy-ever-after lover. But Sasha Jansen does not leave Paris, not least physically. She exits the buoyant promise and ebullience of the city and retreats psychologically into herself and submits yet to another man who will dominate and perhaps rape her. In fact in the closing pages of the novel, we are not certain that an actual man has come for her in her hotel bedroom or the ghost of past lovers who haunt her desolate inner chamber.
Despite her preferred theme of downtrodden women, Rhys, who died in 1979, currently enjoys a feminist literary legacy and fame that came too late for her, as she notes with irritation following the success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The Dud Avocado would live on to be a modern fairy tale for single women long after Kenneth Tynan threatened to divorce Dundy if she wrote another book. She continued to write and divorced him in 1964, Dundy writes victoriously in the 2007 republication of the novel one year before her death in 2008. The two novels represent something about women who have not only the privilege to travel abroad but also the relative freedom to become the protagonist – and indeed antagonist – of their life story. Women writers draw from their own lives – as much as men do though they are accused less often of this literary misdemeanor – because writing allows the rewriting of one’s life story when things do not turn out the way we want to.