In a flashback to her early days in Paris in the 1920s, the young Sasha goes to the famous Montparnasse artist’s haunt, Café de la Rotonde. Opened by one Victor Libion in 1910, it was, like Le Dôme, a sanctuary for poor artists and other Bohemian down-and-outs. Libion also accepted paintings as payment for cups of coffee or glasses of absinthe stretched out to several hours.
Sasha herself refers to the ‘pictures on the walls’ and wonders, ‘How long will they let me sit here? Not a drop of coffee left. The last drop was very cold and very bitter. If I go to sleep they’ll certainly turn me out. Perhaps they won’t, but better not risk it.’ The café is still in business.
Again in flashback, Sasha recalls giving English lessons to a Russian man. She does not quite agree with him on the subject of (Irish) Wilde, yet says, ‘But I do like him. I think he is very – sympathique.’ This underlines Rhys’s empathy for the persecuted (once describing herself as ‘a doormat in a world of boots’), a constant theme in the novel: Sasha variously cries out on behalf of the ageing woman, the forgotten man, the homosexual, the ethnic alien and the whore.
Wilde, the greatest writer, playwright, poet and personality of his time, had huge successes in the late Victorian period with his lone novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest which remains fresh, contemporary and widely performed in the 21st century. His spectacular and tragic fall from grace at the hands of a barbarous society with the most genteel of veneers has secured his place in history as a martyr. He remains peerless.
Wilde’s satirical play of marital infidelity and personal sacrifice, Lady Windermere's Fan opened in February 1892 at the St James Theatre, London. The line the Russian pupil reads out tallies with Sasha’s own cynical outlook on the conduct of others: ‘ “The laughter, the horrible laughter of the world – a thing more tragic than all the tears the world has ever shed.”
Sasha’s unfailing belief in the redemptive and transformative power of clothes, make-up and accessories may only yield fleeting results, but ‘the sensation of spending’ is for her akin to sinking into a tub of foamy, warm water. Rhys understood the psychological value of new clothes, echoed by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier:
In 1937 keeping up a veneer of respectability mattered far less than at the turn of the century, but it still mattered, and Sasha, despite her hatred of her fellow ‘Anglaise’ is still English enough to keep up this veneer. She daydreams of ‘bracelets studded with artificial jewels, red, green and blue, necklaces of imitation pearls, cigarette-cases, jewelled tortoises…’
By 1937, women’s (daytime) hemlines had risen again, after dropping dramatically at the start of the decade in keeping with the bleak austerity of the Great Depression, following the above-knee frivolity of the daring Roaring Twenties. It was still a voguish, modernist era for women’s dress – a last gasp of luxury (for those rich enough to enjoy it) soon to be replaced by the utilitarian austerity of wartime threads.