I came across Jean Rhys’ 1934 novel, Voyage in the Dark, in a used bookshop several months ago and read it during a recent trip to St Croix. I had read and enjoyed Rhys’ best-known work, Wide Sargasso Sea, previously.
At 187 pages Voyage … is a fast read but the images and language are haunting and stayed with me for weeks. Rhys’ writing style is fearless: sharp, spare and unsentimental.
The story follows the life of 18-year-old Anna Morgan, daughter of a West Indian planter who returns to England with her step mother following the death of her father. Anna had known no home other than the Caribbean island on which she was born and she is adrift in her new, cold, colourless and utterly foreign home. The central theme of the story is Anna’s loss of innocence and exploitation as she becomes a lover to a much older man and is then bereft when he casts her aside. The book depicts a near-fatal abortion Anna obtains after becoming pregnant with another man’s child. Rhys’ unflinching portrait of this young girl is utterly real, probably since the story closely follows Rhys’ own life after she moves to England from Dominica as a young women in 1906. Anna in her misguided innocence and too-early adulthood bewitches and haunts readers in much the same way you imagine she beguiles her lovers.
Of course I read the book with a particular eye to the West Indies. I appreciated Anna’s nostalgia for her home, and Rhys’ language and descriptions of the land and place are breathtaking.
At one point Anna is describing her home to her lover, Walter:
“Sometimes the earth trembles; sometimes you can feel it breathe. The colours are red, purple, blue, gold all shades of green. The colours here [England] are black, brown, grey, dim-green, pale blue, the white of people’s faces – like woodlice.”
She comments about the sun:
“The sun at home can be terrible, like God. This thing here—I can’t believe it’s the same sun, I simply can’t believe it.”
She remembers the sky:
“And the sky close to the earth. Hard, blue and close to the earth.”
And the sights and smells:
“I would pretend I was standing outside the house at home, looking down Market Street to the Bay. When there was a breeze the sea was millions of spangles; and on still days it was purple as Tyre and Sidon. Market Street smelt of the wind, but the narrow street smelt of niggers and wood-smoke and salt fishcakes fried in lard.”
She recalls riding horseback to a nearby estate:
“You turn to the left and the sea is at your back, and the road goes zigzag upwards. The feeling of the hills comes to you—cool and hot at the same time. Everything is green, everywhere things are growing. There is never one moment of stillness—always something buzzing.”
The plight, if one could call it that, of Creoles is an interesting concept. On one hand it is difficult to drum up a great deal of sympathy for European planters and their children, no matter how blameless or victimized the individual may be in the story of their lives. But on the other hand I can empathize with Anna’s central problem: she is part of two worlds—the West Indies and England—but she doesn’t properly belong to either of them.
In this passage Anna is remembering a day on the plantation with Hester, her step-mother, and Francine, a cook a year or two older than Anna, whom she considers to be her best friend.
“Francine was there, washing up. Her eyes were red with the smoke and watering. Her face was quite wet. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and looked sideways at me. Then she said something in patois and went on washing up. But I knew of course she disliked me too because I was white; and that I would never be able to explain to her that I hated being white. Being white and getting like Hester, and all the things you get—old and sad and everything.”
Anna clearly loves her home in the Caribbean like the Creole that she is (she mentions at one point that she is a fifth generation Creole on her mother’s side, and there is a suggestion that her mother was a mulatta). As an only child raised in the isolation of her family’s plantation, Anna had no connection to England. Indeed, her father also seemed ambivalent towards his mother country, as Hester relays:
“Estate! Fancy calling that place an estate. Only I must say that your father ought to have known better after thirty years old there and losing touch with everybody in England. Once he said to me, ‘No, I never want to go back. It cost me too much last time and I didn’t really enjoy it. I’ve got nobody there who cares a damn about me. The place stinks of hypocrites if you’ve got a nose.’”
But Anna has been cast out of the West Indies: her father has died and his estate sold by his second wife. She is removed to England which feels utterly foreign to her. It is an England which holds no love or respect for West Indian Creole, indeed Anna cannot fit in and is looked down upon.
To say I enjoyed Voyage in the Dark makes it sound like a beach read, which it is not. Voyage in the Dark caused me to lie unsleeping in my own bed and ponder Anna Morgan, her life and her choices. My heart would race when I found a passage where Rhys captured the essence of the Caribbean landscape, and I would go back to read these lines time and time again.
For a discussion of the book’s place the feminist lexicon I highly recommend Andrea Dworkin’s essay on the book (http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIF.html), which explores the feminist themes and laments Rhys’ relative obscurity in today’s literary landscape, and her 27-year silence as a writer.
Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys. WW Norton Company, 1982.