Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys #ReadingRhys

voyage-in-the-dark

Voyage in the Dark is one of Jean Rhys’s early novels, about Anna, a young woman, who like the novelist, finds herself suddenly uprooted from her island home in Dominica, whisked off by her stepmother Hester, after the sudden and premature death of her father. There is little left to support her and so she must find her own way in London.

‘He was a planter my father. He had a big estate when he first went out there; then he sold it when he married Hester and we lived in town for another four years and then he bought Morgan’s Rest – a much smaller place.’

Hester, her stepmother is a woman who feels hard done by, she married Anna’s father and lived for a while in Dominica, clearly under certain conditions and was quick to return to England after his death, resettling herself in the North, sending Anna south to find a job to support herself, effectively abandoning her.

Not only did she not understand how that place and the way of its people were an intrinsic part of Anna, she openly disapproved of her contact with the black servant girl Francine and would act to remove her influence, the one person who had made Anna feel safe, happy and more at home than anyone else, a woman she could relate to but never be like. All that, now but a memory from her past.

I knew that 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. I kept thinking, ‘No. … No. …No. …’ And I knew that day that I’d started to grow old and nothing could stop it.

She finds a job as a chorus girl in a travelling theatre and while staying in a seaside town, she and a friend meet two men, one of them Walter, stays in touch, they embark on an affair and for a while he supports her financially – another relationship with conditions, though one she adapts to and finds favourable.

However it prevents her from pursuing employment, she spends days not leaving her room, waiting to hear from him, descending into melancholy and depression, having left the joy, warmth and colour that had been in her life on the island for a dismal English existence far from the expectations of the mother country she had dreamed of from afar.

‘I’m sure it’s beautiful,’ Walter said, ‘but I don’t like hot places much. I prefer cold places. The tropics would be altogether too lush for me, I think.’
‘But it isn’t lush,’ I said. ‘You’re quite wrong. It’s wild, and a bit sad sometimes. You might as well say the sun’s lush.’
Sometimes the earth trembles; sometimes you can feel it breathe. The colours are red, purple, blue, gold, all shades of green. The colours here are black, brown, grey, dim-green, pale blue, the white of people’s faces – like woodlice.

Voyage in the Dark is a melancholy read, it’s a kind of coming-of-age that happens to people not because they have attained a certain age, but as a result of living outside the familiar, whether it’s moving from the countryside to the city or from one country to another and Anna suffers perhaps even more than many migrants, because she looks and almost sounds like she comes from within the English culture, yet is indeed a foreigner and completely alone, without a community or family to commiserate with. She wouldn’t fit in, even if she were to find others born in Dominica, because there too, they had lived in a rapidly disappearing world, a post colonial community without a purpose. While young and living on the island, she experienced little of the world’s (or England’s) perception of them, something hinted at in the way her friends would laugh at her, without her understanding why. Her slow acceptance that she will never fit in, leads to complacency, a lack of care for consequences, hopelessness, helplessness.

I have read a few books by authors coming from the islands and they remain some of my favourite books; Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, Maryse Conde’s Tales From the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood, Simone Schwartz Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, however they differ significantly from the work of Jean Rhys, because there is a much stronger sense of belonging, acceptance and inevitability in their storytelling. They aren’t a product of white colonialism, they have been affected by it, but they know where home is, that is where they stay and live and learn and struggle, their isolation is only ever temporary, for they are part of a community whether they want it or not.

Jean Rhys through her character Anna, feels and understands what it might be like to be those women who belong and wanted to be part of it, yet she also aspired to live an English dream, only to discover it was an illusion, that she must lower her expectations, make sacrifices and rely on talents never dreamed of in her previous life, to secure her position, one that exists at a lower class than she’d imagined being part of.

Dominica

Dominica

It is ironic, that she will experience the subservient, misogynistic role of the mistress, a metaphor perhaps for the role her own family and the generations before them inflicted upon the local population of the islands they inhabited. She will feel and experience that discontent that sits alongside silent acceptance of the role of the lesser, the disempowered, as women to men, as slave to master.

Interestingly, many of the reviews focus on the feelings evoked in her first love affair, for me the stronger, more poignant feelings portrayed, were the loss of her childhood innocence, her home, her family – the affair was something she fell into, exploitative on both parts, and sad in that it didn’t follow the path of new, young love, she falls straight into a pattern she will likely repeat, dependence on the experienced, older man, who wants a pretty plaything not a mate.

Written in a simple, easy reading style, the story seeps into your skin and leaves the reader somewhat bereft and disillusioned by the inevitability of it all, knowing that while Anna’s story ends at the beginning of her life in England, some will already know that Jean Rhys’s life continued in a similar vein and that she would rarely if ever find contentedness in her continuous search for a place and a person that could make her feel loved and at home like Dominica and Francine did for her invented character. Not surprisingly, it is when Anna remembers and invokes the past, using all the senses that Rhys’s prose really sings, leaning more towards that incantatory prose from the Caribbean that I have so fallen for.

“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.” ― Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography

jeanrhysJean Rhys was born in the Caribbean island of Dominica in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a third generation white Creole mother of Scots origin (‘Creole’ was broadly used to refer to any person born on the island, whether of white or mixed blood). When she was sixteen she was sent to England to school, mocked due to her accent, left  and became a chorus girl. After a disastrous affair and disillusioned by events, she began to write, fictionalising many of her experiences and thanks to finding a mentor in Ford Maddox Ford, found moderate success.

She disappeared for some years only to make a comeback with her best-known novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a novel inspired by her indignation at the treatment of Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester, portrayed as the madwoman in the attic,  a woman who like Jean Rhys, had been brought to England from the Caribbean – it was written to give Bertha an opportunity to tell her story and to discredit Rochester’s overbearing, superior perspective.

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16 thoughts on “Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys #ReadingRhys

    • Yes, it’s a unique position that she is in, to look like an Englishwoman, but to have expressed a desire and wish to be black, she had more affinity with indigenous islanders than the English, but no one in London would have been able to detect that from looking at her and she never spoke those words, they were how she felt, but incredibly important in terms of how lost she must have been among her confident, more worldly peers. People her own age mocked her, Walter probably found her mildly exotic due to her origins, however she wouldn’t have yet understood that he and many like him, would never consider her as a serious prospect.

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  1. Great to get your perspective on this novel – it’s been a popular choice! The conflict she feels about her national identity and disillusionment of the dream of living in England is so strong. I hadn’t thought of her subservient role to men in those terms before – the opposite role her past generation played dominating the local population of the island they colonized.
    It’s interesting how it is really easy to read yet she layers so much in the novel and there is a lot of complexity to Anna’s psychology.
    Lots to think about!
    Thanks for participating in ReadingRhys week!

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    • Yes, that disillusionment comes out in some of her negativity, which doesn’t help her to get on, as just as she is protective of her island, so too are her new friends loyal to their country and its ways, for them the familiar and she is just expected to know how to be. It really is a thought provoking novel with multiple layers and influences.

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  2. Nice review, I’ll have to read the book. I was blown away by Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (answer to Bronte) because I, too, had felt sympathy for Bertha and here was someone writing an entire book about it. I can see that her alienation probably enabled her to write and sympathize with the mad woman in the attic…

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  3. A very thoughtful review, Claire, What I find most interesting is the way you’ve homed in on the cross-cultural aspects of the novel, the loss of Anna’s childhood innocence, her home and her family. It’s something I hadn’t fully considered in my write-up of the novel. How bewildering it must have been for her to arrive in England, no wonder she found life so painful and bruising. A lost soul in many respects…

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  4. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

  5. Very interesting, Claire. I read Wide Sargasso Sea a long time ago but didn’t realise that it was a response to Bertha in Jane Eyre. I shall dig it out and read it again. Unfortunately none of Jean Rhys’ works are available on my Kindle.
    I have just read all of Thomas Hardy’s works, both major and minor, and was so intrigued by his “modern” themes (embarrassingly, I had never realised this before) that I read Claire Tomalin’s very interesting biography: The Time-Worn Man.

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  6. Sounds interesting Claire but still not sure Rhys is my cup of tea. Have tried reading Wide Saragasso Sea at lest twice with no success. However you know what does interest me is the Caribbean connection. I hope we will get to buy read quite a bit of the titles we’ve exchanged. Caribbean Lit needs more press.

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    • I’m not sure Rhys would be your cup of tea either Didi, her Caribbean experience is more about the disconnect of children of white populations who’ve grown up in countries where they never really belonged, but they’ve been there so long, they neither belong to the mother culture of their parents either, it’s a lesser version of the problem of exiles from Sth Africa, Zimbabwe etc even though their loss and inability to feel at home elsewhere is very real, it’s a bitter-sweet pity we feel for them, knowing the life of privilege they endured at another culture’s expense, for which they feel no responsibility.

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