I had enthusiastically signed my name (figuratively) for Jean Rhys Reading Week run by Eric and Jacqui, back whenever it was announced, and promptly put it to the back of my mind – and hadn’t spotted that it had started until I saw people tweeting about it. Luckily I had Voyage in the Dark (1934) on my shelf – thankfully it’s short, so I was able to read much of it on the train to London yesterday.
Voyage in the Dark is one of the rare copies I have where I have omitted to write where and when I got it inside, so I have no idea when I picked it up – but I do know that I’ve been mulling over reading another Rhys novel since I read Wide Sargasso Sea when I was 18, and liked it at least to an extent (though my impressions have mostly left me now). How very many people have read Wide Sargasso Sea and nothing else by Rhys? I suspect it’s a common refrain this week.
The novel – novella? – tells the tale of Anna Morgan, who has moved from her West Indies home to England and has recently lived with a stepmother who clearly considers her more of a burden than anything else. Anna is one of those characters who combines naivety with worldly wisdom – things have not gone well for her, but she retains something of a childlike optimism about the world. Or maybe just a childlike view of the world.
Anna must fend for herself – but (though at times this involves a rather haphazard training as a manicurist and a stage performer) this chiefly means relying on men. She skirts on the edge of being no better than she ought to be, let us say, but she also falls in love with an older man – Walter – who lavishes her with attention, but is never quite trusted by the reader. Discussions about men and women and their interactions are given in the bawdy, cynical voices of Anna’s friends, or the conservative tones of her stepmother or landlady, but we seldom hear a narrator’s perspective – or even much of Anna’s own. She is fixated on Walter alone, rather than men in general – though does get immersed in this sort of conversation:
“My dear, I had to laugh,” she said. “D’you know what a man said to me the other day? It’s funny, he said, have you ever thought that a girl’s clothes cost more than the girl inside them?”
“What a swine of a man!” I said.
“Yes, that’s what I told him,” Maudie said. “‘That isn’t the way to talk,’ I said. And he said, ‘Well, it’s true, isn’t it? You can get a very nice girl for five pounds, a very nice girl indeed; you can even get a very nice girl for nothing if you know how to go about it. But you can’t get a very nice costume for her for five pounds. To say nothing of underclothes, shoes, etcetera, and so on.’ And then I had to laugh, because after all it’s true, isn’t it? People are much cheaper than things. And look here! Some dogs are more expensive than people, aren’t they? And as to some horses…”
“Oh, shut up,” I said. “You’re getting on my nerves. Let’s go back into the sitting-room; it’s cold in here.”
Voyage in the Dark seemed to me to fuse comedy and tragedy in the way of a certain sort of interwar novel. Indeed, it blends fairy tale and realism in a manner that should cause disjunct in the reading experience, but actually blends very effectively.
Actually, the writer I was most reminded of was Barbara Comyns – who does the same matter-of-fact depiction of harsh realities almost as though they were fantasies. Rhys has a greater simplicity to her tone – and, I have to confess, much though I enjoyed reading the novel and was impressed by her handling of character, I was a bit surprised. Rhys is so often mentioned as being among the greater writers of the period, and this novel felt like a very good example of something that a lot of people were doing in the 30s, 40s, and 50s – rather than an example of unique or unusually excellent authorship.
In Eric’s excellent review, he writes a lot about the influence of the West Indies on Anna’s life and on the novel. I have to confess I saw these only in fleeting moments, and I daresay a lot of the questions of identity were lost on me – but that certainly doesn’t prevent me valuing the book, and being very glad that I’ve read more Rhys. Perhaps it is all a matter of expectation. I’m not sure I’d elevate Rhys to the highest echelons of writers, based on this novel alone, but I am certainly more likely to return to her again now that I’ve better made her acquaintance.