Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys #ReadingRhys

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.

voyage-in-the-darkActually, 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.


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

  • September 15, 2016 at 7:46 am

    Interesting comparison with Barbara Comyns. I’ve yet to read her, but your comments have piqued my interest! (Spoons is on my Classics Club list, so I’ll definitely get to her at some point.) I like the way you’ve picked out some of the dark humour in Rhys’ work too – it’s a point that’s often overlooked…

    • September 16, 2016 at 11:19 pm

      I adore her and can’t recommend enough! Though Spoons is probably one of my least favourite – having said that, it was also the first I read, so I should re-read.

  • September 15, 2016 at 8:32 am

    I haven’t read Barbara Comyns either, but I can see some similarities to other women writers of the period. However, there tends to be more anger in Rosamond Lehmann or politics in Rebecca West, more luscious descriptions in Elisabeth von Arnim, more stylistic flourishes in Elizabeth Bowen. Does that make Jean Rhys a lesser writer? I don’t know, but she speaks to me more immediately than any of the above (although they all have their moments). I admire her ear for dialogue (and particularly for what is left unsaid), her dry humour and her pared-down style

    • September 16, 2016 at 11:21 pm

      I suppose there is a lot of overlap – though a writer who speaks to you closely is always likely to be the best one for you, and a skill not to be underestimated.

  • September 15, 2016 at 9:02 am

    I haven’t read any Rhys except for WSS, but I just find her too bleak to approach, somehow.

    • September 16, 2016 at 11:21 pm

      It’s definitely not a chuckle, but I think you’ve enjoyed darker :)

  • September 15, 2016 at 11:36 am

    I’ve read Voyage in the Dark and have come to see it in one sense as a very bleak response to Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, in that Rhys’s works in reverse, from the Caribbean to GB. I think the colonial subtext is very important. I’ve also read other Rhys novels and find Good Morning, Midnight to be the best. It repays rereading as the writing is superb, nothing that hasn’t been worked into the whole. It’s a devastating read, so not for everyone, something along the lines of Plath’s The Bell Jar.

    • September 16, 2016 at 11:23 pm

      That’s a really interesting novel to compare it to – thanks! Another one I need to reread, though, cos it’s been such a long time. (I will keep an eye out for Good Morning, Midnight, but I wasn’t super impressed by The Bell Jar I’ll admit…)

  • September 15, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    Rhys certainly is dark and bleak, and I think she captures the particular life of a particular kind of woman in a particular setting very individually. I imagine that much of that woman’s life is her own, but I’d agree with Marina that the woman writers of that era are all very different.

    • September 16, 2016 at 11:23 pm

      I’ve not read any full-length biography, but I do remember the portrait Diana Athill painted of Rhys in ‘Stet’ – it was quite something.

  • September 17, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    It’s interesting that you feel it fits with other novels of its period – not being well acquainted with inter-war writers it perhaps struck me more. I think it was the tone which made the biggest impression, and the way in which she delivers a first person narrative without, as you say, revealing much about the narrators thoughts.

  • September 24, 2016 at 11:25 am

    I was actually interested to read Jean Rhys because of her background living in Dominica, having read a lot of fiction by writers from that region, I couldn’t imagine (even though she was the daughter of white colonists) how she was going to adapt to living in such a different culture and climate, with their very different way of seeing and being, she was SO foreign, even if she looked English at first sight to people.

    As you mention, Diana Athill is one of the few who totally understood this about Jean Rhys, how foreign she really was – but even she, only came to understand that, after having visiting Dominica itself, making her begin to wonder what it might have been like to left a community and island like this to make your way without family, community or connections in England.

    So this was the lens through which I viewed Voyage in the Dark and it was a sorrowful read for all that. A woman in exile, whom people only see on the outside, struggling to find her way, falling into depression, accepting that her life is going to be dictated by the whims of men or the suggestions of women who befriend her. She lacks ambition or drive to raise herself above the niche where she has settled. Powerful, sad.

    I’m intrigued to read Wide Sargasso Sea, because this seems to be the one novel that was tackled with courage and a sense of indignation, Rhys is out to defend the mad woman in the attic, a woman like her, who left her life and home in the Caribbean to live in what became for her, a wretched England.

    Anyone living in exile or outside their country is likely to recognise/relate to aspects of her writings, that sense of isolation and necessity to be in possession of vast amounts of energy, optimism, patience, to avoid the instinct to judge (things Anna didn’t possess and thus led to her decline into depression and caused others to judge her).

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