Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

When I put together my reading list for the Classics Club back in December, one of the first books I selected was Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark (first published in 1934). I absolutely loved Rhys’ second novel After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), which I reviewed last year, so it seemed only right to choose her next novel, Voyage, as a follow-on read. My only concern was would it be as good as Mr Mackenzie? Would it stand up to the comparison? Well, I need not have worried; if anything, Voyage is even better than its predecessor. I think it’s a small masterpiece – a brilliant, painful, devastating book.

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Set largely in London in 1913/14, Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, Hester, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of her father.

When we first meet Anna, she is working as a chorus girl in a show, sharing a room with fellow showgirl, Maudie, as their tour moves from one seaside town to another. One afternoon when Anna and Maudie are out for a walk they meet two men, one of whom is Walter Jeffries, a relatively wealthy man who lives and works in London. Walter is quite taken with Anna, and when the girls’ tour winds up in the capital, he invites Anna to dinner at a hotel in Hanover Square.

Anna is young, vulnerable and inexperienced in love. At first she rejects Walter’ advances, pushing him away as forcefully as possible. In a very subtle scene, Rhys explores the rush of thoughts running through Anna’s mind as Walter tries to kiss her. It’s as if she is looking down on herself, her mind disconnected from her body in some way. She longs to start all over again with Walter and for everything to be better next time.

I sat down on the bed and listened, then I lay down. The bed was soft; the pillow was as cold as ice. I felt as if I had gone out of myself, as if I were in a dream.

Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’ (pg. 21)

It’s not long before Anna falls for Walter, becoming largely dependent on him for both financial and emotional support. But Walter is a weak and spineless man; at nearly twenty years her senior, he is only interested in Anna as a plaything, a young girl ripe for the taking. When it comes to breaking off relations with Anna, Walter gets his friend, Vincent, to write to her on his behalf, explaining that he doesn’t love her any more, in fact he almost certainly never did.

What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around London in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, trying to make ends meet as best she can. I could say a little more about the plot, how Anna ends up slipping somewhat unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth; but there are other, potentially more interesting aspects of the book that warrant discussion here.

What is so impressive about Voyage is the way Rhys immerses the reader in Anna’s thoughts and emotions; we are completely inside this young girl’s mind, sensing everything with her, feeling her pain and desperation, her hopes and expectations as she is exploited by those around her. The book is written in a modernist style which moves seamlessly from Anna’s thoughts to her memories of life in the West Indies to events happening around her at the present time. The following quote gives a feel for Rhys’ approach. In this scene, Anna has arranged to meet Walter in the hope of persuading him to continue with their relationship. Her thoughts about Walter are intercut with memories of a funeral she attended as a child (presumably either her mother’s or her father’s as both her parents are dead).

I imagined myself saying, very calmly. ‘The thing is that you don’t understand. You think I want more than I do. I only want to see you sometimes, but if I never see you again I’ll die. I’m dying now really, and I’m too young to die.’

…The candles crying wax tears and the smell of stephanotis and I had to go to the funeral in a white dress and white gloves and a wreath round my head and the wreath in my hands made my gloves wet – they said so young to die…

The people there were like upholstered ghosts. (pg. 83)

England is portrayed as a cruel and harsh country, a dark, unwelcoming place that offers very little in the way of support. Rhys makes excellent use of recurring imagery to augment this feeling of exclusion: ‘dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together.’  At times, Anna feels trapped in a room where the walls appear to be closing in on her, an image which adds to the sense of claustrophobia in the novel. All this provides a stark contrast to the West Indies of Anna’s childhood, vividly portrayed as a lush land brimming with colour, a location full of the sights, smells and sounds of life.

Those around Anna are often quick to pass judgement on her actions. Her closest friends criticise her for not making an effort to go out and talk to people. There is an assumption that because she is young and has her whole life ahead of her, she ought to be happy and optimistic. But in reality, Anna is struggling to cope with life; she is cold and tired and homesick. All she craves is a little warmth and affection; either that or the safety of sleep – at least it’s a respite from having to live.

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really all you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night – that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, ‘He got sick of me,’ and ‘Never, not ever, never.’ And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead. (pgs. 120-121)

Anna’s landladies also waste little time in moralising about her position, labelling her a common little tart because she comes home in the middle of the night and then goes out a day or so later dressed up to the nines (the assumption being that Anna has purchased some new clothes with the money received for services rendered). This sense of moral judgement extends to the broader society too. In this scene, Anna and her friend Laurie have been taken out to a restaurant by two men. By the end of the dinner, a woman at the next table is getting annoyed with Anna’s party (Laurie, in particular, is a little drunk). Here are Anna’s thoughts on this woman and others of a similar ilk.

But I was thinking that it was terrifying—the way they look at you. So that you know that they would see you burnt alive without even turning their heads away; so that you know in yourself that they would watch you burning without blinking once. Their glassy eyes that don’t admit anything so definite as hate. Only just that underground hope that you’ll be burnt alive, tortured, where they can have a peep. And slowly, slowly, you feel the hate back starting… (pg. 103)

And then there is Hester, Anna’s stepmother, a sanctimonious, self-righteous creature who cares little for her stepdaughter’s welfare. Here’s how Anna describes her – I thought this description was simply brilliant:

She had clear brown eyes which stuck out of her head if you looked at her sideways, and an English lady’s voice with a sharp cutting edge to it. Now that I’ve spoken you can hear I’m a lady. I have spoken and I suppose you now realize that I’m an English gentlewoman. I have my doubts about you. Speak up and I will place you at once. Speak up, for I fear the worst. That sort of voice. (pg, 50)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I really loved this book. It’s a certainty for my end-of-year highlights; in fact I think it might be one of the best things I’ve ever read. Anna’s story is all the more tragic given its connection to Rhys’ own life experience – the novel feels semi-autobiographical in nature. By the time I’d finished reading it, my notebook was full of scribbles and quotes, many of which I’m struggling to find room for here.

I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage which, along with the earlier one on Anna not wanting to go out, seems to capture something of the essence of this book. There is an overwhelming sense of bleakness, fear and disillusionment running through this story, and I think you can see it here. (As a slight aside, clothes appear to play an important role in the lives of the women in Rhys’ novels. If a woman is to attract a new man she must look presentable, so clothes are often seen as offering a form of hope, a possible opportunity for the future.)

The clothes of most of the women who passed were like caricatures of the clothes in the shop-windows, but when they stopped to look you saw that their eyes were fixed on the future. ‘If I could buy this, then of course I’d be quite different.’ Keep hope alive and you can do anything, and that’s the way the world goes round, that’s the way they keep the world rolling. So much hope for each person. And damned cleverly done too. But what happens if you don’t hope any more, if your back’s broken? What happens then? (pgs. 111-112)

Voyage in the Dark is published by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

78 thoughts on “Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

  1. Cathy746books

    People like ‘upholstered ghosts’ – how wonderful. I’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea but nothing else by Rhys. This sounds just wonderful, the quotes chosen are very effective.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! How did she think of that? The writing is amazing, it just blew me away. I’ve got WSS to come, but I’m quite keen to work my way through her earlier novels first – collectively I suspect they will paint quite a picture.

      Reply
  2. poppypeacockpens

    Fabulous in depth review Jacqui… from the choice of passages to the astute considerations – I can easily see why this book appeals so much and I’ll definitely be looking out for it. That it feels semi-autobiographical is heartrending …

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. I doubt you’ll regret it. Once I’ve read another couple of the early novels, I might take a look at The Blue Hour, Lilian Pizzichini’s biography of Rhys, which was recommended to me when I reviewed Mr Mackenzie. I get the impression that Rhys drew on various experiences from her own life for these books, they feel rooted in authenticity (if that makes sense).

      Reply
  3. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Such an inspiring and thoughtful review Jacqui with your trademark fabulous quotes to depict just the thing you were describing. It seems that Rhys is always associated with that one notable book, as mentioned by Cathy, but I love that you’ve explored off the list and found a couple of gems that really appeal.

    You really depict well, that feeling of vulnerability and need for love she has within her, and the suffering she will experience, worsened by finding herself in a foreign and what feels like, a hostile environment – how much worse it must have felt, having left such a contrasting country and home.

    Brilliant! Have you eyed up any other books of hers that you want to read?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. I got carried away with quotes from this little novel, so much so that my review could have easily tipped over the 2,000-word mark! Everyone seems to rave about Wide Sargasso Sea, but I really wanted to start with Rhys’ early novels. Something about them just appealed to me – maybe it was the sense of bleakness and desperation, it’s hard to say. As for her other books, ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ is next in the sequence, so in some ways it feels like the obvious follow-on read. That said, I’m considering going back to her first novel ‘Quartet,’ published in 1928, just to plug a gap. I picked it up fairly recently, so it’s here in the house (along with copies of GMM and WSS). Maybe I’ll try to fit it in before the end of the year.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review Jacqui! Rhys certainly could write – it’s too long since I’ve read her. Interesting what you say about her contrasting the climate and landscape and people of England with the West Indies, as I seem to recall this is an element in “Wide Sargasso Sea”.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I thought this was tremendous, it really blew me away. Yes, the contrast between England and the West Indies comes through quite strongly here. I’m expecting more of the same in WSS!

      Reply
  5. kimbofo

    One of my favourite novels; it was my first Jean Rhys and I fell in love with her writing immediately. I love the melancholia in this story and the way she captures the mood of London in winter and the shock of that darkness when you arrive from warmer climes. Excellent review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m so glad to hear that, Kim. The writing is just stunning, so sharp and penetrating. It’s funny you should mention the shock of the darkness when Anna arrives in England. There’s a terrific quote on that sense of bleakness near the beginning of the novel, and I was all set to include it, but time and space got the better of me in the end. Well, I could have included it, but my review was already nudging 1,800 words – sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw the line!

      Reply
      1. kimbofo

        The darkness still gets to me and I’ve experienced 18 winters here now, but I still remember the shock of the first one and that is what I remember most about this novel (I read it in early days of blogging): that Rhys captures the bleakness and melancholia of it so well and the homesickness for light and sunshine. Sam Sevlon does this too in The Lonely Londoners… Not sure if you’ve read that?

        Reply
  6. Caroline

    Great review. I almost wish I hadn’t read all of Rhys’s books already (because I’m not much of a rereader). I remember how much I liked them but could absolutely not tell you which I liked the most. Possibly this one. Or Goodmorning, Midnight. I also loved her autobiographical writings. Wide Sargasso Sea is amazing, but it’s so different.
    The quote about the stepmother is great. I can really see and hear her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I just want to read pretty much everything she has written, especially her novels and short stories. I’ve been trying to look out for old vintage editions of her books in the local secondhand shops. So far I managed to find copies of Quartet and a couple of collections of the stories, Tigers are Better Looking and Sleep It Off, Lady – oh, and a nice copy of WSS too. I’m looking forward to them all. Glad you liked the stepmother quote here, I just knew I had to find space for it.

      Reply
  7. rathertoofondofbooks

    Voyage in the Dark was the first book I read by Jean Rhys and I loved it so much that I immediately re-read it. She quickly became one of my favourite authors and I still enjoy going back to her books all these years later. Your review is great, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much, Hayley. I’m not surprised to hear you say that you re-read it so quickly, Very few writers have that effect on me, but Rhys is one of them. I ended up re-reading After Leaving Mr Mackenzie fairly soon after my first reading, and I can see the same thing happening with Voyage. She’s an amazing writer, so sharp and piercing.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. I think it would be fascinating to read her again just to compare your impressions. I wonder how I might have reacted to these novels had I read them in my twenties or thirties. The situations they depict are pretty terrifying…

      Reply
  8. MarinaSofia

    Thank you so much for showing just why she is one of my favourite writers. I think she describes the way I feel (some of the time) and how wish I could write. Wide Sargasso Sea may disappoint you if you are reading her work chronologically, because (although lovely in its own way), it is very different from her other works.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Aw, thank you, Marina…I’m really glad you liked my review. It’s hard to do justice to someone as brilliant as Rhys, and I very much doubt whether I’ve done that here. She was so ahead of her time, don’t you think? Both the style and the subject matter feel very different from virtually everything else I’ve read from that period. She really gets to the heart of that feeling of desperation, how difficult it can be just ‘to go on living and living and living’ (I’m paraphrasing Jean there) when everything is uncertain and hanging by a thread.

      Yes, I’m very curious about WSS but suspect it might turn out to be my least favourite of her books…we’ll see!

      Reply
  9. gertloveday

    Jean Rhys’ interest in clothes and appearances intrigues me, because it is genuine – she really did care about those things – and yet it’s all part of the very limited role in which she was always cast in real life- a decorative possession of a man. She had to be decorative to get and try to hold on to the man, she had to be whatever it was he wanted, but inside she was such a brilliant, sad, complicated human being, as the books so bleakly show.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s the impression I’m getting from her novels. She had to appear presentable to attract a man as that was her only ticket to financial survival (it wasn’t even financial security, it was more ‘hand-to-mouth’ than that). I can’t even begin to imagine how awful that must have been for her…it’s terribly sad.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        I think it was more than “appearing presentable”. I think she was really split, fractured in fact, by her attraction to feminine glamour and her realisation that it was a terrible weakness in her that men could exploit.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I ought to read more about her life at some point, maybe Lilian Pizzichini’s biography The Blue Hour. I’m not usually a big fan of biographies, but I’m sufficiently interested in Rhys to give it a go.

          Reply
  10. susanosborne55

    Like Cathy, I’ve read only Wide Sargasso Sea but really feel I should read more Rhys. This seems the obvious place to start given how impressed you clearly were with it, Jacqui

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t think you and Cathy are alone, Susan. WSS benefits from the link to Jane Eyre, but I think her early novels deserve to be better known. I can’t recommend this one highly enough. It would make a good entry point into her early work, possibly better than Mr Mackenzie because the protagonist is younger here.

      Reply
  11. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary as always Jacqui.

    As you describe it, the way that the author gets into the main characters’s head mind so well done.

    Seemingly happy and confident people who have inner darkness are so interesting. They make for great characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I think it works because Anna seems like a version of Rhys herself – that’s what makes this novel so effective and so utterly terrifying at the same time.

      Reply
  12. Emma

    Wonderful review, Jacqui. It gives a terrific sense of the novel.

    I need to read another Rhys. I’ve only tried Wide Sargasso Sea but I know it’s different from her other books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I could have written another 500 words on this one as there’s just so much to say. What did you think of Wide Sargasso Sea? Did you review it? In some ways, I’m quite glad I started with her early novels as I suspect they might be more to my tastes than WSS. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure it’s a great book, and I really would like to read it at some point, but I just wonder whether it will live up to its stellar reputation. It’s always a bit of a risk when a book acquires a name for itself like that. As for her early novels, I think you’d like them. I would love to see a review from you.

      Reply
  13. Naomi

    This sounds wonderful – I am completely convinced. I always thought I would start with Wide Sargasso Sea (partly because that’s the only one I own), but now I want this one!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! How many time have I done the same thing? Way too many, which is one of the reasons why I’ve ended up with shelves full of unread books. Going back to Rhys, this one just blew me away, so I hope you like it too. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      Reply
  14. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I’ve attempted to read Good Morning, Midnight once, but I didn’t get very far (for no apparent reason). I can see the same tone, though, that comes through in the quotes you picked. I’ll be curious to hear how you like GMM, when you pick it up. I think I might attempt to read it in English, rather than in a German translation, the next time I feel like giving her a try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting. Yes, I get the feeling that GMM is in a very similar vein to this one. In fact, all of her early novels sound as though they’re slightly different variations on the same theme: vulnerable women cast adrift by the broader society, intense portraits of loneliness and despair – she captures that inner sense of melancholia so well. I can understand why you might need to be in the right mood for Rhys, but I do hope you’ll give her another try one day. I’ll be very curious to see how you find her next time. :)

      Reply
  15. bookbii

    Brilliant review Jacqui. I think you’ll like Good Morning, Midnight. It’s a claustrophobic book but sounds to be similar in intensity to this book. I wonder how autobiographical it is? There seem to be parallels to Rhys’s life (especially the drinking, I think).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. I’m quite glad I started with these two as a way of working up to Good Morning, Midnight. If anything, it sounds even more intense than Voyage. Yes, I think there are parallels with her own life, maybe not completely autobiographical but inspired by certain elements and experiences. I’d like to read more about her life at some point.

      Reply
  16. lonesomereadereric

    What a wonderfully engaged and passionate review! So good to know your thoughts about Rhys’ writing as you read through her novels as they help me re-experience these books I read so long ago. I read all her early novels in quite quick succession so in my mind they blend together a little (having similar themes/characters) but your reviews help me see how distinct they are and the different emotions explored. I recall now how this novel had added poignancy for me early on when I first moved to England (though thankfully my sense of alienation wasn’t anything as bad as Anna’s!) I think anyone can relate to it who has felt like an outsider in a new place. Great to read the quotes you selected and feel the story rushing back to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much, Eric! Your comments mean a lot to me as I know how much you love and admire Rhys’ work. I can imagine how these early novels would begin to merge together in the mind, particularly if someone were to read them all within a fairly condensed period of time. In some ways, they’re beginning to feel like slightly different variations on the same theme (which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned). I can’t wait to get to the next one ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ as it seems to be a bit of a favourite among her fans. Plus I need to go back and read Quartet at some point, just to plug that gap.

      Funnily enough, Kim mentioned a similar point about being able to relate to that sense of disorientation on arrival in a new place where everything is different (especially in winter when it can feel so dark and bleak over here). I had a great quote on that theme, but even at 1,800 words I was finding it hard to squeeze everything into my review!

      Reply
  17. Seamus Duggan

    Good review Jacqui, one that makes me want to dig through my shelves and find something by Rhys. I’m sure I have one or two but I’m ashamed to admit I’ve yet to read anything by her. Then again it’s good to have writers of her stature to look forward to..

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Seamus. Find those books and give her a try! I’m late to Rhys myself, but now that I’ve found her I want to read pretty much everything she has ever written.

      Reply
  18. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve not read this one yet, though I plan to soon (and will return to your review once I have).

    That page 50 quote is breathtaking. Rhys is just such a spectacular talent.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool – it’ll be good to exchange thoughts once you’ve read it. The writing just blew me away, so many brilliant passages to choose from (I had another two or three quotes which were just as spectacular as the ones I plumped for here). I can’t wait to see what you make of it. Also, I’m very keen to know how you think it stacks up against her other early novels, an order of preference so to speak.

      Reply
  19. Abby K

    Fab review for such an interesting novel. I think you’re right about the style; the way Rhys writes really does put the reader inside Anna’s mind. She shares many of the same qualities as Sasha from Good Morning, Midnight and by extension Rhys herself, which is why Rhys writes her so well. This was my review of the novel: http://www.abbyking.co.uk/blog/index.php/voyage-in-the-dark-jean-rhys/. I am intrigued in particular by the journey aspect of the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I’m glad you felt the same way about the style – I thought that was so effective. It’s interesting to hear about the similarities with Good Morning, Midnight as it strengthens the case for making it my next Rhys. Thanks for the link to your review – I’ll head over to yours to take a look.

      Reply
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  22. 1streading

    I’ve now acquired four Rhys books (including this one) second hand. I’m now at that awkward point between starting reading and waiting until I have them all.
    Someone needs to have a Reading Rhys Week (hint, hint) to push me towards the former!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha – oh, I don’t know if I’m sufficiently qualified to host something like that! Mind you, I’ve been collecting copies of her books as well, so it would be an excellent opportunity to read another one. Let me have a think about that…maybe I could persuade someone to co-host a reading week for Rhys. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great. I haven’t read that one yet although I do have a copy at home. If her early novels are anything to go by then I’m sure it will be worth reading.

      Reply
  23. banff1972

    Very much enjoyed this review. I agree that Voyage is a truly great novel. I have taught it many, many times, and it always provokes strong reactions and, from the best students anyway, openhearted admiration. It’s quite extraordinary how Rhys allows us to get inside the head of someone who is a kind of spectator to her own life. Rhys demolishes so many of our most cherished ideas about willpower and self-control. She’s also that rare writer who is as good in first person as she is in third.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I found it quite difficult to write about this novel because it’s just so impressive, not only from a technical perspective but an emotional one as well. Sometimes it’s hard to capture that in a review. That’s a great point about Rhys’ ability to allow us access to the mind of a woman who is a kind of spectator to her own life. There are times when it feels as if Anna is looking down on her body from above, almost as though she is outside of herself, unable to take action in any way. I’m wondering if this theme will continue in Good Morning, Midnight.

      Reply
      1. banff1972

        Answer: yes! Wait until you get to the end of that book… Still, much as I appreciate Good Morning, Voyage is still my favourite of the ones I’ve read. I’ve dipped into the short stories and some of those are killer, too.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Terrific – I’m even more keen to read it now! I’ve got a couple of collections of her stories: Tigers are Better Looking and Sleep It Off, Lady. Looking forward to trying them at some point.

          Reply
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