Back in December, when I put together my reading list for the Classics Club, one of the first books I selected was Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark (first published in 1934). Rhys’ second novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), had been a favourite of mine from 2015, so it seemed right to choose her next book, Voyage, as a follow-on read. If anything, I think Voyage is even better than its predecessor. A masterpiece in miniature – a brilliant, painful, devastating book that leaves it mark upon the reader.
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.