I read Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark’(1934) the other night in a bout of insomnia. I’d only read Wide Sargasso Sea before, but one of my mature students had raved about Rhys’ earlier works and I’ve always been intrigued by Rhys in the wake of her biography in the late 1990s. This provoked much vitriol over Rhys’s alleged infanticide, and her belated status as a feminist icon. However the piece that caught my attention was nothing to do with women’s representation, or indeed infanticide (though the novel culminates in an abortion which I’m sure for some people is on a par).
The novel is entirely narrated by 19 year old Anna Morgan, without any third person narration and with a deliberately mono-syllabic vocabulary. Coming to England from the West Indies, she encounters the monotonous, grey, grinding cold of England; its paltry hyprocisy and hatred of youth and sexual exuberance. Anna is an almost somnolent character, gliding through this incomprehensible world only aware of resentment and her growing longing for her homeland. The narrative includes retrospective memories: images of the ‘coloured’ world of Jamaica, the continuous sounds of the forest, the town, the heat and strangeness of that world that now appears a dream. The somatic comfort that this affords her can be seen in her increasing resort to unconsciousness: she ‘hits the gin, rather hard’, sleeps for days, in her clothes, lying on beds in rented rooms. Her descent into sexual abjection comes after her abandonment by Walter, a man she loves, but whose relationship with her is based on economic transactions – he is paying her for sex. She, as in so many narratives, gives an emotion in excess of the commodity Walter is buying. In an interesting permutation of the epistolary novel, Walter announces his leaving her through a letter from a friend. He writes
‘Love is not everything – especially that sort of love – and the more people, especially girls, put it right out of their heads and do without it the better.’ (80)
‘That sort of love‘ effectively propels Anna into a world in which affect is continually re-interpreted as commodity and de-valued, in which she will ultimately collude in the commodification of her own body as a means of survival. Anna is surrounded by women and men who insist upon the equivalence of the cash nexus to the sexual nexus: her friends and acquaintances who urge her to utilise her attractiveness, who use her as a ‘tart’ to secure money whilst all the time distancing themselves from the grim reality of prostitution (a word which the book never uses) and indeed disavowing participation. ‘You should enjoy yourself’, Ethel urges Anna, as if pleasure were a mere physical fact or something produced automatically by consumption of alcohol, food, the sensuality of new clothes.
A strong critique of capitalism runs through the novel. Early on Anna longs for new clothes:
About clothes, it’s awful. Everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell. People laugh at girls who are badly dressed. Jaw, jaw, jaw. …’Beautifully dressed woman…As if it isn’t enough that you want to be beautiful, that you want to have pretty clothes like hell. As if that isn’t enough. But no, it’s jaw, jaw and sneer, sneer all the time. And the shop-windows smiling and sneering in your face. And then you look at the skirt of your costume, all crumpled at the back. And your hideous underclothes. You look at your hideous underclothes and you think, ‘All right, I’ll do anything for good clothes. Anything – anything for good clothes.’ (22)
That sense of society’s simultaneous smile and sneer recurs throughout the novel. The friendships, love-affairs, even family ties prove to be exploitation and emotional indifference. England’s streets invite Anna to be beautiful, elegant, to ‘swank it up’ as her friend Laurie urges. But Laurie too is a tart, who though pretty is ‘hard’ – ‘they get like that’ observes Walter’s friend. In order to gain full female status Anna must buy clothes, they must be new, they must give her the desirable carapace that will allow her to withstand the sneers. The desperation of this passage – the sense of the interminable wear of public opprobrium, of the way in which girls are made in objects of public scorn – turns Anna toward participation in a system of exploitation and commodity. During her first meeting with Walter he assumes she is for sale, though at this point she is not only a virgin but unaware of his perception. He accompanies her to a shop where she deliberates with all the anxiety and intensity of poverty: he pays, and later says ‘you always look anxious when you are buying’ (23). Walter’s prosperity stand in stark opposition to Anna’s status as a disinherited woman. Not only has her father died and her step-mother sold the estate designed as Anna’s inheritance, but she has been taken from the safety of her place of birth to a cold, un-friendly ‘Motherland’ – whose icy disdain for young women contrasts with the warm imaginary created for Anna during her childhood. ‘That picture advertising the Biscuits Like Mother Makes, as Fresh in the Tropics as in the Motherland’ (127) with a tidy green tree and two small children playing happily.
The cultural limbo in which Anna finds herself is expressed obliquely and brilliantly by Rhys. Following her abandonment by Walter, Rhys thinks back to the West Indies and her Father.
He had a red moustache, my Father. And Hester was always saying, ‘Poor Gerald, poor Gerald.’ But if you’d seen him walking up Market Street, swinging his arms and with his brown shoes flashing in the sun, you wouldn’t have been sorry for him. That time when he sadid, ‘the Welsh word for grief is hiraeth.’ Hiraeth. (81)
What Anna doesn’t say, and maybe doesn’t know, but Rhys probably does is that hiraeth is a far more complex word – encompassing a certain form of cultural nostalgia, a longing for something lost or never found. At its most basic ‘hiraeth’ can be translated as homesickness, but Rhys’ novel here transcends this literal meaning. Anna’s lost childhood, her longing for the West Indies, is not a simple expression of nostalgia for a paradisal past beloning. Though she loves Francine, her black servant, she also feels Francine’s hatred, her difference from her and the self-loathing and self-difference that arises from belonging, in fact, nowhere. That lack of belonging ultimately extends to her self, her body, as she is increasingly expropriated from her own sexuality and indeed procreative abilities. Hireath here is mediated by a Welsh Father who has a homeland which stirs in him the affirmative sadness of distance from the beloved. For Anna Morgan, the revenant daughter of a colonial, even this word is not her own.