British writer Jean Rhys, best known for Wide Sargasso Sea, wrote an autobiographical novel Voyage in the Dark in the late 1930’s. It was picked up as a brave, female opus in the 1960s (surprise!) but, worse than dark, is a disturbing book on multiple levels.
First for the positives. I learned in the woke and self-glorifying introduction – what passes for literary criticism these Marxist days is appalling – that Rhys pulled together a first draft and journal material two decades after the traumas of her young adult youth. The skill with which she did this is undeniable. There are many glittering turns of phrases and similes, especially in the less dark Part I, and her ear for British dialect is remarkable.
Early on she writes:
When I got up I went out for a walk. It’s funny how parts of London are as empty as if they were dead. There was no sun, but there was a glare on everything like a brass band playing. [p.38]
She also avoids vilifying or turning into caricatures the cast of adults who let her down – with the exception of her step-mother – and, despite their flaws, allows nearly every one to give her wise advise which she ignores to her detriment. (Much of the advise is too conventional for her tastes.)
For those familiar with Wide Sargasso Sea, this novel portrays yet another young, attractive and talented woman descending into her own personal hell. Written, thankfully, before feminism destroyed much female writing, she largely avoids treating the protagonist, Anna Morgan, as a victim. Indeed, while one can feel for Anna’s tentative grasp on reality – she passes most of the story in a kind of extended, disoriented culture shock – one is allowed to believe she brought much of her misfortune on herself.
This kind of ambiguity is positive and maintains trust in the author’s voice – no matter what the woke introduction bleats regarding the dastardly patriarchy of early 20th century England.
Our protagonist Anna, like the author herself, arrived in London from Dominica in the West Indies in her late teens. After her father’s death, the family estate is sold, so she tries to make something of her life by joining a theatrical troupe on tour based out of London.
She and a fellow pixen pick up a pair of “gentlemen” off the street and one of them, a rich financier two decades older, takes a shining to her. They begin an affair and Anna falls for Walter, even though he is married and with child. She ignores all pertinent advice and is devastated when he lets her go, promising to support her with as much assistance as she needs. She brushes off the offer and descends step by step into self-inflicted torment, eventually finding other lovers and then prostituting herself with strangers, one of whom impregnates her. After she gets Walter to pay the tidy sum of 40 quid for her illegal abortion, there are complications which, as detailed in Part IV and including gin, ease her into hallucinations.
My Miami Beach book club discussed the book recently. Apparently Rhys had originally allowed Anna to die after the abortion, but three London publishers turned down the tale unless she let Anna live. Rhys later regretted acceding, but by my sights the publishers were correct: killing off Anna would have ended the book on an ideological note, allowing more than woke literary critics decades later to consider her as a martyr to the patriarchy.
Why, then, do I find the book so disturbing? Back during my extended adolescence I once believed that suffering was key to creating art. If this book and Wide Sargasso Sea are indicative, Rhys got a doctorate in pain. The book may have been lionized in the 1960s for anticipating that dissolute decade’s let-it-all-hang-out ethos. Granted, Rhys hangs out her dirty laundry with more artistry than most, but dirty laundry it remains, with little if any redemptive stitching. Rhys, after all, had wished to snuff out Anna, denying us the now familiar trope that even out of hellish circumstances a creative spark, a glorious career in writing can flame up.
But it gets worse. As my book club considers most spiritual or religious matters as suspect (for one thing, the biblical illiteracy of an otherwise well educated group is astonishing), it was left to me to point out Rhys’s heavy religious allusions. (Grown up Catholic, Anna is clearly alienated from a distant, impersonal God.) For starters, the book’s second sentence is “It was almost like being born again,” an obviously loaded religious term. Within the same paragraph, a flashback to the vivid colors and dreamscapes of home in Dominica, she writes “When there was a breeze the sea was millions of spangles; on still days it was purple as Tyre and Sidon.”
The reference is to Jesus Christ’s warnings of woe to the unrepentant: “But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you,” from Matthew 11:22. Not only is purple, along with scarlet, the color of Papal Rome, but in biblical terms is the color of the end-of-times world religious system as depicted in the Book of Revelation, a sumptuous, richly beclad and bejeweled woman known as Mystery Babylon.
Is Rhys implying that her unrepentant Anna will receive a worse day of judgement than most? Or is she implying that her suffering was caused in part by her Catholic upbringing?
The book, after descending into a basket of horrors, ends with Anna’s more decipherable musings post-madness:
When their voices stopped the ray of light came in again under the door like the last thrust of remembering before everything is blotted out. I lay and watched it and thought about starting all over again. And about being new and fresh. And about mornings, and misty days, when anything might happen. And about starting all over again, all over again… [p.224]
While there is obvious irony – Anna, no doubt, is scared by her descent into sin and near-death – the author’s play on spiritual rebirth just after, in this case, the murder of Anna’s unborn child is as base as it gets.
Another Bible verse comes to mind:
Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts (2 Peter 3:3)
Sadly the author appears sanguine at the prospect of a worse day of judgement than even Tyre and Sidon. The worldly pursuits of cleverness and fame have lashed many an ambitious artist to sinking ships. Still, Rhys’s brazenness astonishes.
Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark, 1939; Norton paperback edition 2020